Some incumbent suppliers appear anxious to claim ownership of what "digital" means – while describing something else entirely.
Digital is not about "just the website". Neither is digital solely about "online services" or "transactions" – it encompasses public service culture, processes and systems, not just a rebadging of old IT.
Of course, it suits some interests to miscast "digital" as merely the tarting up of websites whilst patronisingly claiming that only the "big ol' boys" of IT are able to prop up the labyrinthine, handcrafted and expensive systems that handle the "real" work of government. Such self-serving claims are undermined by the paucity of innovative, disruptive change that happened under their stewardship, and the disproportionate share of budget now required to keep their inefficient IT running merely because "that's the way it's always been done".
Moving to services and processes designed around clearly evidenced user needs (rather than those of departments, agencies and suppliers) has been a long-standing challenge. A National Audit Office report from 2009 found that arrangements for delivering services involving multiple departments were limited. Yet if we're serious about focusing on users' needs rather than those of government's own administrative structures, such arrangements are essential.
The report also found that capability reviews were failing to benchmark departments against organisations outside the civil service in the effectiveness of the management board, business planning, customer satisfaction and management of performance. There was also little understanding in the boardroom of the role of digital technology as an agent of change, rather than merely as a means of automating existing processes.
An antidote is needed to this damaging chasm between service culture, design and technology. In the commercial world, technology has helped to fundamentally re-engineer and improve the way organisations, processes and services are designed and operated. It has become part of the process of re-imagining business, not merely propping up the old way of doing things. If improvements around performance, efficiency, innovation and leadership of change are to succeed, it's hard to imagine how that can happen without digital becoming part of the DNA of public service management, not merely as an afterthought about websites.
Digital capability not only needs to continue becoming further embedded within leadership teams, but part of the wider development of an updated public service culture. Digitally enabled public services have the potential to benefit us all, particularly the most excluded – those repeatedly marginalised by the endless forms, paperwork, broken processes and computer systems that say "no" that sap, demoralise and dehumanise time and again.
We all stand to benefit from these improvements, regardless of whether the service we use is an online one delivered directly via an iPad, or a more personal, relationship-based service enabled by the same underlying digital culture, processes and services but delivered one-to-one in our homes by a health visitor. To miscast these initiatives as being about websites versus "real IT" or "real public services" demonstrates the true extent of the underlying poverty of thinking and ambition amongst certain interests still far too busy looking whimsically in the rear view mirror.