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How can government better align policy with digital?

In our recent report, Transforming Government: Six key digital transformation recommendations for a modern government, we set out the major focus areas for central government as it takes on economic recovery after covid-19, and attempts to seize the evolving benefits heralded by digital technology. The first of these looks at the need to bring digital voices to policy.

A digital culture will drastically improve delivery outcomes - but requires a wide scale change of mindset

In order to embrace digital transformation, any organisation – no matter what sector or industry - must also embrace the culture change that goes with it. This can vary according to context, but broadly includes adopting the principles of agile or DevOps, continuous development, faster time to market, user centred design, multidisciplinary teams and shared responsibility for overall success.

Unfortunately, the structure of government operations is at odds with such a culture. A long-standing divide between those designing policy, and those who must deliver it, makes it extremely challenging to build successful digital products and services. The lengthy nature of the policy, legislative and delivery process complicates things further, as extended time frames make decisions susceptible to changes in circumstance, amends and delays.

Difficult as it may be to go against the grain of accepted practice in government, could more be achieved if digital voices in delivery teams were better integrated into the policy process?

A traditional approach

Policy making in government is traditionally an academic and theoretical exercise. Driven by political imperatives, policy makers craft solutions that are largely abstracted from a delivery context. Yet setting out what should happen, with little thought or understanding of how delivery teams might actually make it happen, is not a recipe for success when it comes to building effective solutions.

In addition, siloed thinking in government tends to constrain how policies are designed. When a focus is placed on the impact of one policy, on one set of people, it is impossible to build an accurate picture of how different considerations – health, education, the welfare system – impact across society. Policy should instead be examined through a broad lens. This requires both greater collaboration across government and accurate data about how policy decisions collectively impact peoples’ lives. Traditional research methods relying on static, incomplete, and historic data cannot provide a rich enough or up to date account of how things truly are.

This approach – basing policy decisions on research, relying on incomplete sources of data, and divorcing policy making from its delivery context – is far removed from the culture of the successful, digital- first organisation. As Oliver Cook, Head of Delivery at Foundry4 states:

“If you were to think about policy from a digital perspective you would definitely rethink how to build it up,”
Oliver Cook - Head of Delivery at Foundry4

“You would have a multidisciplinary team, with a service manager, product owners, user researchers, business analysts – rather than policy generalists. You need people with subject matter expertise in various different policy areas to come together to solve policy outcomes. It’s really important to not just create another departmental unit that fixates on one side of the problem, and doesn’t see the broader context and perspectives.”

Cultural change

The challenge in creating these kinds of teams is largely a political one. Agile-based thinking does not fit in well with a political environment that favours the announcement of ambitious plans and grand project launches. Changing policy from a theoretical undertaking – divorced from the end point of delivery – to an end-to-end project delivered through successive iterations, testing, and continuous improvement, therefore has little ministerial appeal.

Even where departments have adopted more progressive principles, including the likes of Scrum, Kanban or agile, these tend to be applied to existing lines of thinking. Yet in order to truly embrace digital transformation, government must first undergo a cultural change in the way people work together, and how things operate. Policy must be integrated much more with delivery, departments become far more collaborative, and the practices and processes of the digital age adopted.

Doing things differently

The benefits (and challenges) inherent in getting government to work this way have not gone unnoticed, and such a desire to do things differently lay behind the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) a decade ago. The founding principle of GDS was to help departments build services in an agile way, enabling government to take advantage of the benefits of digital transformation.

Using the emerging concept of Government as a Platform, GDS was described as: ‘a new vision for digital government; a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.’

Since its creation, (and with seven different ministers in seven years) GDS has recently lost momentum through a lack of digital leadership and diminished collaboration between departments. That said, it is now hoped that the appointment of Tom Read CEO and Director General, will put digital reform back on the agenda at GDS, for the benefit of government as a whole.

Similar to the trail-blazing of GDS is work at The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which established its user centred design team in 2016. This was government’s first in- house policy lab, which helps policy makers at The MoJ to understand how a policy is going to impact the people it’s aimed at.

Thanks to its policy lab, the MoJ has become renowned across government for its forward-thinking, digital- based approach. According to Jack Collier4, former Head of user centred policy design at The MoJ and currently Deputy Director Digital at DfE: This is testament to what can be achieved with the right attitude and the right mix of people.

“We’ve grounded policy in the reality of people’s lived experience, we’ve helped avoid committing to untested solutions, and we’ve supported teams to understand how digital can help them achieve their policy aims.”
Jack Collier - Former Head of User Centred Design at Ministry of Justice

Building functional, effective solutions

Bringing digital voices to policy is still rare in government, but – where practised - it undisputedly leads to better outcomes. And it is easy to see why. There may be political challenges inherent in changing mindsets, but by enabling policy and delivery to work together, it is possible to design and build solutions that are functional, effective, and hit the ground running.

As we progress through this digital age, the expectation that government will deliver services in such a way will only continue to grow.

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Authors

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Natalie Taylor
Managing Director, Public Sector
Foundry4

Natalie has fifteen years experience in Digital Transformation, including key roles in the transformation of UK government, NHS.UK, GDS, and london.gov.uk.

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Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager
Foundry4

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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