Analyst view – Digital government folk in danger of becoming a cult


Gary Barnett, head of end user advisory at GlobalData Technology, talks about what is working and what isn’t within the central digital government agenda.

Westminster GovernmentThose working in digital functions in government need to be wary of coming across as a ‘cult’ and need to market themselves better, so that they can convince existing teams to tackle projects that go beyond the ‘low hanging fruit’.

That was the view of Gary Barnett, head of advisory at analyse house GlobalData Technology, who spoke at the recent Think Digital Government event in London.

Barnett gave an overview of the progress of digital in government in recent years – particularly in reference to the changing nature of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The approach of the GDS old guard was to use more stick than carrot, in an attempt to force departments to change, by imposing limits on spending and implementing digital standards. However, in recent years, and under new leadership, the central digital function has adopted a more conciliatory approach, following accusations that it was isolating departments and charging ahead on its own.

The recent Transformation Strategy, for example, has a strong focus on skilling up the civil service and targeting back end systems, hand in hand with department leads.

Referencing the perception of GDS, Barnett said:

So, what are the challenges? What are the things we have learned about digital transformation? The most important one for me is, those of us who do the transformation, we’re not actually Hermione, we can’t go “transformio digitalio,” it’s not magic.

We need to give up our belief in our own magical powers, and this is really, really important because we are all always in grave, grave danger of becoming a cult. Digital transformation people, agile people, enjoy the reaffirming that they get from their [echo] chamber, and we can tend to assume that people who don’t get digital transformation are just muggles.

We need to get out there, we need to accept that in fact we don’t possess magical powers. And, equally importantly, the technology that we’re using doesn’t possess magical powers. We believe that this unicorn is going to arrive, we believed in the early days that just moving our data to The Cloud would somehow make it less crap.

Donkeys are useful

Barnett went on to say that whilst unicorns are appealing, donkeys have two key advantages over unicorns. He said that the first advantage is that “they exist” and that they second is that they are “used all over the world to carry loads and help people build things”. He said that they are a useful creature – we need to remember that unicorns do not exist.

Barnett’s analogy is in reference to digital vs. legacy, in which he sees legacy as necessary – something that can’t simply be ignored in the digital discussion. He said that GDS has a tendency to go after the low hanging fruit and to ignore the harder stuff, which in turn makes it harder to get buy in from people when you then attempt to tackle the harder stuff. Barnett said:

Then we start to get to the higher hanging stuff and it’s harder, and then we have to go back to the users and say, “Oh, well this one is going to take a couple more months, is that okay?” And then “Oh, this is going to be nine, it’s going to take nine months.” We have to be very, very conscious of the fact that just doing the low hanging fruit is deceiving ourselves and even worse, it’s deceiving the people who are recipients or victims of the transformation that we are trying to bring about. Take on the high hanging fruit.

In addition, Barnett said that he recently went to an event where someone from GDS was talking on stage about ‘just turning off the legacy. He said:

What was even more frightening was that half the audience, they started writing, “turn the legacy off,” and the other half of the audience, who knew what they were doing, rested their faces in their hands. You can’t just turn the legacy off, you idiot. This is hard work, and actually, a lot of that legacy has the additional benefit of actually working.

So, legacy isn’t something we just turn off, there are plenty of legacy applications that absolutely do need to be gently euthanized and I appreciate that, but there are plenty of legacy applications that are actually doing a surprisingly good job. It’s not just a question of pressing a magic, “turn off the legacy” button.

Legacy is another term, as I’m sure you know, for inheritance. There’s a vested amount of investment and knowledge in those legacy applications that we can’t simply throw away.

Barnett said that whilst GDS deserves plenty of credit for the great stuff it has done – particularly around the digital service standards and making government agile – where it has failed is in marketing its capabilities.

When this body was set up, why didn’t it occur to them, that they might actually have to sell rather than tell? This isn’t complicated stuff, we’ve got to do a sales and marketing job as much as doing the great stuff that we do.

The EU problem

We at diginomica have been following the impact of last year’s EU referendum on government technology systems closely. Whilst there is an opportunity to implement a whole host of digital systems in the wake of the UK untangling itself from the EU, the scale of the challenge is enormous. Not to mention the data sharing ramifications of the UK taking itself out of the trading bloc.

For example, at the same Think Digital Government event we heard how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes that the March 2019 deadline for Brexit (without the implementation of a transition period) would mean more risk for new systems.

Barnett’s view of Brexit and the UK’s decision to leave the EU was not a positive one. However, he said that what the UK government now needs, particularly with regard to digital, is strong leadership. He said:

So, where are we heading? Well central government is a little bit fucked at the moment about where it’s heading for all sorts of reasons. I won’t cast any judgment on any current proceedings towards our different relationship with [with the EU]. From my perspective, what I can say is it’s not awesome. It’s just not awesome. It’s not even mildly good as far as I am concerned. I’m not going to take it any further than that.

But you can’t do digital transformation if you don’t know where you’re headed. This is a fundamental truth of leadership. I run small teams, I run big teams. The one thing I said for the people who work for me is, “One thing that you can do is interrupt me, you can barge into my office, you can grab the phone out of my hand and slam it down and demand of me, is leadership, is where are we going?” Because everyone who works for me needs to know where the enemy is, and where to point the bullets.

Without that, we’re guessing. We often make good guesses, we try our best to make the right guesses, but without direction and leadership, digital transformation is a pointless exercise. We have to insist upon leadership.

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Disclosure - diginomica partners with Think Digital Partners, the creators of Think Digital Government.

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