People power: Enabling the Digital Agenda

Can Government expect the ‘Digital by Default’ agenda to be fulfilled if it doesn’t leverage digital channels itself? Of course not, which is why I was pleased that the recent Digital Friends initiative, launched by the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service, is urging civil servants in particular to get involved. I’m also pleased that many organisations including the BBC, BT, Lloyds Banking Group and Tinder Foundation are involved.

The initiative encourages people to help friends, family and neighbours with improving their digital knowledge and skills, and then share their experiences and start conversations online using #DigitalFriends. Whether it’s helping someone to browse online safely or applying for car tax online, it’s all a step in the right direction in empowering people through access to information, putting them on the right side of the digital divide.

However I think it’s just as important for civil servants to help each other with improving their digital skills as it is to help family and friends. And when I say help “each other”, I mean everyone. For example, I wonder what civil service staff who are close to retirement age feel about using the Internet, and whether they’ll be motivated to use the internet when they do retire. It’s equally important to reach out to reach people of this age, making sure they have the access and motivation to be online, as it is for someone younger, with thirty years of work left. Both sets of people need – and can benefit – from being online.

I also mean all staff working for Government; including contract staff that keep the offices clean and safe, as well as the leaders at the top who need to encourage an environment that fosters knowledge sharing. If digital is going to be at the heart of the civil service, then it has to be at the heart of policy too. Consider the juxtaposition of someone in Westminster writing a policy on healthcare, and not including anything about digital, but on their way home checking their phone to see how they’re doing on their health and fitness app.

The digital revolution caught most organisations unprepared and under-skilled for what’s happened in the past few years, and therefore huge organisations like the Government and its departments face challenges in digitally up-skilling its workforce. Since GOV.UK went live two and a half years ago, the Government has done a brilliant job at helping central Departments to provide their information and services online. This would not have been possible without making real efforts for digital to permeate inside the Departments themselves.

Part of ensuring digital adoption, and on-going learning, is instilling the right culture. In my recent work on the Commission for the Digital Democracy Commission we often discussed that technology is the tool, but without empowering people through education on the latest tech and how it can benefit them, no change will happen. It is the people using the technology that creates opportunities (and further innovation). Whether that’s someone in the civil service, or someone using the internet for the first time in one of our UK online centers – people need to engage with one another, people need information written in language that is simple and clear, and people need not only to be listened to – people need to be heard.

Developing the right culture where people feel supported and equipping them with the digital tools they need to feel empowered will help digital innovation to thrive. Once you have that, coupled with tried and tested best practices, people will power an accelerated digital agenda throughout organisations and across departments.