Decoding a definition of digital

So what do you mean by digital...? Matt Jukes dissects the many possible sides to the definition - and how it is changing

If any question is prone to make me grind my teeth and stare into the middle distance it is:

"What do you mean by digital?"

A decade since the official formation of the Government Digital Service the questions show no sign of ceasing. Nor does the debate about whether it is a useful term at all for what we do. Notable organisations like Citizens Advice (Customer Journey) and Essex County Council (Service Transformation) amongst others decided that 'digital' had too much baggage - or not enough clarity - so found 'better' names for those functions.

More widely in public service the term DDaT (Digital, Data and Technology) has gained currency to try and provide more context. For what it is worth I think it should have been Design, Data and Technology which combined is a pretty good read on 'digital' and we'd be spared all of this but we are where we are!

Anyway, when I do get asked that question I - like many friends and colleagues - pretty much recite this four year old tweet from Tom Loosemore:

"Digital: Applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations."

Nothing else has ever come close to getting an accepted definition across - certainly not in such a pithy way. That said there is a lot wrapped up in less than 20 words and I recently realised - when somewhat offhandedly pointing to it after another of 'those' questions - that I had never really taken the time to unpick what it actually means to me.

So despite the danger of this becoming a Russian Doll situation - defining definitions - here is my attempt to decode a definition of digital.

[Digital] culture

Peter Drucker probably never actually said "culture eats strategy for breakfast" but at this point he might as well have.

Digital culture is too often dismissed as 'hipsters in hoodies playing with Post-Its' - especially in large, established organisations. That is a distraction though - culture is core in digital and it has nothing to do with the dress code or stationery (although I'll admit maybe we do enjoy a Post-It.)

Defining good 'culture' let alone a good digital culture is probably a fool's errand. You know it when you see it. More so when you experience it.

However, there are some common elements.

Teams are empowered and trusted to deliver - but also to challenge and innovate. Decisions are made at the team level until they really can't be and then escalation is clear and quick.

Working in the open is encouraged (or at least tolerated) and retrospectives are challenging but constructive.

Leadership and stakeholders are engaged - 'show and tells' are well attended, interactive and 'critical friends' are encouraged.

Culture is more than posters on walls, stickers on laptops or words on blogs...but they help.

Famously the ‘It’s OK to…’ poster spread around UK digital gov outposts and beyond in just a few hours after initially being tweeted - evidencing the fact it met a need far and wide. Now there is a version in a museum, as well as several Covid inspired ones... The whole thing has said more about the culture GDS wanted to nurture than a hundred blogposts or talks from senior leadership.

[Digital] processes

When we talk about digital-native 'processes' certain things spring to mind. The ingredients of a 'digital mindset'.

Being agile. Really agile - not just engaging in 'theatre'. Communication. Iteration. Trust. Discipline. Honesty. These are the pillars of agile. The rest are just tools.

Listening to users and really putting their needs front and centre through user research, service design and user experience design.

Embracing product thinking from the very beginning.

Accepting that DevOps and modern engineering practices are not just for start-ups and at least need consideration if an organisation is going to set itself up for success in this internet era. This doesn't mean everything needs to be rewritten in the cool new language or everything needs to rush to the Cloud at the same time - but to be 'digital' you need to understand the trade-offs and when and where to turn to these processes.

[Digital] business models

Digital means doing things differently than before.

Removing intermediaries by allowing users to directly interact with the service rather than paying for those ‘experts’ to navigate and interpret things for them. Look at the success of things like ‘Making Tax Digital’ and ‘Lasting Power of Attorney’.

Taking advantage of the opportunity for scale that the internet provides to totally renegotiate pricing models to the benefit of users. Even in the public sector the success of GOV.UK Notify owes a significant amount to the deals they were able to strike because of the scale they are able to provide.

Seizing the power of platforms to open up markets - making it easier to sell, to share and to collaborate. Once again at a scale unheard of before ‘digital’. The ambition of ‘Government as a Platform’ has evolved but it remains an ambition enabled by digital.

[Digital] technologies

A while ago James Herbert - the boss - wrote the following over on LinkedIn:

“Digital... — people say, ‘it is about culture not tech’. True, of course, but understanding modern tech, associated practice and what sort of tech and related talent you need to attract are a vital part of that culture.”

...and I think too often in the rush to put space between ‘digital’ and ‘IT’ we lose sight of this.

As is so often the case I find Richard Pope has written helpfully on this topic:

“Technology does matter. Good digital / design / business / transformation / culture / strategy requires an understanding of the materials.

If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way. You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place.”

Software isn’t eating the world anymore. It has finished, wiped its mouth and has started on a second course. Understanding the opportunities (and limitations) of modern technology is a vital element of ‘digital’. Failure to acknowledge this is a path as blind to consequences as taking a technology first approach ignoring design and your users.

[Digital] expectations

Even in the four years since Tom tweeted his definition of digital I think this has changed - it isn't even about raised expectations now - the minimum people expect at this point is the provision of a decent online service. Especially after more than twelve months of a significant amount of the population living life at the end of a broadband connection.

People aren't looking for excuses - they see what good looks like and they see no reason not to expect it everywhere, from high street shops to major public sector institutions.

What 'digital' looks like has changed as well - more than half of the respondents to this year's Census used a mobile device to interact with a major, Government, survey. If the ONS had not anticipated that then this 'digital first' Census would have been a failure.

The primary channel

And, finally, just what is this Internet era of which we speak?

I can't really find an agreed definition of 'internet-era' but loosely we understand it to be that point in history when 'the internet' flipped from being the minority to the primary channel for everything from shopping, to interacting with the Government, banking, communications and entertainment.

When this actually happened is less than obvious but the early noughties seems a reasonable start to the timeline. Companies born since then (or slightly before like Google) have grown up with the internet. They never had to work out how to respond to it - and were never guilty of failing to see its importance.

It didn't happen to everything all at once, but in the second decade of the 21st Century we are now firmly in the grip of the 'internet era'.

So 1395 words later that is my attempt to decode the definition of digital I am most likely to use. At this point all I know for certain is there will be 1396 different takes out there and that despite the words of a previous Director of mine - this digital thing is not a fad.


Matt Jukes
Matt Jukes

Matt Jukes is an experienced public service digital leader with a particular interest in building modern, agile product teams.

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