Skip to main content

Digital Transformation - Fixing the How, Accelerating the What

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Uncategorized

It was a great privilege to be invited to speak at the Innovate New South Wales (NSW) event in Sydney; arranged by the fantastic team at Public Sector Network (PSN). This event brought together public sector colleagues from across the Federal and State levels to get the latest updates, share best practice and network. I delivered the International Keynote address and then joined in a number of panel and roundtable discussions, which were fun and thought provoking. PSN also arranged for me to meet with Federal and State digital colleagues throughout the week - more of that in a later blog…

digital transformation

In today’s modern society, arguably change is business as usual (BAU); organisations who are not dynamic, not focused on what they do and how they do it are I feel destined to be left behind; becoming ever more irrelevant to the Customers they serve. Furthermore, as digital is intrinsic to organisational constructs and service delivery, any transformational endeavours must have a strong digital element to them. Beware though, any transformation needs to be led by the business not the digital function; as the saying goes the digital tail should not wag the business dog!

Over the years my conversations with Executives in Industry or Government when it comes to transformation have been largely focused on the more visible elements of digital transformation - Cloud, Analytics, Robotics and Generative AI (Gen AI). This is understandable and natural, as very often we need results and we need them yesterday. However I have always felt this is the wrong end of the telescope, starting with the What and not the How and my counsel as a digital leader has always been more focused on the latter than the former. I even found a Gartner slide to support this premise, apparently 15x impact delivered through focusing on the How - thanks Gartner! 

iceberg, D bigger than T

The premise of my keynote was therefore:

                                                                Fixing the How, Accelerating the What

Bear with me I will come back to this - a little context first…

Becoming Cabinet Office Digital

When I joined the the Cabinet Office a little over a year ago, I was pondering the whole system challenge in front of me; how do we create an optimal digital function that is capable of providing strong digital leadership to an organisation that was structured as a loose conglomeration of Business Units (BUs) and Arms Length Bodies (ALBs); departments and functions that predominantly were self sufficient and independent; with varying degrees of digital maturity. 

The organisation I inherited (Chief Digital Information Office) was (is) full of fantastically capable, experienced and motivated individuals who wanted to do a good job and in a lot of ways were. We were (and remain so) very good at providing the enabling IT products and services; EUC, mobility, productivity, GovWiFi etc; we were not though structured for sustained success in the digital domain. Across the organisational Pillars (silos!) we had smatterings of product, delivery and service; operating in isolation and attempting to deal with organisational constraints team by team - we were delivering despite the system not being enabled by it!

Over the next 6-months we embarked on a transformational endeavour, which looked at the brand, vision, mission, structure and ways of working. This was an excellent piece of work and enabled us to pivot quickly; we rebranded to Cabinet Office Digital to enable our users to engage and understand us better; our new vision Enabling and Transforming the Cabinet Office. This vision encapsulated our renewed purpose and mission - enabling through the provision of exemplary digital, data and technology products and services. Transforming through providing digital leadership to the organisation acting as a digital partner that advised and assured and a digital delivery partner doing both of those things along with addressing the problem space of the organisation through a laser focus on users and product. 

This transformation has been broadly (one can never say completely!) well received and although it is early days the consensus is positive and we continue to engage, adapt and evolve - like any good transformation should do.

Right that is the context, now back to the Keynote…

During my first number of months in post, I discussed the whole system challenge and transformation with Tom Read, CEO Government Digital Service (GDS). Tom is a key stakeholder for us in Cabinet Office Digital and is also a highly experienced digital leader, who is great to bounce ideas off (thanks Tom). He introduced me to the late Paul Shetler’s work “Square of Despair” which must be a good model, as it rhymes…! This model though does neatly encapsulate the multi-dimensional aspects of the challenge we were facing, as follows:

  • Governance - Enabling appropriate governance, not too tight to constrain, not too loose to exacerbate the shadow IT problem.  
  • Procurement - What we buy and how we buy it; overcoming the constraints of procurement and poorly structured relationships with partners.
  • IT - Legacy! The anchor drag of legacy is profound and very real within government and indeed industry. Legacy unaddressed increases risk and decreases operational performance. A recent National Audit Office report (NAO) outlined that of the £8bn the UK government is investing in digital throughout this spending review period, £2.7bn is focused on reducing legacy and addressing the cyber challenge. Indeed the NAO noted that our colleagues in the department of food and rural affairs (DEFRA) are spending 76% of their entire digital budget on maintaining legacy. DEFRA’s challenges are significant and not uncommon…  
  • Funding - As digital leaders we need to make the case for appropriate funding, balancing the need to address legacy with the desire for new capabilities; visible capabilities that have a real impact on our users. This requires deft balancing and a clear narrative to achieve the right mix of funding being made available.

To these 4 dimensions, I added a 5th - Culture. As Peter Drucker observed, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast - indeed as Jennifer Pahlka in her excellent book “Recoding America” also observes - it also does the same to Policy!

These therefore are 5 dimensions of our transformational strategy within Cabinet Office Digital; helping us to transform the How in order to accelerate the What. The graphic below provides a pictorial representation of this. 

enabling pace and creating impact

Now, I’ve been in delivery and subsequently sales for far too long in my career to be seduced by a hockey stick, believe me - it rarely all comes right in Q4… However, I would like to take artistic licence on this, as it does outline my strong view that Culture is where you will get the biggest impact. The work we are doing is obviously not linear, rather incrementally we are transforming how we operate as an organisation and outlined below is a synopsis of our transformation strategy. 

Transforming Cabinet Office Digital 

  • Governance - Establishing an empowered and empowering Technical Design Authority (TDA) which will reduce risk, tech debt and cost across the department. A key element of our strategy for system convergence and consolidation.
  • Procurement - engaging our partners to optimise what we buy and how we buy; rationalising where appropriate, making our platforms more architecturally coherent, our contractual relationships simplified. Critically we are also procuring a Strategic Delivery Partner (SDP) who will build an ecosystem of SMEs; an ecosystem that will enable the Cabinet Office to rapidly build capacity and capability as well as help us innovate and develop as an organisation. This is a really exciting development and central to our operating model going forwards.
  • IT - Identifying and implementing plans to remediate legacy, a great example of this being the work we are doing on the Official IT platforms and the productivity suite transformation and tech refresh programme that is underway.
  • Funding - Ensuring a balanced approach to funding, enabling remediation of legacy, reducing risk as well as increasing productivity and developing new capabilities. This is always a challenge; demand will always exceed supply (of funds!) therefore a clear prioritisation is a must.

The 5th dimension is Culture and clearly one cannot “fix” culture, rather influence, promote, engage, shape (pick a preferred verb!) to support the development of a highly engaged, supportive and empowered culture within an organisation. There are also multiple aspects to culture, though I will focus on 2 areas where we are specifically engaged on:

  1. Digital into the DNA of the organisation. We are enabling this through engaging BUs as early in the development of strategy and policy as possible; ensuring we address the “problem space” rather than being given an answer “to go away and deliver.” This will create Digital Pathways between the business and ourselves to consider digital implications right from the get go. It is highly unlikely that any new strategic intent and policy will not have a digital element, so it is critical therefore that digital is not an afterthought…
  2. Creating a positive, empowered and inclusive culture. Such a culture I strongly believe is a key tenet of a highly performant organisation and this is therefore critical for us to get right. We are engaging our teams to promote positive behaviours, empower, create psychological safety and encourage our people to innovate and to take risks. The Civil Service arguably remains a risk averse institution and through empowering our people and our teams, giving them the psychological safety to remove the fear of failure we are moving the decision making to where the expertise resides. A further aspect of this is diversity and inclusivity and we are making great strides in this regard also. Our senior leadership team (SLT) is significantly more diverse and gender balanced than it has ever been; but this is only the start - what we can achieve together going forwards is very exciting for me. 

I feel strongly that if we get these 5 dimensions right, we will transform our great organisation into something truly spectacular; delivering the real pace and impact of digital transformation that the Cabinet Office requires. The How being fixed the What being accelerated…


Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Oliver posted on

    I enjoyed reading your article. It really explains every detail so well. Thank you


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.