Ten years ago, the government published a report that would change the way the public sector approached the design and build of digital services.

The report took all the best parts from the software industry – user-centred designs, agile approaches, use of open source software – and brought them together into an overall approach.

The most ground-breaking thing about the work was that the recommendations were actually acted upon! Similar reports had been produced going back as far as 1999, but little had changed. Moving the government forward turned out to be the proverbial super-tanker turn that only happened when some real heavyweights got their hands on the wheel. This included the author of the report (Baroness Lane-Fox) and the government minister tasked with delivering it (Sir Francis Maude). This kind of buy-in made all the difference.

Fast-forwarding 10 years, the digital revolution is by no means complete, but much progress has been made – with two big surprises standing out.

Firstly, despite strong early successes, the government is far from digitally transformed and the GDS, the organisation created to drive the change, seems to have lost momentum lately. Its purpose has become less clear and despite fairly hefty injections of budget, it has not managed to deliver success in, for example, the field of data. Many expected the organisation to lead the UK forward in a similar way as it did with agile and user-centred design.

And secondly, seldom do we see the best ideas from the public sector adopted into the private sector. It’s all there for the taking!

But what exactly are the lessons to be learnt?

Involve and empower staff

As is commonly said, ‘culture beats strategy’ when trying to drive change which is why it is important to first think about the change towards a digital culture in terms of the first team you deploy and how you empower them. Think about upskilling either for groups of people or on a 1-2-1 basis, either way be sure to create opportunities for learning.

Avoid monolithic solutions

These are often driven by large consultancy thinking, massive requirements gathering and a large-scale roadmap, followed by a big, centralised project with senior programme managers and a waterfall approach. Instead work with bite-sized projects that can be delivered quickly to test out new methods, upskill people and gain early proof-of-concepts and successes. Crucially, energise team and build advocates.

Find that sweet spot of the transformation

So, here’s something which runs a bit counter to the customer centric approaches discussed – organisations that focus on their staff before needs of other stakeholders (for example shareholders) tend to be more successful in multiple ways. They certainly tend to offer a better customer experience, but also ultimately better financial return.

Lead from the top

More importantly than this, digital transformation must be understood by the top. In order to send a strong signal to the rest of an organisation, it is important for management to be invested – they need to believe in the approach and engage with it fully. Agile must be adopted as a culture, not just a process to truly empower the organisation and deliver value at speed.

Focus on the customer

Rather than being driven solely by high-level customer insight and once-a-year market research, the key is to engage with customer feedback – real customer centricity requires you to meet the user in the environment and situation where they use it. The real value in this lies in never stopping to engage.

Assess, review, feedback and

Well understood and defined processes can help focus digital development – the agile process creates many points of feedback (daily stand-ups, sprints and show and tells). But more importantly, the culture needs to be one of review and assess – the team, the product, the technology and the process for digital transformation. What you really need to do early on is create a shared outcome, a shared victory that everyone can navigate against without thinking first and foremost about themselves.


These may seem obvious, but many organisations make these mistakes (and many others!). Entirely new challenges will require new systems and processes to be delivered. Most importantly, these factors mean that customer needs and wants are changing, fast and often permanently. Rapid transformation is necessary but brings big risks. It is my belief these risks can be managed with the right approach. We can and should learn from the public sector. They are a big business, in some ways the biggest, and by sharing learnings we’ll all grow.

You can hear more about learnings the private sector can adapt from the digital transformation of the public sector from Johan Hogsander at his recent talk at Digital Leaders Week 2020.


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The purpose of inclusive design is clear-cut: “to make sure everyone who needs to access your service can use it”1. And while lockdown meant slowdown for most sectors, it massively accelerated demand for online services.


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