Delivering complex change simply - digital leadership

Caroline Bimson | 02 Dec 2016 | Comments

In the first of a series of jointly authored articles, Caroline Bimson, Atkins’ Director of Education and Amanda Derrick OBE, Director, Connect Digitally, ask the question: “Why is public sector transformation so often high in ambition but poor in execution?"

We’re all aware of the opportunities to be unlocked, including the services needing fundamental improvement, the efficiencies and savings that could be gained, the possibilities for enhanced citizen engagement and the power of data that could be released through digital change.

However, we’re also all aware of the huge mistakes that have been made, the money wasted, and the disappointment felt by many over the failed execution of ambitious promises.

Based on our extensive experience of managing complex change in local and central government, we believe that it’s possible to move from rhetoric to reality. In order to achieve this there are three key paradigm shifts required for delivering complex change simply. These are:

  1. Don’t start with digital
  2. Keep it simple, keep it purposeful
  3. Future proof from the start

Our evidence comes from the award-winning and successful transformation of several local authority services. Originally initiated under the Connect Digitally programme, which closed in 2012, they continue to deliver better outcomes and savings today and are being reused for new services.

In this, our first of three linked articles, we reflect on the first paradigm shift and specifically our digital experiences and the lessons we’ve learned through implementation.

Don’t start with digital

Never start with the technology. Start with the business and policy needs and outcomes. Start with the people who need to be involved, with researching the benefits and disadvantages. Start with understanding the level of trust/distrust, and with clarity on the governance required. A lack of trust is a key barrier to transformation.

To some this might sounds like a return to the days of Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) or PRINCE II, but this is not the case. We believe that to change ‘rhetoric to reality’ any transformation needs to be built on sound foundations. Through our work with local authority services, we’ve applied our change management and digital leadership skills in order to drive continuous improvement in both delivery team performance and product application. These products might include software, communications, business cases, benefits measurement or our ‘Steps to Success’ guides.

For the Online Free School Meals transformation we began with the policy outcomes – with the real needs of real people. Our client wanted to deliver a non-stigmatising, real-time eligibility checking service for parents/carers which could be used by 174 local councils in England and Wales and 24,000 schools to ensure that eligible pupils received the free school meal as soon as they were eligible. The purpose was to replace an outdated and hugely bureaucratic paper-based service which often required several months to process. Our policy outcomes first approach is supported by a recent report from Brunel University highlighting the need for Digital Transformation to be led via policy design.

Having achieved clarity on the required outcomes, we then built a multidisciplinary team to ensure alignment between the overall strategy and the eligibility checking technology. We found that working together built trust enabling us to get the talent, people, processes, structure and systems in place quickly. We continued to evaluate and measure team and product performance as we progressed, making sure that all activities were data-informed and that the team and wider stakeholder group remained connected.

We’ve now used this approach to implement several digital services including school admissions, free childcare for two year olds and Early Years Pupil Premium. These services, managed centrally and delivered across all local authorities, continue to deliver benefits; school admissions was the first national digital service to reach 80% digital take-up. The Eligibility Checking Service, developed for online free school meals, is at the heart of the rapid and highly successful re-use that we’ve made possible for several other service developments. That service is now processing over three million digital checks per month and will be utilised within the new Universal Credit programme.

The importance of reuse is highlighted in HM Government CTO Andy Beale’s blog ‘Removing the Barriers to Better Technology’.

Don’t start with digital is our key message for this first piece. We will build on another paradigm Keep it simple, keep it purposeful for our next article.

A note about the co-author

Amanda Derrick  

Amanda Derrick is a digital transformation consultant specialising in the public sector.  Amanda has been in the vanguard of public sector transformation for the last ten years working in both central and government. Amanda has led successful award winning national transformation programmes, leading to both UK and international speaking engagements and was awarded the OBE for Services to Families and Children in the New Years’ Honours 2012.