Is the current emphasis on 'digital' merely a re-branding of earlier "online" and "e-Government" programmes? That's what the cave dwellers would have us believe as they point with scornful disdain at previous attempts to use technology to modernise the UK's public services. After all, as early as 1996 the UK "Government Direct" programme enthused about the
"... new possibilities offered by information technology. It will change fundamentally and for the better the way that government provides services to citizens and businesses. Services will be more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer."
Yet 'digital' differs fundamentally from earlier initiatives. While technology remains an enabler of new opportunities in the design of our public services, digital is not primarily about technology. At its core are new organisational values and practices: successful digital organisations have user-centric operating models clustered around speed and adaptability. Most importantly, 'digital' will impact and influence the culture, and hence the design and operation, of public services as those services are being developed and evolved, rather than the broken practice of throwing expensive technology at the automation of existing, paper-based processes.
Many public sector organisations are struggling with the scale and significance of the changes in public service culture that citizens expect and that digital entails. Their challenge is to develop both the skills and capabilities required together with a coherent framework to guide their activities and investments. We are on the threshold of an era of digital public management, a major shift in the culture, capabilities and leadership characteristics of the public sector. This transition involves re-skilling leaders and top managers in digital services management, restoring in-house technical expertise, adopting commercial and procurement models that distinguish between niche and utility needs, and ensuring a relentless drive towards open competition and a marketplace of suppliers in place of the lazy and exclusive monopoly cash cows – sorry, contracts – of the past.
It also requires the use of open standards and platform-based models, and knowing when agile is best applied and when six sigma – avoiding the one-size-fits-all dogma of the past. Open standards, and the mapping of users' needs against a maturity model that ranges from niche to utility components, together provide the means of breaking down large programmes into smaller chunks of standardised, interoperable elements. Elements which can then be re-used across other services and, more widely, across government.
The creation of the Government Digital Service, the pioneering work of G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework are just some of the initial components of a much more radical and more pervasive programme. A programme with the potential to re-imagine the way government interacts with citizens, in much the same way that digital organisations in the private sector have completely re-imagined business.
So forget the leery cave dwellers, mumbling to themselves in the darkness: 'digital' has the potential to deliver a fundamental improvement in design, delivery, operations and management – to re-forge our public services, not merely its technology. It's time this important distinction, and the skills required to make it happen, were better understood.