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What we mean by 'digital'

Harriet Green and Myra Hunt

We took over as Defra’s joint Chief Digital Officers back in July. Since then, we've spent a lot of time meeting a lot of different people at all levels around the organisation, asking questions and listening.

One thing that's emerged is that not everyone shares the same understanding of the word 'digital'. Many people are very unsure of what we mean when we use it.

Since we're the ones in charge of 'digital' here, we thought we should do something about that - so in this post, we're going to explain what digital means to us and to Defra.

Digital means changing the way we work

This heading is the simplest, most fundamental definition. Former GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore defined digital like this in a tweet:

Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations.

… and we haven't seen anyone else define it as simply, or as clearly, since then.

Read his tweet again. He lists 4 things: culture, practices, processes and technologies.

The first 3 of those are about how we do things. About the ways that people work.

Digital transformation means changing those working methods. It means: being more agile; putting users first; starting small and iterating from there, based on user research.

It's not just computers

The fourth thing in Tom’s list is technologies. Yes, this means we must change how we manage and implement IT, from mission-critical legacy systems to giving our staff access to modern kit and collaboration tools.

Three out of four things on Tom’s list relate to changing how we think, act and behave.

That's why we like the phrase "digital is about people, not just computers", something that colleagues at Defra have been saying for some time.

We live in an era of constant change. Rather than trying to predict and prepare for every change that might happen, we need to reshape our organisation so that it’s better equipped to cope with the flow of new challenges and opportunities.

That’s what a digital organisation is: one that can react and respond quickly and effectively to changing needs and opportunities.

Change is hard

We need to make Defra work more like the fast-moving digital organisations that make the rest of the world work. It’s a big challenge, we don’t deny that. It’s not complicated; it's just hard.

Agile ways of working aren't new, but they're relatively new to government. So we need to come up with ways to help existing teams adjust. We need to hire experts who can support those teams. And we need to recognise that some of our existing staff already know what to do, and give them the freedom to do it.

Over the last year, the Digital Transformation programme in Defra has made good progress. Among many other things, we've:

  • delivered 2 new services to public beta or live: I want to Fish, and Report Landfill Data (there are more coming soon)
  • taken the Water Licensing service to alpha
  • taken the Waste Permits service to private beta
  • rolled out a new field service management tool to 500+ staff
  • established our own Digital Working team of experts to help other teams make the change

Now that we understand more about the teams and the challenges they face, we're planning to write a more detailed digital strategy for Defra, which will shape the rest of our digital activity for the next few years.

With that and a clear definition of "digital" to guide us, we believe progress will only accelerate from here on. We can't wait.

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  1. Comment by Greg posted on

    Great do I join the team. I want to help engage users at all levels to embrace 'digital' a "Digital Evangelist" if you will.

  2. Comment by David Thomas posted on

    I couldn't agree more, Digital Transformation should be about changing the way we work, not just redesigning our services. If we don't change how we work we'll just end up with newer versions of the same services.

    In the spirit of iterative development and transparency, how about very quickly putting out a high level digital strategy and then progressively adding the detail? Or is that what this is.....

  3. Comment by Ian McLoughlin posted on

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts folks.

    I would love for us to apply external GDS standards to internal applications. Can this happen please?

    Happy to discuss.

    • Replies to Ian McLoughlin>

      Comment by Jason Bramwell posted on

      This would surely make internal applications more complex and thus more expensive than they need to be.

      Public facing applications need to be secure, well polished, disability friendly etc. but internal applications can probably be built quicker and simpler and thus cheaper (depending on the user requirements). This does depend on the scale of the application and the user base though, a large app used by hundreds of staff would potentially have more polish to it than a small app used by ten staff. If you know an app is going to be used by staff with no disability requirements then to my eyes you'd be wasting time and resources getting this working with screen readers and such when it was simply not needed (It could be added later if/when needed), you don't have this luxury for external applications though, I believe GDS mandate that it must work with disability software whether your users need this or not.

      There is nothing that I'm aware of stopping internal apps being built to GDS standards though, it's all about what is the best fit for the user requirements.

      • Replies to Jason Bramwell>

        Comment by Andrew Hick posted on

        In response to Jason's comments, I agree that a service should reflect its users' needs. However I'd argue that building in accessibility from the start, even on small services, benefits everyone.

        For example, GOV.UK services must be usable without a mouse, but many users choose to tab between fields when filling in an online form. And someone might choose to magnify their screen without identifying themselves as having a disability. If these kinds of freedoms are built in up front, it's much less effort than retrofitting it at a later date.

        While, realistically, a 10-user application might not meet every single standard perfectly, I'd always recommend doing 20% of the effort to get 80% of the accessibility right up front.

  4. Comment by Hannah Kenny posted on

    Absolutely agree with this article. I've just transferred to DDTS from Environment Agency comms, and I have been hearing quite a lot about IT, but still not so much about the people using the IT.

    I second Ian's comments . Staff are users too. We could complete tasks easier, work faster and reduce calls to support if we built internal services to meet our needs the way we do now for external customers. I've been trying to nudge this approach internally where I can, but it needs to become the norm.