The U.K. Government’s top five tips for dodging disruption

Being comfortable with failure and making research a team sport are just two ways to avoid disruption, according to Alex Holmes of Government Digital Service.

When you think about innovative industries, government probably isn’t the first one to come to mind. Unless perhaps you live in the U.K.

Since its launch in 2010, Government Digital Service (GDS) has been lauded by The Washington Post as “the gold standard in the global world of digital government.” Part of that is because Alex Holmes, chief operating officer of GDS, recognizes that anything that “doesn’t many any f**king sense” is ripe for disruption, including Her Majesty’s Government.

“The Internet smashes apart every industry it touches and if government isn’t in front of that, it’s going to be disrupted, as well. Government can’t afford to be disrupted,” said Holmes, delivering the opening keynote at Shift London this morning.

“Digital is a movement. It’s about a completely different way of doing things,” he continued. “We don’t talk about how businesses survived the Industrial Revolution, and we should be talking about digital businesses. You’re either in business or you’re out of business.”

Here are five of Holmes’ best tips to make sure you’re on the right side of that:

1. Don’t make lazy assumptions

Because of the secret ballot voting method, smartphones aren’t allowed in polling stations. One station’s staff put a blanket ban on selfies, social media and other technology popular among millennials.

That included the usual suspects, like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. It also included LinkedIn – hardly the platform for selfies – and Xboxes. It’s unlikely that anyone has ever taken an Xbox inside a polling station.

“If you’re strategy has the word millennials in it, you’re probably blindly following other people,” said Holmes.

2. Use data as a guide to the user’s needs

The Dutch government waits until after winter ends to tarmac (or pave, for my fellow Americans) the parks. It’s common for construction to take place when the weather is more agreeable, but in the case of the Netherlands, footprints in the snow indicate where people tend to walk the most, which indicates where there should be paths.

Data is evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Many companies use that to determine the best possible customer experience. In Holmes’ opinion, that’s extra important in government, since customers aren’t really voluntarily customers anyway.

“People cant choose whether they pay taxes or not, as much as they want to,” he said. “They have to pay for our services so we should make them amazing.”

One example of that is the newly-launched GOV.UK Verify. Registering online once stores your information in a secure, central database, giving Brits more seamless access to online government services, such filing taxes or checking information on a driver license, in the future.

3. Be comfortable with failure

Behind spiders, heights and public speaking, failure is one of the most common fears. In business, you’re likely to fail, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Failing teaches you lessons and more importantly, it gives you actionable data for the future. Holmes mentioned a physicist friend of his, who won an award for a theory about particles she spent a few years developing that was ultimately incorrect.

“Physics embraces failure because failure proves her theory wasn’t right, which narrows it down,” he said. “We don’t have that attitude in business; we need to celebrate failure more.”


4. Treat user research as a team sport

The executives may set the menu at Starbucks, but it’s ultimately the baristas who are the most knowledgeable about which items most popular, since they’re the ones making drinks and interacting with customers. Their role in research is crucial, a lesson that’s demonstrated by military commanders.

“The idea is that the people back at base set the strategy. They have to assume that the command line will be cut off at some point, but the squad can’t stop working,” said Holmes. “The Army empowers teams on the ground to work out the day-to-day tactics. It’s a very digital way of doing things.”

5. Don’t be complacent

Netflix may have disrupted Blockbuster when it started out as a DVD delivery service, but that’s no longer its primary business. The company got into streaming, which is now a platform for its production business. Holmes pointed out that Netflix’s main competitor is HBO, not Amazon Prime or iTunes.

In other words, Netflix excelled because it continues to evolve.

“If you have a target operating model, that’s the point that you’ll fail,” he said. “You have to keep transforming. You have to start now; otherwise, you risk going out.”

This was our inaugural Shift event. Our next one will be in San Francisco in August – see you there!

Related reading

Red Bull enhanced a surfing video of Jamie O’Brien, using data overlays.