How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
As National Lead for the UK Government Digital Service I spend a large chunk of my time understanding what types of blockers there are for public sector organisations to take up best practice in digital principles and policies to ultimately provide better outcomes for citizens.
That means I talk to organisations who are leading the way with innovative and impactful citizen services and I also talk to organisations who are interested in learning best practice. Together, we are building a picture of what pathways can be created for the public sector as a whole to raise the bar for citizens.
In particular, I was one of the creators of the Local Digital Declaration of which GDS is a co-publisher. This is a programme which helps “fix the plumbing” for local authorities and shines a light on what good digital looks like. Over 200 organisations have signed up and many are now working on funded collaborative digital transformation projects that have the ability to scale and impact across service provision for the whole of the UK.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?
This year I have been thoroughly obsessed with a new flagship training course for senior leaders across the public sector. Leadership is one of the key drivers for digital outcomes so providing capability training in this area is key to unblocking the permissions and enabling progress.
We have just piloted the course and it’s proving to be popular already. Rather than your usual awareness programme, we train leaders from the perspective of their digital delivery team: “What we need you to do to help us deliver digital services”.
What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?
I started working with UK government digital service provision in 2006 when being able to do your car tax online was brand new and less than 50 percent of the adult online population knew about it. I remember watching those awareness levels creep up and up. Now when you stumble across something where there isn’t a digital option, as rare as that might be, you’re rightly outraged.
Citizen’s expectations for channel provision have risen as quickly as the technology has been adopted; Government has moved from operating face-to-face and by telephone to self-serve and now chatbots and voice command are beginning to gain traction.
What’s really exciting now is how we take all the learnings from central government out into regional bodies, where budgets are smaller and digital skills might be harder to recruit. We’re finding pockets of real excellence and we’re shining a light on those to show what’s possible and how that can really transform citizens’ lives.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?
The biggest theme to really hit home for me this year is the difference between demand and need. The challenge is to ensure user research reveals both.
An example of this is when the Government Digital Service was running workshops into various discovery projects that included local authorities. There was a notoriously low take-up in attendance from local authorities, and results often therefore falsely showed minimal demand for the particular service or product which was being researched.
We reached out to the local authorities who hadn’t engaged and found that some were blocked from travel to the workshops, some didn’t have permission to participate from their leadership, some didn’t have time to attend the number of workshops they were being invited to, and many didn’t understand the language used around digital projects.
Ultimately we found there was in fact a great need for the products and services GDS had to offer but we had to redefine the demand based on better stakeholder analysis.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?
I believe 2020 will be the year of the data analyst. The concept that data is something we can play with is taking hold. What happens if you layer this data on top of that data? How do we make this data talk to that data? What trends can we see? What can we predict?
We’re starting to think more about how the data we generate can be shared and what data can complement our own – it’s a world of possibilities which we’re only just starting to tap into.
What are your priorities for 2020?
My top priority is to build up the understanding of digital maturity across the whole of the UK public sector. That’s around 2,000 organisations, all with different needs and demands. We want to be able to support best practice and help build up the digital capabilities for public sector workers.
HMG has the ambition to have the most digitally-skilled public sector in the world and my team has a big part to play in that.
What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?
I’ve got lots of big challenges already lining up for 2020, but if there was one challenge that I could take on, it would be to break up the silos of policy and government departments. Truly, I think we’re on the right track and beginning to share data but I’d love to take a hammer and smash up single lines of reporting, and embed measures of success to include how programmes of work affects overall citizen experiences.
What has been your fondest memory from the past year?
I’ve had some amazing moments this year and some of the best have come from hitting the road with the regional GDS Sprints. Working and hosting alongside regional digital public sector colleagues, we showcased the innovative work that’s been happening up and down the country.
One of my favourite anecdotes was the story of a health professional working on digitising patient records. He begins his case study with the wonderful line: “I thought that users would never go for this and I never thought we could make such sensitive information open but you know what…”