Top 5 Tips for Chief Digital Officers in the Public Sector

Bryan Glick, Mark Thompson, Lucie Glenday, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, Digital Transformation, Public Sector, London, 2014

Bryan Glick, Mark Thompson, and Lucie Glenday at the inaugural U.K. Chief Digital Officer Summit

Last week we took a look at what inspired the digital and data revolution that fundamentally transformed the way the United Kingdom’s government does business.

While there’s no doubt that top-down political leadership helped push digital transformation, it was up to Chief Digital Officers in the U.K.’s various civil service agencies and local governments to successfully implement it.

That’s why the CDO Club brought together CDOs and digital experts from the U.K. public sector to discuss their leading strategies and best practices at a “Digital Transformation in the Public Sector” panel, held at the inaugural U.K. CDO Summit, convened at the BBC in London, England, on October 29, 2014.

They presented us with five top tips every Chief Digital Officer in the public sector needs to know.

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Panelists included, shown from left to right in the photo and video below:

  • Bryan Glick (Moderator): Editor-In-Chief at Computer Weekly
  • Mark Thompson: Owner & Strategy Director at Methods Group
  • Lucie Glenday: Chief Digital Officer at the Surrey County Council
  • Paul Shetler: Chief Digital Officer at the Ministry of Justice
  • Kathy Settle: Director for Digital Policy at Government Digital Service
Bryan Glick, Mark Thompson, Lucie Glenday, Paul Shetler, Kathy Settle, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, Digital Transformation, Public Sector, London, 2014

Bryan Glick, Mark Thompson, Lucie Glenday, Paul Shetler, and Kathy Settle on the “Digital Transformation in the Public Sector” panel at the 2014 U.K. CDO Summit

1. Public services must serve everybody

“We don’t have customers, we have users,” said Paul Shetler, former CDO of the Ministry of Justice, and now CEO of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office.

“When people normally think of digital services, they would normally think of Amazon, or e-commerce, or things like that. In many cases these are all things which people usually choose to go and find.

“Typically, the Ministry of Justice goes after you. It’s not typically something you do because you want to.”

Probably one of the biggest distinctions between creating digital services for business and for the public sector is the fact that public services must work for everybody. The concept of preferred or targeted customers then goes out the window.

“[There are] people who are actually online and maybe they’re buying stuff off of Amazon or eBay, but they don’t feel very confident doing a very important government service online,” said Kathy Settle of Government Digital Service, describing the problem. “Who are those users? What are those barriers to going online?”

While the U.K. has embraced digital services, it still strives to offer every public services through other means for people who are unwilling, or unable, to go online.

“If we can’t get them online, for whatever reason, what’s the assisted digital service that we can provide?” Settle asked. “The phrase ‘digital by default’ got misinterpreted by a lot of people to mean ‘digital only,’ and that’s not where we are.”

Check out what former senior policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron
had to say about Digital Transformation in the Public Sector

Lucie Glenday, Paul Shetler, Kathy Settle, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, Digital Transformation, Public Sector, London, 2014

Panelists Lucie Glenday, Paul Shetler, and Kathy Settle at the 2014 U.K. CDO Summit

2. Use digital to transform how government works across the organization

“We need to stop thinking within departmental silos, and think about cross-government solutions,” Settle said.

Other panelists agreed: Digital is not just about providing individual digital solutions, but creating efficiency by changing the very structure of the civil service and local governments when it comes to sharing data and helping citizens.

“This isn’t just purely about technology. This is about understanding flows across organizations,” Lucie Glenday of the Surrey County Council said. She said the key is “how we join up some of those common things that we all do, so that the customer’s life becomes an awful lot easier.”

“The Internet has revolutionized every single business model it’s touched,” Mark Thompson, of Methods Group, said. “The notion that digital in any sense is purely about delivering public service in a digital way …we’ve got to be kidding ourselves.

“My working definition of a digital business model is a business model that’s set up to exploit shared Web-based infrastructure,” he explained. “If you can exploit shared Web-based infrastructure, you effectively allow people to sell or provide and consume services more directly.”

View the video below:

3. Build a flexible digital infrastructure

“One of the things that no other CDO in the room outside of [one in] government has to face is the idea that every five years you get a new boss,” moderator Bryan Glick, of Computer Weekly, said, “who may have a completely different idea of what they want to do, and what entails public services and how those public services are delivered.”

While most CDOs’ first job is to advocate why digital transformation is necessary, the success of digital services in the U.K. has ensured their continued use. The next problem is weathering the storm of political change and evolving priorities.

“To a certain extent, who’s going to say no to digitizing public services?” Settle asked hypothetically. “Both for the better services for the users and for saving money. The general direction of travel is unlikely to change.

“What we’re trying to do is build services that are flexible. So that we can change things, so when the policies do change, you don’t have to tear up the existing service and start again,” she said.

“Elections are a unique hurdle that government digital people have to overcome,” Glick noted.

Lucie Glenday, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, Digital Transformation, Public Sector, London, 2014

Lucie Glenday: Chief Digital Officer at the Surrey County Council

4. Don’t focus on digital, focus on serving users

“When I go into meetings within Surry, I don’t necessarily introduce myself as Chief Digital Officer. The word ‘digital’ seems to bring this sort of glaze across the majority of people’s faces,” Glenday explained.

“I sort of stand up, a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous, turn around, and say: ‘I’m a bit of a data geek, and if somebody could let me know a little bit about what they do and how they do it, and what information they collect along the way….’ For some reason, that seems to hit people a little bit better than if you start talking about technology.”

“We’re all asking the same questions. We’re just using different ways to find out what the answers to those questions are.”

Find out what 2014 U.K. CDO of the Year Mike Bracken had to say about digital transformation in the public sector

5. Be wary of outsourcing and vendor lock-in

In our previous post we mentioned how, before 2010, the U.K. government was spending £25 billion per year on IT — more per head than any other country on earth. A large contributor to this was outsourcing major contracts to a few big companies, locking the government in due to its use of external propriety technologies.

“If you actually think about what outsourcing involves, it basically means cryogenically freezing your business model and chucking it over the wall to a supplier to run it for you,” Thompson said. “You duplicate that for another five to 10 years. Every council that does that effectively kicks the can down the road of business model change.”

Even the economic advantages of outsourcing through cheaper global markets can be invalidated by the inefficiency of such contracts, he noted.

“Frankly, if you’re spending perhaps in rupees, it’s not necessarily better than spending in GBP [British pounds], if it commits the government to a lifetime of upgrades and updates and effectively closes us off from the growing global commodity marketplace.”

Thompson highlighted the G-Cloud framework as a prime example of how opening the procurement of services to a public marketplace can decrease costs while improving effectiveness.


While digital has made public services more efficient and easier than ever before, the role of public servants, even Chief Digital Officers, is the same as always: helping citizens as best they can. Technology should take a back seat to increasing efficiency across the structure of government. However, as examples like the U.K.’s G-Cloud initiative show, innovation often results from prioritizing the five tips described above.

Bryan Glick, Mark Thompson, Lucie Glenday, Paul Shetler, Kathy Settle, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, Digital Transformation, Public Sector, London, 2014

“Digital Transformation in the Public Sector” Panel at the inaugural U.K. CDO Summit on October 29, 2014.

– By Andrzej Sienko

— #30# —

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