You can tell a word has won when we stop using it. Motor cars are only distinctive when horses are ubiquitous. It matters that light is electric only in times and places where that is not the norm. There is only colour television when some of it isn’t. As soon as a word means everything, it means nothing

Digital is going through the early stages of that same process. It used to be important that a computer was digital (rather than analogue, or human), it used to be important that a mobile phone was digital (because the analogue ones were vulnerable to eavesdropping), it used to be important that a camera was digital (because that told you that it would be more expensive and lower quality than its film equivalent).  None of those is digital any more, because they are all ubiquitously digital.1

But even as the narrow and precise sense of the word is fading away, a much broader and less precise use is resurgent. Digital is modern, innovative, creative, forward looking, catching the zeitgeist. It’s user-focused, cloud-based, mobile, social and agile. Not digital is – well, not any of those things. It’s ponderous, inefficient, producer-focused, old-fashioned, blind (and probably wilfully blind) to the future. Digital is done by people with elaborate coffee preferences and stickers on their laptops. Not digital is done by people who don’t have that sort of relationship with their laptops and who have a sneaking preference for tea.2

The danger in that is not in thinking that digital is important, or in recognising its power to change and to subvert existing ways of doing things. The danger is first in letting digital be seen as an end in itself rather than as a powerful catalyst for achieving other ends and second in letting it slide into being a vague synonym for improvement.

Digital transformation is important. But it’s important because digital is a means of doing transformation, not because transformation enables digital.

I used to argue, a long time ago, that digital government (or e-government as we called it back then) was about

  • customer focus
  • service integration
  • organisational transformation
  • efficiency
  • … and putting a few services online

The technology deliberately came last in that list, partly to counter the impression even (or especially) then that this was all about the technology and partly to underline the point that service delivery is a system – and that if you want a system to work better, you have to recognise and address the system. To a large extent, that is implicit in the modern digital agenda: it matters that GDS is organisationally distinctive within government just as it matters that it builds technology differently. That’s a good thing: it is the way it is organised which allows it to do what it does. But it doesn’t follow that service design (or for that matter organisational or process design) is digital. It’s the other way round: digital is a fundamentally important part of the tool set for doing service design.3

All of that worries me, since it makes me think I might need to disagree with Tom Loosemore – and in this territory I’d normally be more ready to bet on his views than on mine.4 A few weeks ago, Tom tweeted:

There’s a lot packed in to the constraints of a tweet there, and Tom is certainly not wrong about the range which needs to be covered – it is all the things in his list (which takes a slightly different approach from mine, but I don’t read as being in conflict with it). But I’m not convinced that that list of necessary elements is best organised and understood by labelling it as digital. To take one example, the culture and practices of the internet era undoubtedly include an emphasis on user research which is stronger and more systematic than anything we used to see. But user research is not a digital technique, it is an approach to social research which has human to human interaction at its core.

But perhaps that just doesn’t matter. It’s not in the end the words that are important, it is the action and the delivery. If digital has taken on a broader and softer meaning over time, that’s just an example of how language evolves, as it always has and always will.

But even if it is just words, they are powerful things which can channel the way we think more than we like to admit – as Chris Fleming has argued, the digital language divide is one we need to find a way of bridging.5 Labelling all this as digital has two risky consequences:

  • it frames the entire issue as being essentially technological
  • it implies an artificial distinction between digital and not-digital.

While reflecting on Tom’s tweet, I came across a post by Gerry McGovern (prompted by Ben Holliday) lamenting the gap between organisational management and technology and making the point that:

We are only now getting a new generation of managers who actually realize that technology is not magic. That is does require careful management to get the best out of it. This is what the essence of digital transformation is about. It is about the transformation of management practice so that it can better manage the technology that is essential to its survival.

That’s not saying that the technology side of digital doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it matters enough not to let its meaning get blurred away to nothing. As Richard Pope makes clear, it’s not about the technology apart from when it is:

If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way. You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place.

Sometimes the right question to ask is ‘could we meet our user needs better using this new technology?’.

But as Richard’s post also shows, the same challenge applies to system-level design. There’s an even bigger revolution waiting to happen here, but the best chance of getting it to happen is to maximise the overlap between those who understand the system and those who understand the technology.

Paul Taylor (in a post I found via Samiah Javaid) builds a related argument (drawing on Carl Haggerty’s thinking). The emperor, he suggests, has fewer clothes than we like to think, because what we have liked to call digital transformation hasn’t been transformational at all:

Too many people are claiming that there is digital transformation happening – when really it is just automating legacy processes.

It’s improvement for sure. Less time for customers, less money for providers – but it’s not ‘transformation’, a word possibly even more abused than innovation.

Or as Carl puts it:

It is absolutely clear to me that Digital is an enabler and whilst it’s a fantastic opportunity it’s not really where the challenges are in terms of leadership or with organisations.

Fundamentally the challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model which is rooted in serving a de facto purpose which is disconnected from the people and places the organisation or leaders serve.

Ultimately, I come back to the idea of digital as a catalyst. The challenges – in improving government services, improving the efficiency of government organisations and in ensuring that in doing the first two things we do not lose sight of the users of those services or of the political context in which they are delivered – are age old. The tools for addressing those challenges used to be cumbersome and the rate of change slow. The new tools are better, faster and cheaper. The transformation challenge can be scaled up in proportion.

So we need to move beyond the rhetoric, to focus on transformation and thus on leadership:6

Perhaps leadership in the digital age is less a set of skills and more a set of behaviours.

  1. The first D in DVD survives as a an exception only because nobody has any reason to remember what the letters stand for any more.
  2. In a much less lethal way, digital is the radium of our times.
  3. And thus of organisational and process design which underpin service design.
  4. I have one other significant disagreement with Tom, but that’s better kept for another post. But as a general rule of thumb, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
  5. And we need to build that bridge from both ends, not just one.
  6. From a provocation which I think is by either or both of Paul Taylor and Shirley Ayres, but it’s not completely clear.


  1. Thanks for the thought provoking blog Stefan. The introduction of the “digital” movement and philosophy into UK Government was both needed and deliberately disruptive to the status quo. The digital disruption created schisms in many organisations which initially helped to drive change but IMHO it is time to move on. Disruption needs a finite lifetime otherwise it is just chaos. The dIgital movement has been good for government and will have a lasting legacy, particularly in how we think about solving business problems and freeing potential of individuals and teams. Like you say, it’s not about the approach, tools, etc for there own sake but addressing the needs of our citizens.

  2. Thought provoking for some maybe but I couldn’t agree with you more. Digital and the associated technologies are enablers for transformation. Welcome back and look forward to collaborating with you!

  3. Digital transformation is an increasingly meaningless term because:

    Some have focused too much on the tech, and not the underlying processes and culture. The decision to create digital service should be an outcome of user research and service design.

    Some have focused too much on business transformation. without considering that tech and user need are ever evolving, and so should be the process of change/disruption.

    I wrote something about this last year:

  4. Ye gods! What a load of twaddle. Lots of polysyllabic words and some oblique references are a poor imitation of critical intelligence. ‘Digital’ was an adjective but is now used as a noun without a core meaning – making it possible to write the vacuous soliloquizing seen above. Internet-based technologies are, to quote The Economist, “…value neutral…” in terms of social utility: the efficiency gains being cancelled out by the gradual hollowing out of the jobs market. This is in addition to the increasing alienation and isolation caused by the loss of human interaction and services hiding behind a screen.

    1. That’s an interesting way of starting a conversation – perhaps reinforcing your argument about the loss of human intereaction. Quoting two words from the Economist is an argument from authority which is neither conclusive nor particularly relevant in this context – even if it were true that technology is value neutral, it wouldn’t follow that the language we use to talk about that technology and its consequences is also neutral. But pointing out that ‘digital’ is a word without a core meaning as a counter to the post rather suggests that you didn’t read it very carefully in the first place.

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