Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 41: Building blocks for digital transformation

Episode 41 guest speakers Ashleigh Sinclair and Andrew Cooke

Building blocks for digital transformation

with Ashleigh Sinclair and Andrew Cooke

Ashleigh Sinclair, Managing Associate at Linklaters and Andrew Cooke, Global Policy Lead at Microsoft share insights from their paper on Building Blocks for a Successful Digital Transformation Strategy.

Episode 41: Building blocks for digital transformation

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Ashleigh Sinclair, Managing Associate at Linklaters and Andrew Cooke, Global Policy Lead at Microsoft share insights from their paper on Building Blocks for a Successful Digital Transformation Strategy.

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Policy and procurement building blocks for successful digital transformation

Ashleigh Sinclair, Managing Associate at Linklaters and Andrew Cooke, Global Policy Lead at Microsoft share insights from their paper on Building Blocks for a Successful Digital Transformation Strategy.

Microsoft and Linklaters, working together

Ashleigh Sinclair is a Managing Associate in Linklaters’ technology, media, and telecommunications practice. Andrew Cooke is Global Policy Lead at Microsoft, supporting the Worldwide Public Sector business. Together with teams in both organizations they’ve created a paper on Building Blocks for a Successful Digital Transformation Strategy.

Cooke shared where inspiration for the paper came from. He said, “I think, three or four governments in a very short space of time asked us to share with them our insights into who is doing digital transformation policy well, and why. And I think it was on the fourth approach that sort of made me pause and think, you know, what could we be doing smartly here to engage in a conversation on the topic of digital transformation in the public sector?”

Then he brought in the team at Linklaters.

“I know that the Linklaters team, like Microsoft is, we’re committed to technology, we’re committed to innovation. And they, therefore, were a natural partner for us to collaborate with on this project, which was helped enormously by their global reach, just like ourselves, and the background of their legal team. So, it wasn’t just necessarily a team of lawyers who’ve been in private practice for years, but they have lawyers who’ve been embedded within government, and bring those sorts of unique government insights that we’re really keen to reflect in the paper.”

Cooke added, “We decided that it would be more appropriate to do this in the form of a paper, rather than just have one-on-one engagements as we very much see this as the start of the conversation. So, the building blocks, as we state in the paper, are not meant to be exhaustive. They’re meant to be sort of foundational, and the foundations that we’ve observed as being the catalysts for the public sector community’s uptake of technology at scale and pace.”

The building blocks structure

After Cooke outlined how the project and collaboration came to be, Sinclair explained why they felt building blocks were the best way to present their information. She said, “We take the analogy of building blocks themselves. They’re very relatable, and as kids, many of us will have played with building blocks, like LEGO or the digital equivalent, Minecraft. Personally, as a kid, I needed all those building blocks to build something impressive, and I’d search for that always inevitable missing piece. The same is true here, but our research has found that missing piece for governments.”

Sinclair continued, “The building blocks in this paper all help, all of them together, to build the best digital strategy. You can do something with, say, just a cloud-first policy or a data classification framework, but if you also have a digital culture, and have armed people with the necessary digital skills, you are much better placed to succeed.”

It was important to Cooke and Sinclair that the paper was relevant to countries at all different stages of digital transformation and that it was easily digestible.

“By grouping the issues into eight key building blocks, we have given people an easier way into that dense policy jungle. And it was clear when we got into the research that the building blocks we found can’t be viewed in isolation. To be successful, they really needed the support of others. For example, we’ve got building block one, which is implementation of a cloud-first policy. That goes hand in hand with implementing a data classification framework, which is building blocks two. And that in turn goes hand in hand with upskilling government stakeholders and civil servants.”

“One of the key concerns with cloud is the security around information. Having a data classification framework makes it easy to assess what data should be stored, where. People are also key here, as you can’t succeed with building block one without having the necessary understanding about cloud and organizational acceptance of it. So, it’s not only about policy, it’s also about people,” Sinclair said.

The first step to a government going digital

Cooke and Sinclair’s research found that adoption of a national cloud-first policy was really the first step to a government going digital.

Sinclair said, “One of the key barriers to digital transformation is the lack of an appropriate vision. A cloud-first policy helps to set the scene for a government’s digital transformation, and acts as a sort of cornerstone.”

“Cloud-first policies themselves require public agencies to prioritize cloud services when procuring digital technologies. Such a mandatory policy gives its government agencies permission to use the cloud without fear, driving significant cultural change because often, there is a bit of hesitancy in moving to the cloud. However, it’s not just about having a cloud policy that looks good on paper.”

“And that is one of the key findings of our work, that having a cloud policy is not enough. Governments need the time and the resources necessary to successfully implement that policy, including monitoring and evaluating its effectiveness, and ensuring it remains fit for purpose over time.” Sinclair concluded.

Cooke added, “I think the first point that needs to be made is an absence of a cloud-first policy, or a cloud strategy doesn’t prohibit a country from adopting or embrace embracing cloud. However, what we’ve really found, and noted and explained in the paper is that those countries that not only have a cloud-first policy, but maybe almost more importantly, have this national cloud strategy, are really embracing technology, and all of the good things that come with cloud at scale and pace.”

“I think an interesting way of thinking about it and looking at it is that it really is this tone from the top approach, which helps enormously in the execution and the activation of digital transformation.”

The difference between national cloud strategy and a cloud-first policy

“We had quite a bit of debate within the policy team and with Linklaters as to, you know, these building blocks. And we were thinking, gosh, is it just about a cloud-first policy. But the more research that we did, we saw that a lot of the time where countries have done this successfully, that was prefaced with a cloud strategy.”

But what exactly is the difference between the two?

Cooke explained, “Think of it like a mission statement that a company or a team may have. It sets the tone; it sets the agenda. I think a lot of the time, you know, human nature is such that unless there is clear strategy, clear direction, clear inspiration, sometimes we just don’t know what to do. We might not know how to activate the cloud-first policy, but the cloud strategy or the all-up tech, technology strategy really sets the direction of a country. It is much more overarching and broader than just about cloud often. And so we thought we needed to preface the cloud-first conversation with that conversation, with those insights into a strategy, all up.”

Practical guidance for other countries

Sinclair and Cooke spoke about building block one, and while there wasn’t enough time to cover them all, they wanted to make sure another building block got some attention.

“Building block eight is an interesting one, and perhaps a dark horse as it is often overlooked. So, that is the promotion of a digital culture and civil servant upskilling. As we got further into the research, the importance of this building block did become more and more apparent, and it is fundamental to the success of a number of other building blocks.”

Sinclair continued, “So, if we look at some practical tips for this, one of the key points is upskilling and maintaining digital competence. Governments need to understand the current digital skillset and the projected future digital requirements of particular government roles.”

“A second key area is shifting workplace culture to a digital way of thinking. Our research has shown the importance of keeping employees informed and engaged from day one, and throughout the entire digital transformation journey. To shift any prejudice to digital, people need to understand not only the benefits of the cloud, and other technologies in their daily work lives, but also, they need to know that they will be supported in the shift to digital.”

Cooke added, “I think the other point to sort of underscore in relation to this one is, I think when you ask people what is at the heart of digital transformation, the obvious answer is technology. But if you ask what is at the heart of successful digital transformation, it’s undoubtedly people. And so, this building block is central to the success, as we’ve mentioned, of all the other building blocks.”

“I think the other key component of this is executive stakeholder buy in, because if you really solicit feedback, viewpoints, needs, and then design something with all that in mind, you are embracing the culture that is needed, and you’re facilitating the needs of the departments generally. But in real terms, it ties back to the first building block about this national cloud strategy, having that aspiration, and then infusing that aspiration in the culture, coupled with skilling, how to use the technology, how to embrace the technology. That’s where success, that’s where the magic really happens.”

Where should people start?

Sinclair offered some advice to governments:

“I think my main takeaway from this, and one thing I would encourage governments to do, is to be agile. Don’t become wedded to an inflexible and fixed digital transformation policy that becomes irrelevant over time, or quickly becomes no longer fit for purpose.”

“It’s important that governments do take these building blocks, and don’t see them as an exhaustive list. But they also need to apply them within their own social, economic, political, regulatory landscape, because everyone’s digital roadmap will be different. And it is not one size fits all.”

Cooke added, “What I really love about the paper is, of course we dig into, you know, the policies and we provide, a digestible analysis of what the policies are. But I think almost more importantly, it’s the examples that we use, the countries that we refer to that really is the success factor in this paper.”

“A couple of other takeaways from the paper, is that it’s really important to acknowledge that pretty much no country is doing this perfectly. Getting policy, right, as we say in the paper, is a journey, it’s not a destination. But as long as you’re heading in the right direction, that’s the key here. Also picking up on something that Ashleigh just mentioned, and that is this concept of flexibility with policy. Our observation, and I think we learned this from looking into privacy policies, they’re invariably very, very successful.”

Cooke concluded, “The reason for that is that mostly, they take a principles-based approach to the policy. And what that means is they’re not overly prescriptive, because as soon as you get super prescriptive, as the technology moves, as it does, as we know, at an incredible pace, anything that is too prescriptive becomes dated, and then that has the ability to stifle innovation. So, policy and regulation, which is flexible, really enables a country to set themselves up to be digital ready, and it kind of future proofs their regulatory policy landscape.”

To find out more:

Download the Building Blocks paper

About the Center of Expertise

Microsoft’s Public Sector Center of Expertise brings together thought leadership and research relating to digital transformation in the public sector. The Center of Expertise highlights the efforts and success stories of public servants around the globe, while fostering a community of decision makers with a variety of resources from podcasts and webinars to white papers and new research. Join us as we discover and share the learnings and achievements of public sector communities.

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