Digital Transformation And Public Sector Success

Exemplary public sector organisations are making the shift to digital

Organisations in the public and private sectors differ in many ways. They have different expectations, targets, and priorities. But, that being said, the environment in which they operate is largely the same. Both the public and the private sectors are facing digital disruption at every level. In each case, success relies on implementing and delivering digital to customers and citizens.

With 14 years’ experience of delivering public services to citizens using digital technology, Natalie Taylor, Digital Transformation Expert at PA Consulting, explains how.

Demystifying digital

Digital encompasses a wide range of technologies, tools, frameworks, business models, and ways of working. In Taylor’s words, digital is an enabler.

“It’s not just about technology. Buying a bit of kit doesn’t equal digital. It’s about working in the open, being transparent, being collaborative, and agile,” she says. “The digital world has brought those ways of working along with it. They are just as important. Without them, your business won’t be fit for the digital era.”

In many instances, digital can be achieved by asking what problem needs to be solved, and whether it can be addressed by processes, people, or agile ways of working. While working for the Government Digital Service (GDS), Taylor helped government departments to embrace digital transformation. She then headed up digital adoption at the Mayor of London’s Office, working with all 33 London councils to demystify digital. While there are different drivers and motivations for public and private companies, Taylor identifies many common obstacles.

“Public sector organisations don’t have the same driver of making a profit, but they are also big organisations with a lot of staff who do a lot of things. They are built on legacy technology and processes. They both have to question what digital means for them, get their head around it, and best adopt it,” she says.

Leading by example

So, how do organisations that have started their digital journey keep the momentum? For Taylor, it’s about reacting quickly and scaling when things are seen to work well. But before you can scale, you have to try out new things… And this lies with leadership.

“There has got to be board level buy in and understanding of what digital means for the business,” says Taylor. “I see a lot of organisations where senior leadership think that digital means your website and it’s done by the comms people. There’s a big culture shift that still isn’t happening that comes down to a lack of capability in our leadership. Until that changes, it’s going to be very difficult to make digital a mainstream part of how organisations run themselves.”

To some extent, digital is changing the nature of leadership… But not fast enough.

“There’s still an attitude of ‘we’ve done it this way for 25 years and it made us a lot of money, so why change things now?’ I think there’s an element of not understanding, and carrying on as usual because leaders don’t want to say they don’t understand something. It takes a bold leader to say they got it wrong and take a new direction.”

But that, of course, is what good leadership is – taking a corrective course of action when things don’t go to plan. It’s equally about collaboration, and trusting teams to act independently in accordance with their skills.

“I’m in a senior role and I fully accept that a lot of the people I’m responsible for do work that I wouldn’t be able to do. That’s why they’re doing the job, and not me. It’s my job to give them the space to do what they’re good at and support them where they need it. I always ask them if what I’m doing is helpful. The live feedback loop is so important, otherwise we can’t continue to learn.”

Changing the world of work

The old style of leadership still exists, but Taylor is confident that the tide is changing. Due to changes in the world of work, those in positions of power are moving towards open, collegiate, and less hierarchical management. Giving employees freedom to fail and try out their ideas is a fundamental part of innovation. It allows the organisation as a whole to become more flexible and experimental. For Taylor, public sector organisations like the GDS and Hackney Council are exemplars for private businesses.

“In terms of private sector companies, one example that always springs to mind is Zara. They track demand in real time using analytics, they have an agile supply chain, they keep their stock level low so they don’t end up with a load of clothing that nobody wants to buy, they have an incredible daily feedback loop to tweak designs in response to buyer habits… Their performance reflects the success of using these models and they are beating their major competitors.”

Digital as a mindset

Public and private sector organisations need to be flexible, open, and have strong yet humble leaders who can accept when they need to change direction. Ultimately, digital should sit at the heart of operations which, in Taylor’s view, isn’t yet the norm.

“We’re still experimenting with digital technologies on the edge of business, which means this doesn’t get enough traction or isn’t taken seriously. We need to bring the experimental mindset much more to the front and centre of business, and do it very openly so people see what’s happening, understand it and see the backing of the leadership team.”

This includes tapping into the ideas of digital natives, who were born and raised in the digital world and, as a result, can see opportunities that others might miss.

“We have digital natives coming up in the more junior ranks of our organisations, but are we listening to them? They have a lot of ideas about how we can do things better, but are we giving them a voice? How are we learning from talented people across the whole business? We need to make sure there are digital skills at all levels.”

Challenging hierarchies

At PA, employees are encouraged to take part in reverse mentoring. Rather than shadowing an existing member of staff, reverse mentoring sees junior employees mentoring those in senior positions. Other avenues include partnerships with universities, apprenticeships, and initiatives like Code First Girls that provides free training to females who want to learn to code. This will serve to increase diversity in leadership, and challenge the hierarchies that stifle digital transformation.

“At the end of the day, it’s about bringing products, services, and information to citizens in the most user friendly way possible. Whether you’re doing that for a private company, a government department, or a university, there are the same sort of challenges.”

By nurturing talent, breaking down traditional management structures, and putting digital at the core of their organisations, the public and the private sector can work – often together – to solve their digital dilemmas.

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