WTF is digital anyway

Last week I went to the National Digital Conference in London which had a stellar line-up including a government minister, a Lord, an award-winning digital first council, the Executive Director of the GDS and a true celebrity in Maggie Philbin.
Whilst the speakers had a lot of valuable things to say, the comments by and conversations between delegates on Twitter was where the action was happening.
Rather than try to recreate what I learned by rewriting it all I’ll group the soundbites together under headings and try to make some sense of it all for you.


Organisational transformation

  • Innovation and disruption are key for the digital future. Risk-averse organisations take note – you will be disrupted!
  • You can’t redesign a service without redesigning the organisation that delivers it
  • It’s easy to upgrade to the latest device. It’s hard to upgrade digital skills
  • Digital transformation means business transformation, not just shoving forms on the website. We need to transform the way we deliver services and the way we work
  • Electoral registration was given as an example of good use of real-time data. However if it’s about business transformation, when will Parliament be transformed? It still took an age to have the ‘emergency’ legislation passed to extend registration
  • You can’t transform the whole organisation overnight. Start small – GDS was purposely a bolt on to the Civil Service with a clear remit to transform a handful of high volume transactions to prove it was the way forward
  • The GDS was deliberately conceived as an insurgent start-up and it’s delivered 20 brilliant public services digitally
  • If you want to attract the right employees to an organisation in the throes of a transformation programme you need to rethink your recruitment process. Change recruitment and the image of the organisation to align with the transformation programme
  • Job adverts and job descriptions need to be disrupted to bring diversity. Engineer or coder could be called problem solver to attract right people
  • The challenge isn’t getting troublemakers into your organisation. It’s making sure they still want to cause trouble after a year in the job. Create an environment to let them disrupt. Don’t make them conform
  • Providing digital services is a journey without an end point
  • Don’t write passwords on Post-it notes? Well, stop making me have 23 different passwords which need changing monthly then!
  • Automate processes and humanise jobs


  • Data needs to be used with caution. What are the human stories behind the data
  • Data can be manipulated and can be difficult to analyse, especially when there is a data analysis skills gap

Digital literacy

  • There is a desperate shortage of digitally capable staff in the civil service and local government. This has been identified as a major barrier. There is also a lack of CPD for staff with digital skills
  • Digital literacy should be part of the curriculum and there should be modern apprenticeships in digital (when I checked Skills Development Scotland there are no digital apprenticeships in our area, only social care. Imagine if those carers were digitally literate and could help those they care for to use digital to enhance their lives)
  • The future is inspiring and the digital opportunities are endless – why then are IT classes in school so dull. Time to reframe?
  • According to @maggiephilbin the teachers who supported her TeenTech programme did so in their own time and bought resources with their own money. They shouldn’t have to
  • Qualifications have become a proxy for skills. It’s time to disrupt the education system and move to experience-based assessment of capability instead of rote learning and exams
  • Chicken/egg. We have a digital skills gap but right now who’s going to teach our teachers so they can teach our kids?
  • Let’s celebrate the creatively disruptive pupils in our schools. They may hold the key for our digital future
  • Coding is just a language and should appeal to people used to being around languages (research has shown that the part of the brain used for learning a new language shows more activity in girls than boys. Girls are more likely to think abstractly about language than boys. All of this means that girls are more than capable of learning coding – it just needs framed in the right way to attract them to it –
  • I want to talk about STEAM not just STEM. The real magic happens at the intersection of STEM with the Arts
  • You don’t need to know how to code to work in digital. There’s more to Digital than coding & IT, there’s design, ux, marketing. We need to break down stereotypes and get more girls engaged
  • Social media is the easy way into digital for girls but most schools see social media as bad and a risk. This needs fixed
  • IT and digital are different worlds. Digital needs removed from computing class and embedded in every subject, along with data analysis

WTF is digital anyway?

  • IT costs are going up 60% every year. Digital does not mean IT. People are at the heart of digital – digital needs humanised
  • So it should really be Customer First rather than Digital By Default?
  • If the Executive Director of the GDS says digital isn’t about computers then it’s not. End of
  • Disabled people use digital every day to live their lives. Use them and their experience when building digital services. If it works for them it will work for everyone




  • Feel the fear and do it anyway
  • Creativity, bold thinking etc. should be considered ‘core skills’ not ‘soft skills’
  • If you need to pitch digital to your CEO you may have the wrong CEO – he/she is a black cab driver when all his/her customers are using Uber
  • Women need to apply for digital leader positions, and commit to applying until women fill more than half of digital roles
  • GDS are leading by example on equality – staff won’t speak at events which don’t have a balance of diverse speakers
  • You can’t impose culture on a team, all you can do is provide the right environment
  • It’s OK to think out loud about organisational culture


Wigan Council – doing digital right

  • The Wigan Council Deal – contract between citizens and the council
  • 1 in 3 citizens in Wigan use an online account to transact with the council
  • Wigan Council have co-designed with residents and partners and in doing so have connected communities


Growing old digitally

  • Medicine can prolong life. Can digital make life worth living?
  • Watches have changed from time pieces to heart monitor, fitness monitor and more
  • For wearables at work look no further than @Rarelyimpossibl Theirs are even linked to personalised soothing @Spotify playlists
  • We no longer have a 3-stage life (education, work & retirement). Lifelong learning and digital resilience is needed to enhance the lives of those living to 100

What about the tech

  • Tech and tools aren’t about bells and whistles, they are about enabling you to do your day job effectively
  • We downgrade on the tech we use when we walk through the office door

The irony wasn’t lost on those delegates, including me, for whom the event wifi wouldn’t work!

I also think that it’s about time the annual National Digital Conference left London and went on tour – I have suggested Glasgow next year.

But I’m not holding my breath.

You need to know where you’re going

Seth Godin reckons you need to see the end before you begin the journey and this is what makes it so difficult to be a leader.

To be able to be a leader you have to be able to paint a picture of where you want to go and know where you want to end up before you even set foot out of the proverbial door. That doesn’t mean you have to know how you’ll get there but you have to claim the destination.

All of us are good at dreaming about alternative futures. The difference is that once you say it out loud you have with the fact that it might not work or even that it will more than likely fail and humans aren’t trained for this.

Seth’s homework for this lecture was to write down where we want to go and what we’re scared about if we don’t get there.

Me, I want to go to many different places, both personally, professionally and there are places I want my organisation to go. I have many different pictures I want to paint but they are created with similar brush strokes.

There are two strands to my work:

  • a massive transformation programme involving the whole organisation
  • a different way of working for my department

The journey on the transformation programme will be complex with many twists and turns and possibly some dead ends.

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The final picture is simple – an online platform designed with the user in the centre that allows quick and easy transactions. The mantra is ‘do it like Amazon’. From the backend of the platform the organisation should be able to gather customer information to allow for service improvement as well as data to help us understand our customers. Overall we should create an efficient organisation as we go.

There are many people involved in this project and sometimes it feels out-of-control, drowning in data and outstanding tasks. Sometimes things are crystal-clear.

I will also share this nugget from another hero of mine, Daniel Kahneman:

“Plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will become more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be based in their favour and inevitably more expensive and less effective than planned. Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of institutions.”

What I fear about this is failure. Failing to make a tool that works for the customer and the organisation. Failing to complete on time and on budget. Failing, failing, failing.

The department picture is a comms department that uses customer insight to create targeted campaigns that will change behaviour and lives for the better. Campaigns based on evidence that can be evaluated to show our worth as a team.

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I have no fear for this picture because I am confident about the journey and the people who’ll be taking this road trip with. It feels more like I can follow the route in my head and recognise landmarks along the way.

This journey has fewer unknowns and I’m on the trip with people wo also know where they are going and can maybe take a share of the driving.

Its not too late to join me on Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop on Udemy. You should come along for the ride.




Follow the leader

I’ve started another course – Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop on Udemy.

I’ve been a fan of Seth’s for years now. I have devoured his books, subscribed to his newsletter and been disappointed that I couldn’t jet to New York for his regular workshops. Needless to say I jumped at the chance of this online course.

Even the first three minute lecture had some gems:

  • Leadership is not management
  • Management is getting people to do what they did yesterday cheaper and faster today
  • Management is the practice of compliance
  • Leadership is about change and enrolling others to help make it happen
My first exercise is to reflect on a few things and share it somewhere that others doing the course will be able to see.
So here goes.
Outline a moment when someone you respect engaged in leadership
I wish I had been there to witness this as it happened but I was on a flight heading out on my honeymoon. I heard all about it on my return.
In the early hours of the Sunday morning after my wedding, while we were still partying, Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. I was in Turkey for two weeks and missed the funeral and the mass outpouring of grief.
I worked as a journalist on Scotland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper (at the time) and when went back to work I was full of curiosity as to how Diana’s death had been dealt with by the paper and its sister magazine. The then editor of the magazine was my line manager and a huge Diana fan. She had been in that post since the magazine’s inception and often had run-ins with the male dominated staff of the newspaper. She approached the paper to help with the extensive coverage she expected they would be doing only to discover that the editor of the paper wasn’t considering doing anything other than a straight news piece. Lengthy arguments then ensued with the editor of the paper claiming that  no one was that interested in Diana now she wasn’t strictly royalty and my boss claiming that he was completely missing the public sentiment and that the paper’s readers would be disappointed. She reckoned they’d go out and buy The Sunday Mail instead. When he still wasn’t for backing down she threatened to resign but was talked out of that by her staff. Instead she devoted the magazine to Diana with the full backing of my colleagues produced a special edition which won the praise of our readers and proved to the editor that we understood his readers better than he did.
Describe a time when you chose to lead
I suppose I have been a leader when it comes to using social media in an emergency but this has happened outwith the organisation I now work for and has been more at a national level.
My masters dissertation was on this subject and as a result I was asked to join a Scottish Government advisory group and I have spoken at many events and delivered training on the subject. I enjoy training sessions when you see people have that eureka moment and you know you’ve won over a few more hearts and minds to the cause.
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However internally this tends to be overlooked and I have observed that in hierarchical organisations like mine it often takes a consultant to persuade management about something their own staff have been saying for a while.
Do you agree leadership is a choice?
Yes. You can’t force someone to lead. Well, you can try but they’ll make a terrible job of it, certainly at the start. However, I have often seen people lead without realising it. I think that if you have the beginnings of a plan you need to test it to see if there will be any buy-in before you dive in head first. At those early stages a person can be leading without any consciousness that what they are doing is gaining momentum. Maybe the person has been the lynchpin in a project or a team and then transitions subconsciously into a leadership role once they’ve found their own groove. I think that’s what happened to me with social media – I was in the right place and the right time, reading the right stuff and networking with the right people.
What is the change you are trying to make
I want the organisation to put the customer at the centre of everything it does. We are in the middle of a massive transformation programme and I worry that, rather than customer centric service design, we are building services to suit the organisation. My team is fully on board with UX but in a big, hierarchical organisation it can be difficult to make your ideas heard when you are a small cog in a big wheel.
This first exercise in the course has been a difficult exercise for three reasons:
  • landing anyone in it for describing them as a leader
  • landing myself in it for not describing someone else as a leader
  • not sounding like I’m blowing my own trumpet for describing anything I have done as leadership
This last point needs to be addressed, particularly for Scottish women. We need to stand up and be seen and heard as the leaders we are so that we can encourage the younger women coming up behind us that they have as much right to to lead and take credit for leading as the men in suits who often have louder voices but not much to say.
*stands down from soapbox