the future of digital is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed

Fifteen years ago I was sitting in a government meeting with the Heads of Digital [1] from across UK government. We were talking about plans for the forthcoming Gordon Brown vs David Cameron vs Nick Clegg General Election. None of us had any idea what was going to happen. As we sit here in 2024, there’s a chance that we’re about to see a change of administration in the UK for only the second time in the internet era. If that happens then – no matter what comes next – it’ll be the end of an era.

Central, arms-length, devolved, big, small, newly created, long-standing, ministerial, non-ministerial, regulatory, public-facing, industry-facing: I’ve had the privilege of working in a variety of roles assessing, building and supporting digital services across almost the entirety of the sector during those 15 years.

A lot of what happened – particularly closer to the last administration change – was characterised, not least by those who authored some of the changes [2], as government approaches meeting a start-up mentality. Before I joined government, I was employee no. 9 of a start-up that was successful in the way that a firework is successful at providing street lighting for a neighbourhood. And as anyone else who has had that experience will tell you, there is a point in every start-up where people think you’re selling out, becoming boring and losing the secret sauce of the early days. (This is also usually the point when someone gets appointed to a HR role, the beancounters move in and stop you all buying novelty stationery with the company logo on it, the free t-shirts for conferences become free pens and the random benefits like free breakfast deliveries get scaled back from every day to once a week.)

As is natural at the end of an era, I’ve been thinking about what the next fifteen years of digital in the public sector might look like. I don’t think there’s going to be another paradigm shift. I think we are entering into the era of boring magic. In start-up terms, this is the point where you have to begin showing a return from all of that VC cash you were splashing about like champagne on a Formula 1 podium not so long ago.

Why do I think this? It’s because the more public sector work I do, the more I reflect that the future of digital is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed yet [3]. In fifteen years time, I think digital will look a lot like it does now but with a lot more skills, understanding, co-ordination and consistency around the good bits. All of the constituent parts and themes are here already, but we’re going to get better at joining them all up. Service Design will be there and it will be fully integrated into the way we do everything else; business cases will be as iterative as roadmaps; contact centre staff will be diagnosing and applying multivariate testing to pain points; we’ll be managing multi-lingual services that treat each language equally… this is the boring magic that will move change at a greater scale and speed than we’ve seen before.

Working in public sector digital environments can often involve an almost disorientating sense of deja-vu, where a chance phrase drops you deep into a flashback to the previous times you had a similar conversation. When this first happens, it’s tempting to think that you’re getting old, and that either that the organisation you’re working with has ignored the last 15 years, or that the case for digital change is doomed. The reality is usually that none of these things apart from the getting old bit is true, and that the organisation you’re dealing with is both ahead of the curve in a few places and has missed some stuff in other places. The future of digital is not very evenly distributed at the moment – it’s pretty bumpy – but what we’ll see in the next 15 years is that distribution improving.

[1] We called them Heads of eComms in those days (for, believe it or not, ‘electronic communications’), but that will make no sense to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, so I’ve gone for the closest equivalent title here.

[2] “We basically set up and scaled a startup inside the government and then tried to protect its culture by any means possible.” – Tom Loosemore in Offscreen Magazine, 2018

[3] apologies to William Gibson and the million people who have riffed on this since.

Header image by Scorpions and Centaurs, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

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