Made Tech Blog

Is digital the new legacy? Part one

I’ve been talking to other members of the team recently about whether digital is becoming the new legacy. And by that I mean – is the dogmatic application of the Government Digital Service (GDS) Service Manual creating a new legacy in delivering digital services? Too often we’re seeing digital programmes stuck in endless cycles of discovery, delivered by teams that are simultaneously too big and not equipped to deliver services at pace. 

The strategy should be delivery. I’m just not sure it is any longer. 

A GDS revolution

GDS started back in 2011, the same year The Lean Startup was published, the time in which Facebook and Twitter dominated social media. GDS brought the Silicon Valley startup mentality to UK government. Adopting an approach of test-and-learn and getting something useful into the hands of users as quickly as possible.

The first launch of GOV.UK had a big alpha logo slapped on it and looked nothing like any other government service at the time. The GDS Story describes how the team gave the site “a west coast look” to deliberately create something that felt radically different to government services of the time. 

I remember sharing the GOV.UK launch with the leadership team of the business I was with back then. It felt seismic. The government had just leap-frogged all of the private sector clients we were working with. They launched a modern digital service with the intent of testing it with real users, iterating and improving. The code was open sourced and the team behind it blogged about their approach, embracing now common concepts such as regular releases and minimum viable product (MVP).

The innovation in the delivery of UK public digital services since would suggest that this absolutely was the revolution moment we needed. Among a small group of others, the UK is still looked to on an international stage for a progressive approach to digital service delivery in government.

What happened to modern digital delivery?

Since those early days of GOV.UK the principles and approaches that made the delivery of those trailblazing GDS services successful have been documented, trained and incorporated into activities such as the service assessment. Through the Service Manual, an incarnation of those GDS ways of working has been largely adopted as the default way of delivering digital services across government. Digital departments from Whitehall to Sheffield have posters on the wall with GDS-originated slogans such as “show the thing”, and referring back to my personal favourite, “the strategy is delivery”. 

The culture that made GDS so successful in the early days was pioneered by “internet era” digital leaders that were focused on getting useful services into the hands of users. I think some of this important culture has been lost as we’ve tried to distil early success into a manual with defined phases, defined team shapes, and stage-gate assessments. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, we’ve not focused enough on how we really build and foster a culture of modern digital delivery, of continuous improvement and above all – a militant focus on delivering something useful for our users as quickly and as cost effectively as possible.

Back to working services in the hands of users

There are a number of things we need to address to avoid digital becoming the new legacy and to deliver better value digital services for society:

1. Understand how to adapt the discovery, alpha, beta, live phases

Leaders need to build teams that are confident and empowered to adapt and tailor the phases defined in the Service Manual. The by-the-book application of the discovery, alpha, beta to live lifecycle can see teams cranking the handle and focusing on their next assessment without constantly reminding themselves of what they’re really trying to achieve. Highly performing teams should always be questioning how they can adapt and improve how they’re working to reach their destination faster. 

2. Be clear what the destination is

As obvious as it may sound, the whole team needs to be clear on the outcome it is trying to deliver for users. Too often we see teams started with a vague and potentially sprawling problem that can cause endless discovery to try to understand where to even start. Leaders should be clear on the impact they’re expecting the team to deliver, for who, and by when.

3. Right sized and shaped teams

The Service Manual provides a good starting point as to the skills, and I choose the word “skills” over “roles” deliberately, required to deliver digital services through its lifecycle. Teams should be shaped to deliver the specific outcome – and with as few people as possible. Bloated teams create overhead and unnecessary work. Leaders need to develop more T-shaped people who are driven by the desire to deliver working services and are interested in building the breadth of skills to do this. A researcher performing some business analysis, or a delivery manager putting a product hat on should be seen as a positive thing.

4. Deliver outcomes at pace

Teams should behave more like resource constrained startups with a limited time and budget in which to deliver real end-user impact. Leaders should create a culture that values at-pace delivery, where services are expected to be in the hands of users and being iterated within weeks, not months and years.  

5. Back to lean and agile basics

In digital delivery, for me there are 2 things that have really stood the test of time – the agile manifesto and the lean startup. The absolute simplicity of statements such as “working software over comprehensive documentation” and “adapting to change over following a plan” encapsulates so much of what can make digital delivery successful if they’re properly embraced. The lean startup MVP approach remains a compelling guide for reducing waste and iterating to something useful quickly. Rather than training teams in what a beta team should look like, leaders should be coaching their teams to really understand and embrace these core principles.

Let’s make the strategy, delivery – again

The way we’re delivering government digital services needs to change. We can do better. We’ve done it before. We need to put more emphasis on strong digital leadership – real visions for our digital departments and what we want our culture of delivery to be. We need to coach and train our teams not just on the Service Manual processes, but on the now decades old core lean and agile principles. We need our teams to feel dissatisfied until they’ve delivered a working service into the hands of users.

The strategy is delivery. The delivery of working and useful services into the hands of users.

About the Author

Chris Blackburn

Chief Operating Officer