I had the opportunity to speak at the Digital Government 2015 Conference in Belfast recently, and was a member of a panel that included digital leaders from Northern Ireland, Scotland and UK Central Governments. In this blog, I look at how Government can implement digital transformation, achieve reuse and build a platform, while maintaining focus on delivering services that meet the needs of citizens.

Agile – a Recap

“Agile”, like many good ideas, has seen an industry grow up around it. Sometimes this can obscure the real benefits of agile working – or worse, the whole idea can be undermined. So it’s worth summarising why I think Agile is the best way to deliver digital transformation. Digital transformation is about building digital services that citizens prefer to use. To build such services, you must understand citizens’ needs, quickly deliver a reliable, real (not dummy or prototype) service that meets the most important of those needs, and change the service in line with citizens’ feedback as they use it. That means you can deliver a service that is better than anyone could have imagined at the outset. And the proven way to safely achieve the required level of change is to use agile methods, tools and technologies.

Getting Closer to the Citizen

To work in a truly agile way, and to be genuinely responsive to citizens, you need to reduce the degree of separation between the citizens and the people who provide the service. Public bodies that deliver services to citizens will often need to engage suppliers as delivery partners, at least until they have built their own digital capability. So they need to create an environment where the suppliers are close to the citizens, understand their needs, and are able to meet them. If there are complex procurement arrangements, rigid contracts or multiple reviews and sign-off approvals for any change (and these can exist within suppliers as well as in customers), this environment will be very difficult to create no matter how good your supplier or product owner is.

Design for Reusability, Not for Reuse

If you’re serious about Digital Transformation, you will be running a programme to deliver multiple services and ultimately – as my co-panel members at Digital Government agreed – you will aspire to develop platform components to achieve consistency, reuse, ease of management and reduced cost.  It’s perfectly feasible to run a structured programme that has service delivery at its heart and platform creation as its vision, but it requires a different approach than that of traditional big-design-up-front. Proactively designing for reuse can be an expensive mistake for two reasons: first, it risks having the user need play second fiddle to the need to reuse, so the service isn’t as good; and second, if something is reused, it becomes a dependency which needs ownership, management and control. So you’d better make sure that anything you do reuse is so valuable that it justifies the resources needed.

And how do you improve your chances of doing that without having the gift of second sight? Design for reusability, in preference to proactively designing generic, reuse-focussed components. Develop software to open standards, minimise dependencies, keep responsibilities clear and document your interfaces. Openly share code and people will reuse it based on needs. Monitor the usage of live services to see what is potentially valuable for reuse.

A Digital Transformation Programme then becomes less about defining and sticking to a multi-year, detailed plan, and more about coming up with the right Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), prioritizing service delivery based on them, and ensuring good communication between the programme team and the teams delivering the services. That way, the programme team can see what’s working, potentially standardize it, and ensure that services learn from each other and share what they’re doing.

Towards a Platform

Doing this properly moves you towards deeper transformation and the creation of a platform. Until you have delivered some services, you won’t know what components should be in your platform, but as you deliver you will see such components emerge and they should inform your programme vision and roadmap (both of which should evolve). It’s really important to maintain a small number of very clear and valuable KPIs so that you can measure improvements and make the right decisions. One of the classic business management misquotes is, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Flawed provenance aside, the statement focuses on the wrong thing. I think it’s more helpful to say, “You can’t reliably improve what you don’t measure.” As you learn what works, you should develop standards that drive the development of services based on experience. Build and share libraries of code, processes and knowledge that will make service development more effective. This will help you decide, based on evidence, which components should be shared and standardised as platform services.

As an organisation, you need the right environment to achieve all this. An environment that encourages citizen focus; with flexibility to meet changing needs; willingness to share openly what you do and build; vigilance to avoid being locked into third parties for years; and a desire to improve the digital capability of your organisation and your people. These are all things that you and your delivery partners must embrace to achieve digital transformation through delivery.