‘Designating services as digital is increasingly a hindrance’ – DfE’s Emma Stace on working across organisational boundaries

As the Department for Education refashions itself as a delivery department, its chief digital officer Emma Stace tells PublicTechnology she is determined to make digital ‘just the way we do things round here’

Credit: Alpha Stock Images/Nick Youngson/CC BY-SA 3.0

Emma Stace isn’t sure she should have the word “digital” in her title. Which, given her job, seems curious.

But the Department for Education’s chief digital officer makes a persuasive argument.

In fact, she’s ready to argue that we shouldn’t really be discussing “digital” services, as distinct from any other kind of service, at all. After all, she says, “We live in the digital age. ‘Digital’ isn’t a thing, it really isn’t. It’s an enabler.”

Her quibble isn’t purely semantic. The problem, she says, it that there is a danger of having “too much focus on digital as being something different”, rather than a way to produce better outcomes and deliver what ministers ask for more efficiently.

Stace contends that having a chief digital officer is a “sign of a lack of maturity in an organisation”. Google, she points out, is among a growing number of businesses eschewing the title in favour of alternatives like “head of customer experience”, in what she calls a bid “to break free of digital being a sort of functional silo that you can add into an organisation”.

So what should her title be? “Don’t ask me that!” she laughs.

Stace arrived at DfE in 2017 from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where she spent two years as chief digital, data and technology officer. Previously she was a deputy director in the Government Digital Service, after a stint in Sydney overhauling the digital mental-health service ReachOut.

Her appointment at DfE coincided with the department’s decision to “transform itself from a policy to a delivery organisation”, which takes a more active role in creating services aimed directly at its users, including schools, parents, colleges and universities.

This goal is manifested in DfE’s four organisational aims, which it developed after a mass engagement exercise two years ago: be user-centred; deliver end-to-end; make evidence-based decisions; and empower yourself and others. Stace summarises the first two roughly as knowing “who our users are, and being able to respond more effectively to their needs”, and “doing our best to join up to make life as simple as possible for our users”.

Shortly before PublicTechnology meets Stace, DfE published its £10m edtech strategy, which set out a number of measures to use education technology to benefit schools. The plans included working with businesses to improve broadband and access to cloud services, and create an online “lending library” for educational software.

And earlier this year the department awarded a contract to tech consultancy Hippo Digital to look at what users want from DfE’s content and services, and to test and make the business case for ways to join those up more effectively.

The process will include what the department calls “defining user stories”: the parent who wants to know how to apply for financial support for their child; the graduate who wants to become a teacher; the school administrator seeking funding opportunities so they can apply for grants.

The aim of the project is to “strategically align” DfE’s user journeys, based on a 2017 exercise that identified 250 digital services that it wanted to deliver in a more cohesive way.

Number of digital services identified by the DfE for better alignment of user journeys

Number of schools that have signed up for the Teaching Vacancies digital jobs board

Money dedicated to government’s edtech strategy published earlier this year

June 2020
Date by which all schools must incorporate the digital times table tool built by the DfE in the teaching of year 4 students

The biggest hurdle to delivering the “end-to-end” services the department is striving for is not the technology. “In my experience, the technology part is relatively known and straightforward. In government, we’ve got really good at building and iterating, and delivering digital services,” Stace says. The challenge is in bringing the policy and delivery strands of the organisation together to make digital “just the way we do things around here”.

Part of her strategy is to ensure the official who is responsible for a policy’s design is also responsible for its implementation. “Rather than building the digital function on the side of the business, what we’re trying to do here is embed digital skills in domains owned by policy colleagues,” she says.

With that in mind, Stace has been working with policy officials to develop a suite of tools to improve teacher recruitment and retention rates. Last year DfE Digital launched a search function hosted on GOV.UK for postgraduate teacher training courses, which have traditionally been tricky to find and apply for. An accompanying course directory allows training providers to share detailed information about their offer.

Stace’s team has also worked with policy colleagues to build a free jobs board where schools can advertise for teachers – a task the department estimates costs schools around £75m a year. Around 13,000 schools have signed up since the phased rollout of Teaching Vacancies began last year.

Work in this area will continue, supporting the teacher recruitment and retention strategy DfE published in January. Among other things, the department is planning to develop an online application service for teacher training.

Ultimately, Stace is striving for a culture in which civil servants talk less about policy and digital as separate spheres, and more about user need. “What’s the ministerial direction? How do we meet that most effectively, and how does digital help enable better policy outcomes?” she asks.

None of this will happen overnight. Cultural change, Stace says, is “absolutely necessary” to making the most of technology, and takes a “really, really long time”.

The digital chief says she spends a lot of time thinking about culture, which she defines as “the micro actions of every individual within the organisation”. Long-term change comes from influencing those micro-actions, little by little, she says.

“I think too many cultural change initiatives are programmes – you can kind of ‘programmatise’ cultural change, which I don’t actually believe is the right way to go about it,” she says. Transformation, as Stace has argued on the DfE blog, shouldn’t be reversible and shouldn’t have an end date.

The tablet displaying her interview notes is propped up on a case that is covered in colourful stickers bearing legends like “radically open”. That one refers to one of Stace’s “totemic values” – namely that work is better when it’s done in a transparent way. It’s one of the reasons she blogs about what her team is doing. “Leadership is about providing an environment in which everyone can see what you’re doing; where you open yourself up to show yourself as not only a vulnerable person, but also a person who invites challenge,” she says.

Scale model
One of the trickier parts of her job, she says, is “living with uncertainty and ambiguity, and having the courage to say ‘I don’t know’.” She adds: “The bias in organisations is towards being able to say, ‘I will give you this at this time in this way.’ We talk a lot about how that delivers false certainty.

“So, one of the most challenging things that I have to do is to say, ‘I’m not sure when I can give you that, but we’ll go away and we’ll experiment and we’ll find out.’”

Stace’s predecessor – Mark O’Neill, who co-founded the Government Digital Service – was DfE’s first chief digital officer but was only in place for a year before she took over.

Of the three functions that make up the department’s Digital, Data and Technology profession, digital is the least mature. Stace describes it as “expert but small”.

“I think that’s mainly because the DfE saw itself primarily as a policy organisation, and so it didn’t invest as heavily as other government departments like the Home Office and the MoJ in a digital function,” she says.

Its shift towards delivery means that has begun to change, but one of Stace’s biggest challenges is balancing demand for her team’s services with what it can realistically achieve. When the team focuses on doing “one or two things really, really well”, its efforts get noticed, she says. “Everybody else decides they would like to work in that way – which is wonderful. But equally, the challenge is how do you scale up in a sustainable way?

“I think if you scale up too quickly, sometimes that can be a real challenge, because it means you have to be very, very dependent on suppliers and contractors, which creates its own issues and problems.”

Her approach is to combine recruitment of digitally-skilled civil servants with training for those already in the department to enable them to work in new ways. Rather than rushing the process, she aims to build “empowered, multidisciplinary teams who can deliver on the problem”.

“What we’re trying to do is build it in a really sustainable way, where we take the whole organisation with us,” she says.

“Leadership is about providing an environment in which everyone can see what you’re doing; where you open yourself up to show yourself as not only a vulnerable person, but also a person who invites challenge.”

However sound Stace’s reasoning, PublicTechnology wonders if others in the civil service – an organisation that sometimes seems inextricably attached to digital-as-a-noun – share her opinion that the word may be less than helpful.

She says that more people now understand the need to integrate digital into departments’ ongoing work, rather than treating it as something separate. After a slight pause, she continues: “It’s all a maturity journey, isn’t it?”

She says the creation of the Government Digital Service six years ago was “absolutely necessary, and raised the bar and the expectation of what we can achieve in government”.

“I think GDS continues to play a really important role in maintaining the standards across government,” she adds. She was pleased in July when GDS replaced the “digital service standard” on GOV.UK with a revamped version, titled simply “service standard”.

“But I think probably myself and colleagues feel like designating particular services as ‘digital’ is increasingly a hindrance to talking about how you create organisations that are more iterative and more flexible, more adaptive,” she says.

“What we’re trying to talk about is policy objectives and services and users and outcomes.”


Sam Trendall

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