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What happens when we believe everything can change?


by Ben Holliday

Our new book Multiplied explores how we can transform our public services through design, data, and technology, for radically more impact.

On 3 March, 2020, civil servant Simon Parker summed up the prevailing feeling about civil service reform in a blog post whose ringing refrain was “Nothing can change”

Three weeks later, it did. By the end of the month, UK society and systems were brought to a halt in the country’s first Covid-19 induced lockdown. And everything changed. 

In response, multidisciplinary teams of policymakers, digital strategists, IT architects and private sector partners scrambled to meet complex health and educational needs, building digital solutions within days or weeks that would previously have taken months to create. 

And the words of the late, great Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess were put into context: “Two plus two can equal five if something changes.” 

This quote reflects the fact that even the seemingly impossible can happen when change ruptures long-established systems. When we change the way we work — and crucially, the way we think — we can make things happen that we previously didn’t believe were possible.

This is the central idea set out in our new book Multiplied. We believe that by embracing modern ways of working, and through the right use of design, technology and data, the impact and scale of public sector services can go far beyond what was previously thought to be achievable. 

But how can we ensure that these changes are sustainable as we move beyond the pandemic, into new, pressing environmental and societal challenges? And why was this public sector change thought to be overwhelmingly difficult before? 

How it started, how it’s going...

The public sector has a strong legacy of digital transformation. Back in 2007, NHS Choices (now NHS.UK) collated information about services, conditions, treatments and health advice into one online portal for the first time. 

The launch of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2010 was also a key catalyst for change, bringing together content and services such as Lasting Power of Attorney and the Carer’s Allowance into one place so they were simpler, clearer and faster to use. 

Over the last decade, local authorities have adopted GDS’s agile delivery style to optimise front line services such as housing, adult social care, children’s services and more.

So, what’s the problem?

Digitising vs digitalising in the public sector

Too often, a digitising approach has been adopted across public sector services. This is the conversion of analogue processes into digital format, without changing the way they function. It might mean, for example, moving an application process online, but still delivering the service via traditional, offline operating models, paper documents and manual interventions. 

The end result for the user is that it might take them a few minutes to fill in a form online, but it could still take them weeks to access the employment, children’s, or adults’ services they need. When digital is not integrated into the end to end transformation of services, there is a real human cost.

Instead, what’s needed is a wholesale, holistic digitalisation approach. An approach which considers a whole service from start to finish, putting the needs of the user first and using design, technology and data to break down silos and seamlessly knit complex systems, interactions and interdependencies together. Through digitalisation, we can reimagine services, using technology where needed to achieve bigger and better outcomes.

Multiplying value and impact — Lessons from the pandemic

When fast, effective action took place during the pandemic, it was largely thanks to interdisciplinary teams working in an agile way, at pace. 

What lessons can we learn that will take us closer to this approach in the long term in order to reshape public services? 

1) Traditional silos weren’t allowed to get in the way

The pandemic enabled a shift from specific roles and responsibilities towards the collective ownership of problems that need solving immediately. 

Its urgency meant that projects were given the green light that would have been previously held back by bureaucracy and organisational silos. We’re seeing this shift play out in updated public sector strategies that seek to align policy and digital delivery much more closely. For example, the Department for Education’s digital and technology strategy from 2021 aimed to “integrate policy with design and digital skills [...] to offer better services”, with other organisations such as the Ministry of Justice also making strides in this area. 

2) National and local teams were more in sync

During the pandemic, community groups quickly marshalled local support to meet much needed food, medical and childcare needs. 

Their effectiveness highlights a need for a more connected approach between policymakers and local teams, where local knowledge and the lived experiences of those closest to the problems are fed back to national decision makers. This way, we can ensure policy matches up to the end user’s reality, to create better services, more community cohesion and a stronger society overall.

3) We developed a new tolerance for risk

Both service providers and users accepted a greater level of risk during the pandemic. 

For service providers, this meant overcoming governance, finance and procurement barriers in a much more urgent way, ensuring delivery teams weren’t held back from building solutions. 

For service users, this was seen in the sharing of personal data for contact tracing purposes. Although these permissions were only granted in the extreme circumstances of the pandemic, it illustrates that many of us are happy to share our data when we understand how it will be used, and we can clearly see the benefit in doing so. 

When two and two can equal five

By recognising and embracing these lessons, we can multiply the impact and scale of digital transformation in the public sector beyond what was thought to be achievable. With the right approach, we can make public services more accessible, inclusive and adaptable, to meet the needs of individuals and truly change lives across society. This is our vision for public sector services where everything can be made more than the sum of its parts, and where two and two can really equal five.

Find out more about how the public sector can increase the value and impact of its services in our new book Multiplied, available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones. Multiplied explores the new and creative ways in which we can unlock the technology, data and design potential of the public sector, to do more for Britain’s communities. 

All profits from the book are being donated to the Association of NHS Charities.

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Ben Holliday

Chief Designer

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