Harnessing experimental projects for digital change

In the ever-evolving technology landscape, experimental projects have emerged as a crucial catalyst for driving digital transformation. CSW reports on a webinar about making experimental projects work within the complex context of government organisations
Repeatability and knowledge sharing are crucial



The implementation of experimental projects has shown great potential to improve digital service delivery and enable public bodies to harness agility, user-centric design, risk mitigation, innovation, and data-driven decision-making. These were key takeaways from a panel discussion hosted in partnership between Civil Service World, PublicTechnology and Salesforce with senior leaders from the Cabinet Office and Crown Commercial Service. The webinar is now available to watch on-demand.

Chaired by Suzannah Brecknell, editor of CSW, on the panel were Giles Hartwright, Interim Government Chief Technology Officer; Steve Hopkins, Commercial Lead, Software, at Crown Commercial Service; and Jonathan Bennett, Strategic and Business Development Executive at Salesforce. They examined the value that an experimental approach can bring in helping to overcome the challenge of getting those new ways of working started, how leaders and reformers can use experimental approaches, and how public sector organisations and civil servants can benefit from it to provide citizen-facing services in a more joint-up way.

Unlocking best practices and innovation

The panellists reflected on how experimental projects offer a unique opportunity to challenge assumptions and test different approaches in the development of public services and how integrating experimentation into the delivery of government services can accelerate digital transformation.

Hartwright said the key to successful digital transformation is identifying best practices and fostering innovation across government organisations. He noted that accessing relevant information and innovative solutions has been a challenge in the past, but emphasised the importance of leveraging common practices across government to create repeatable patterns and reuse them across all organisations. “This necessitates collaboration with technology suppliers like Salesforce to gain access to valuable knowledge and innovation,” he said.

Bennett agreed, noting that incorporating experimental approaches into service delivery is essential for accelerating digital transformation. He explained: “By challenging assumptions and testing different approaches, rather than relying on theoretical exercises, public sector organisations can take an unconstrained approach to executing change.” He also noted that practical experiments conducted alongside programmatic business cases deliver real value to public services and taxpayers. “The willingness to experiment and iterate enables departments to achieve better outcomes while focusing on the most effective solutions,” he said.

Sharing learnings and achieving value

The panellists agreed that government departments must strive to share knowledge and learn from each other's experimental experiences. Bennett said a critical mindset for making experimental projects work is building on previous discoveries and sharing blueprints across organisations.

Hopkins concurred and reflected on the importance of sharing learnings to drive value for money and cost savings. “Agreements with technology suppliers, such as Salesforce, play a crucial role in enabling public sector organisations to benefit from new functionality and unlock efficiencies,” he said, pointing out the recent Memorandum of Understanding that Crown Commercial Service signed with the technology company.

Hopkins explained: “CCS has negotiated several agreements with different strategic suppliers, and Salesforce is one of them. These agreements go beyond pricing negotiations and include other elements, like innovation. The MoU with Salesforce, for instance, provides funding for proof of concepts that are scalable, relevant to the public sector, and shareable across organisations.”

To Hopkins, this collaborative approach allows government entities to harness suppliers' expertise and drive service delivery improvements, sustainability, and cost savings. “By funding proof of concepts and encouraging collaboration with SME partners, you can foster innovation, drive economic growth, and create employment and investment opportunities,” he said, noting that sharing experiences and including proof of concept within procurement strategies is vital to successful experimental projects.

Examples of repeatability

Providing an example of how departments can use repeatability through experimental projects, Bennett commented on Salesforce’s work with a government department that transformed a paper-based service into a digital one within a short timeframe, using repeatable components of the department’s service.

Bennett explained: “By deploying a team along with the client, we were able to deliver a working proof of concept for that service within four weeks or so, such that the department could take that away, look at their options for how they would go and expedite that part of their service transformation.”

A second example involved a regulator, which was able to deliver schemes in a common way by using a front-end portal and a standardised case work process.

Bennett explained that to identify patterns or areas of repeatability, departments need to focus on process architecture rather than microservices, as this enables them to deliver services efficiently and remove the burden of systems integration.

Overcoming cultural challenges

Hartwright admitted that embarking on experimental projects is a journey that comes with the challenges posed by the cultural mindset and accountability associated with public money. He said the need for extensive business cases and the fear of risk often hinder experimentation and agile approaches within government organisations. To address this, he encouraged departments to involve digital and policy teams early in the process.

He explained: “By involving digital experts early in the policy development process, organisations can address specific needs through experimental approaches and achieve better outcomes.” He also mentioned the efforts by the Central Digital and Data Office to create communities for innovation and experimentation, where organisations can share best practices and scale successful projects.

Hartwright said such communities could identify shared areas for experimentation using AI, blockchain, and other emerging technologies to foster novel ways of delivering services. “Sharing best practices, lessons learned, and repeatable patterns across government organisations can drive significant value and scalability,” he said.

Hopkins agreed and emphasised the importance of collaboration with technology suppliers while maintaining a healthy competitive market. He said the MoU with Salesforce, for example, provides a framework for achieving this.

He noted that procurement strategies must have safeguards but also market engagement to ensure clear requirements and effective implementation. “Experimentation should be encouraged, and failure should be seen as an opportunity to learn and improve,” he said.

In all, experimental projects in government departments play a vital role in driving digital change – and this applies equally to health, education, local authorities and blue light organisations. The panellists agreed that repeatability and knowledge sharing are crucial in enabling other government entities to benefit from successful experiments. To learn more about making experimental projects work in government, register to watch the webinar on-demand.

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