This is something you see quite often as digital impinges on old-fashioned industries, that first of all digital makes the old product better, and then all of a sudden it creates a new product that kills the old product entirely. And so digital looks to begin with like everything’s going great, that it’s going to be wonderful, we’re going to make lots more money than we did before, and then all of a sudden, somebody comes along and crushes you.

That’s from Benedict Evan’s presentation, Mobile is eating the world which came out a few weeks ago and is as good as everybody says it is – well worth 25 minutes of your time.

The lines I have quoted (which come about twenty minutes in) are from a passage about the transition to digital photography, illustrated with data about camera sales. If you were making cameras in 2006, you were probably dizzy with the success of your transition to digital. But looking at the chart below, it’s hardly surprising that Kodak was getting out of the camera business altogether by early 2012.

Digital gives and it takes away

The problem for Kodak (among others) was not, of course, that everybody had stopped taking photographs, still less that they were abandoning digital.1 The problem was that there was a different way of getting to a better outcome (and a very different sense of what counted as a better outcome), a problem which the traditional companies could neither recognise nor counter.2

The disruptive effect of digital on government remains much debated (as does the very concept of digital government). How much of the current excitement – and achievement – of digital government is about making the old product better? And what might the new product be which will change the idea of government altogether?

We may think that we are delivering digital transformation. There may be clear evidence of change in the right direction. But others have thought that before and found that the transformation they thought they had achieved was at best a respite, and at worst an illusion.

  1. The previous slide in the presentation shows that more than ten times as many photographs were shared on social media in 2014 than were taken in total by consumers in 1999.
  2. The camera industry is not dead, or course – the chart itself shows that more digital cameras were sold in 2013 than film cameras were sold in any year ever.


  1. Thanks Stefan.
    I won’t comment on whether or not the current ‘digital government’ policy is truely transformational, but I will share a little experience, some of which was gained as you know back in the early days of transformational government.

    I DO think that some of the decisions we made then were transformational. Maybe the effects were not as immediate, but they were disruptive. Unfortunately, disruption seems to have become a means in itself these days, and people don’t always understand that it doesn’t have to be a big bang, sometimes you can achieve major transformation with frequent small knocks.

    I do agree that making things work better isn’t digital transformation in itself. Government departments rethinking their entire service delivery (and the role of digital within that) is. That’s hard graft. It requires intelligent persuasion and wholesale buy in. You can’t simply bring in a consultancy and a few clever developers and expect digital transformation in a box to work.

    I may be wrong, but my sense is that within the skills sets, digital government may have lost those that understood that the big vision was to reorientate the entire relationship with the citizen putting more control in their hands through elegant, good digital public services, in favour of methodologies, To be brutally frank, whilst I applaud the alpha/beta, design thinking approach; as a citizen I just want you to make it as easy as possible for me to exercise my rights and responsibilities. I don’t want it to be enjoyable, I want it to work and I want to do it online or on my phone. If you can pull that off, now that would be transformational.

  2. I agree that today’s digital transformation is an illusion (lipstick on the pig). However, there is a way to create a new product entirely.

    See my response to Mike Bracken’s talk at Policy Exchange last Monday.

    I summary, public service computing needs to be redesigned for today’s global computing platform. This requires complex, real-time applications managing end-to-end processes for citizens across organisational and departmental boundaries. These applications need to be created using a rigour engineering approach.

    Unfortunately, UK Gov. not only doesn’t have these skills, it doesn’t even have a vehicle to discuss such radical alternatives.

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