Getting the government horse to drink the digital transformation water

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 22, 2015
You can lead the government horse to the water of digital transformation, but how do you make the stubborn mule actually drink? Lessons on resistance culture and user adoption.

Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Equally you can lead a government to digital, but you cannot make it think. That’s when the metaphorical horse becomes a stubborn mule and everyone loses out.

It’s one thing pushing the potential for digital transformation across governments - national, state, local and city - around the world, but if there isn’t a cultural and organizational appetite for change, little will be achieved in real terms.

That's the challenge facing the likes of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK and digital services agency 18f in the US, as well as their counterparts around the globe. I've previously referred to it as the political will v the administrative won't. (With apologies to Yes Minister!)

At this week’s CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges conference in London, this cultural resistance and how to encourage user adoption was on the agenda. It’s all about change, said Mike Bracken, founder of GDS and now Chief Digital Officer at the Co-operative Group, recalling the resistance to such change that his team encountered and how they worked to overcome it:

We certainly didn’t seduce the system. What we did was open the door to a bunch of people who previously had been excluded.

He explained:

We had a number of problems. Firstly, we had to reinstate the view of connecting with users.

Government had lost its way, as many governments had, about delivering services. It’s a big responsibility. There’s a big weight from government, but the bigger weight is actually from users, who weren’t getting great services.

There’s a great correlation between, if you like, the internet generation, the people you want to bring in, and the desire to make better government and make better services. But they’ve been slightly excluded because of the system. Government had fixated on long-term contracts with one or two very large suppliers.

What GDS had on its side was agility and a mantra of moving fast on projects, utilisiing iterative design and development to keep on top of user needs and requests for changes and improvements:

We had a feedback loop such that it was very hard for the incumbents to say, ‘Well, let’s turn that off’.

But there will be resistance, he said, citing the example of data transparency:

The biggest cultural barrier was the administrative response which was, ‘How very dare you give out data of that sort?’. To which the response is, ‘Well, they [the public] paid for it.’

One of the strangest responses I ever had was when we put a line in the Budget speech saying that from now on every politician who is responsible for a digital public service should use it before it goes live. The response from ‘the system’ was, ‘You can’t possibly have politicians using this stuff!’.

Geographic dimensions

The cultural challenges vary on a country-by-country basis, suggested Dominic Campbell, co-founder of FutureGov, which delivers public sector digital design projects in the UK, US and Australia amongst others. He explained:

Australia is extremely pragmatic about how it does things. It essentially says, ‘That sounds like a good idea, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll stop'.

The UK gets you to try and prove everything up front before it’ll even take a tiny step forward, super-conservative about how it approaches this stuff. From an external perspective, you spend the cost of the contract before you’ve even won the contract just trying to persuade them.

The US is super-optimistic and I love that. But at the same time you’re not allowed to be honest. In the USA, you’re not allowed to say ‘It’s not good enough, we could do better'. You have to say, ‘It’s awesome, let’s make it even more awesome'.  I think that’s dishonest and disabling. I think America really needs to be honest about how does it really do things differently and better.

(That last point got a round of applause from the international audience in the room.)

Muriel Bowser
Mayor Bowser

At the forefront of trying to do things better in the US government is digital services agency 18f, whose Deputy Executive Editor Hillary Hartley said that in the 18 months since formation, 18f has dealt with around 25 federal government teams. She argued:

The landscape is about changing the nature of what they expect from a digital services engagement. We’re trying to make transactions better. For us it’s about threading the needle, about changing expectations about how services can be delivered, focusing always on the people who are going to use them. The way we work gets more adoption than the things that we build.

One of the pillars we stand upon is this notion of leading by example. We want to walk hand-in-hand with our partners and the agencies that come to us. We want to essentially usher them though a new experience. It’s about resetting expectations so that they are better clients for the next people that they work with. They’ve had a new experience. They’ve been through a design studio. They’ve had somebody saying to them, ‘Focus on the user’.

She added:

We’re working with teams that have really great ideas, they just haven’t had the person power to put them into practice or to figure out how to crack that nut to be able to get around a certain aspect of the bureaucracy. They’re coming to us to say, ‘Help us think about a new way to approach this problem’.

Or they’ve had the experience where they’ve been told that they need to do a $300 million procurement. We’d take a step back and say they could probably get something smaller out the door that would prove that they actually need this service, but for a tenth of that.

And Hartley advises you get some early wins and score some champions internally:

The people we worked with in our first year were absolutely those who were champing at the bit for something new. So we’ve been able to have some early wins.

On the ground

There is willingness for change within government, insisted Muriel Bowser, now ten months into her reign as Mayor of Washington DC. Bowser highlighted her own use of daily data feeds to inform her administration's decision-making processes.

She paints a picture of her city putting the building blocks in place to maximize the potential of digital transformation:

We do think in our city that we have an opportunity to try a lot of things because we’re a great American city. We’re kind of a big small town. We have a flat government, we have a highly educated population. We have attracted technologists and millennials. We’ve had some pretty tech-savvy, data-driven mayors for several mayors now. We have built an infrastructure in our city that allows people all across the city to have access to high-speed internet.

We know we need to do more to make sure that all of our residents are being trained in coding and being tech-articulate on graduating from high schools, ready to enter the job market and participate in the industry that’s beginning to grow in our city.

City government can learn 'trickle-down' from Federal Government, she argued:

We saw the Federal Government say early on that they needed a Chief Innovation Officer, so cities are now having people not just focused on computers and coding where things go wrong, but on how you’re innovating across the space.

We’ve seen in the Federal Government - and 18f is a wonderful example - of how you can get great technologists in who can drill down quickly and almost like swat teams on problems.

Informed leaders like Bowser are clearly critical in encouraging adoption of digital solutions. In the UK, the head of the Civil Service has recently talked of the need for all Permanent Secretaries to be digitally-savvy. That’s a goal that’s likely a long way off, although Campbell said that in the seven year history of FutureGov, he has seen improvements on the buy side:

The way that everything has changed for FutureGov is having people on the inside that we can talk to. Before, we were trying to persuade people who were excited and excitable, but who couldn’t go beyond that. It felt like the right thing, but…

Now, without being rude, we have intelligent clients, people who can understand their organizational needs and where other people can add value to help them to deliver what they’re trying to deliver.

Or as 18f’s Hartley sums up for all digital government transformation evangelists:

I don’t think that people look at us as though we have six heads anymore.

My take

Just drink the goddam water!

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