Isobel Croot, Head of Strategic Services at dxw, explores the huge part that strategy plays in the building and delivery of vital public services.
When we hear organisations talk about digital strategy, what do they mean? The term is used frequently, but the focus needs to be more holistic than that, especially for the public sector. I often work on projects where we collaborate with organisations on strategy, first and foremost. Digital comes into the picture, but only after the whole' has been considered first. It quickly becomes apparent that digital is a vehicle to reach a certain goal, not the goal itself.
We know that the most important thing to consider for any strategy is whether it has real, tangible value. With that in mind, where do public sector organisations turn when looking to put one together? There is more to it than setting targets and measuring progress. Here's our experience of what some of that might look like.
Start with the evidence
It can seem overwhelming in the beginning, but it's much easier to get started when you have evidence to show what the current situation really looks like.
First of all, everyone needs to be on board, to understand the issues or problems in front of them, and to know why things need to change. Every part of the process can be interpreted in different ways so it's vital that things are made clear from the beginning.
Collect solid data as a starting point. It will be a great reference point throughout, helping you focus on where to start and know which challenges to tackle first. With these insights, you could identify differing needs within your organisation or for your service users, and they might surprise you.
Learning as you go
A strategy doesn't need to be complete from the very beginning - it's perfectly acceptable to build and learn as you go. It doesn't matter if there are some gaps, as plans will evolve naturally once you start working towards your objectives. You will grow and adapt with your strategy. Taking an agile approach will help to keep things on track.
Once intentions and expectations have been set, what is the next step? Delivering a public sector digital strategy will inevitably involve some sort of strategy document - or so we think. It's a complicated process, and very tempting to create a document that reflects that. This can also make it challenging to create a vision for something that people can believe in, and to make that vision clear and achievable in the given time frame.
You cannot understate the importance of an evidence-based captivating vision for your organisation's digital future. Does that have to take the form of a lengthy document? Absolutely not. Your strategy could be presented with words, visuals, or even a short video. A diagram showing how things will work is sometimes just as helpful as writing lots of things down.
Keep it realistic
It's easy, in theory, to design a strategy. It's another thing altogether to design one that can actually be delivered. I always encourage this frame of mind, it's best to keep delivery in mind from the beginning. That way, you can prevent the team from powering forward with targets that cannot be achieved. In the end it doesn't matter whether you are developing a strategy or about to start a discovery exercise for a completely new service. Citizen wellbeing is at stake, so it really pays to plan.
Know your users
By this point you have already evidenced the need for change in your organisation, collected data and begun designing the strategy itself. But remember that the most important element to keep in mind throughout the process is the people delivering the service and the citizens that use it.
Keeping a focus on your users, whether that's internal teams or the people who use your products and services, means your strategy will be built on a good understanding of a range of perspectives and needs. This applies across the board, no matter who this strategy is meant to serve.
By understanding who your users are, what they need, how things work for them now, and where improvements can be made, your strategy can be approached in a similar way to the process you follow when designing a new service. Think back to user research and what sorts of things you had to consider.
I often find that a collaboration between strategy and service design teams can make for an open line of communication and a smoother journey when creating a strategy.
Showing your progress is a big part of keeping key stakeholders happy. It's easy to overcomplicate this, but it can be kept relatively simple. Begin by thinking about all the initiatives that form part of your strategy, the goals that you want to achieve and then determining the all-important what good looks like'.
This also needs to be considered fairly early in the process. Above I talked about collecting data and evidence at the start. That is also an important part of measuring progress, because it provides a benchmark to refer back to. Without that, it's hard to know how much you need to improve or what improvement really looks like. If you haven't got that evidence, it's a good idea to start thinking about how you can start gathering it.
One size does not fit all
One size does not fit all organisations. In the public sector, there is a huge range of different organisations, settings, and individual services, providing support to every possible demographic. But it's helpful to keep in mind what works:
- starting-off well by looking at the evidence
- taking a user-centred and agile approach
- remembering that writing is not everything
- planning how to measure your success
A strategy delivered on the above principles will stand the test of time and prove itself with hard evidence. Ambition is a brilliant thing to have, but the ability to deliver is crucial.