Asking the Ultimate Awkward Question

On change and how government in a digital era is about resetting the relationship between policy and delivery

Photo of spiral staircase, showing expanding and narrowing perspectives
Photo of spiral staircase, showing expanding and narrowing perspectives
Photo credit: “Perspective I” by sabl3t3k, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I often introduce myself in public speaking engagements as someone who is “professionally awkward.” It’s something that is partly born of introversion, but if I am being honest it’s because I feel like I have made a career out of asking awkward questions.

The entire digital transformation movement is rife with awkward, deeply uncomfortable, but extremely important questions. But one question wins for most awkward (and most important): How much do you really want to change?

Let’s start with this mismatch for example, in the ambitions of the digital service team and the expectations of the government or public service of the day. Here’s a textbook view of how government works (or doesn’t, but we’re not here to debate that today):

How gov’t works: 1-Problem identification; 2-Agenda-setting; 3-Policy development; 4-Delivery/implementation; 5) Evaluation
How gov’t works: 1-Problem identification; 2-Agenda-setting; 3-Policy development; 4-Delivery/implementation; 5) Evaluation

Beautifully mechanistic, isn’t it? And here’s a hard truth for digital teams: even the most advanced digital services in the world haven’t reset this textbook view. At best, digital government teams are perceived as beacons of service delivery/implementation transformation; at worst, purveyors of fluffy “look and feel” standards and digital hipster buzzwords like “agile” and “user-centred.”

The true (and unarticulated) ambition of digital government up-ends the textbook view, because government in a digital era is ultimately about a reset in the relationship between policy, delivery and evaluation. In this construct, all public servants are constantly zooming in and out from systems to service to product design to serve the public good:

Systems design (e.g. benefits programs), service design (e.g. emergency response benefit), product design (web form)
Systems design (e.g. benefits programs), service design (e.g. emergency response benefit), product design (web form)

Quick oversimplification detour:*

Scroll to the end of this post for more in-depth reading on all of these topics.

Awkward question moment: How much do you really want to change?

Why is this question important? Because the scope and scale of your endeavour depends on it. This question helps give “better” a shape, and reorients traditionally separate government teams (policy, program, digital/IT) so that all are working together towards the same goals.

A note about “need” vs “want”: I intentionally characterize this question as a matter of want rather than need because the act of asking is uncomfortable and awkward. It implies that power and privilege exist equally between the person/organization asking and the person/organization being asked, when in reality they do not. Conversations can begin about things that need to change; awkwardness ensues around want or willingness.

User research approaches and ambitions can be bigger or much smaller if you don’t zoom in or out.

Generative user research (what’s the real problem?); service design (what are the pain points?); usability (green vs blue?)
Generative user research (what’s the real problem?); service design (what are the pain points?); usability (green vs blue?)

Credit: Katherine Benjamin, for teaching me so much about the nuances around the types of user research

My ambition for government digital teams is that they own the awkward, and enable others (especially those who do not have access to the same amount of power or privilege) to do the same. Ask this question over and over: how much do you really want to change?

PS
Further reading, as promised:

Written by

Passionate about making government work better | Director, @DigiAcademyCAN | Founding member & lead, @ONDigital | views, mine

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