Book review: Digital Transformation at Scale – the GDS manual

Michelle Clement reviews a guide to digital transformation, written by the people who’ve been there and bought the T-shirt


By Michelle Clement

13 Jul 2018

In 2016 the UK was ranked No 1 in the United Nations e-government index – rising up the ranks from eighth place two years earlier. Digital transformation at scale is a manual on how that change was delivered, written by four of the people who did it.

The Government Digital Service, set up in 2011, ushered in a can-do, start up mentality. In just a few years it trimmed £4bn off the government’s IT bill and successfully launched the GOV.UK website, which allows citizens to access public services online. The need to understand how this was achieved is essential: institutional memory is all too easily lost.

The manual opens with an insight into how big organisations typically react to new technology: “Governments and big businesses have a habit of confusing complexity with substance.” Getting digital transformation right isn’t complicated, the authors argue, “it’s just hard”. Over the following thirteen chapters Greenway, Terrett, Bracken and Loosemore explain how to make large legacy organisations fit for the digital age.

"The need to understand how this transformation was achieved is essential: institutional memory is all too easily lost”

They describe the need to build the right team, saying that “putting together an agile an art, not a science.” Then, that team needs to prepare the ground for change – “you must be able to show, not just tell”. Finally, they discuss how they went about winning the arguments for change: “We took the decision to create a relatively broad mandate with a set of hard levers. Not everyone agreed with our judgement.”

Yet the authors make it clear that the book is not a tell-all tale of GDS, acknowledging that they have included “little about the quiet political conversations in the background that kept the wheels turning”. This is a crucial part of the story. Without a political sponsor willing to spend political capital, GDS may not have succeeded at all. Francis Maude as Cabinet Office minister from 2010 to 2015, took an unyielding approach that gave political cover for GDS to disrupt the digital machinery of government. Like other central government units before it, GDS recognised that the political sponsor had to be in post for a solid amount of time (at least three years) and seen to be spending their political capital on the unit. Otherwise those who were happy with the status quo could “see the threat of change off”.

The authors’ frustration with inertia in Whitehall is evident, particularly the low expectations for senior officials to have a basic understanding of technology. They rightly say that a lack of knowledge about finance or economics would not be tolerated. The GDS method was unapologetically user-focused, their design principles formed the foundation for delivery.

The book does however contain two inaccuracies. The authors argue that “the ideal [political] sponsor knows that public service reform is no vote winner”. Yet the promise of public service reform – along with economic competence – has been an election winning formula for modern political parties since the Labour Party under Clement Attlee in 1945. The authors also argue that “delivery was not something the centre had concerned itself with before”, overlooking the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, created and led by Sir Michael Barber from 2001 to 2005, which recast the machinery, culture and performance of government a decade before GDS was set up.

Beyond the Cabinet Office, the then prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne were vocal advocates of the digital agenda, as evidenced by their championing of entrepreneurs and start ups in the emerging east London tech hub, known as Tech City. Cameron and Osborne had been influenced by their special advisers Steve Hilton and Rohan Silva who, like GDS, brought in talent and a culture that was largely new in Whitehall. The remarkable alignment between No 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office created the conditions in which innovation could be unleashed.

Seven years on from the creation of GDS, the task at hand is how to manage the transition from insurgent to incumbent, how to apply the GDS method to resolve the trickier, complex public service IT systems. The question remains, will the digital revolution be irreversible? This book is vital in understanding how the revolution began and therein lie the seeds of success for the future. This is required reading for anyone trying to understand how to transform an analogue organisation into a digital one.

Digital transformation at scale: why the strategy is delivery, by Andrew Greenway, Ben Terrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore, with a foreword by Francis Maude, is published by London Publishing Partnership, RRP £14.99.

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