Transformation has become an overused term – a silver bullet for making things better and justifying business cases. But my experience tells me that it frequently comes at a cost that could be avoided.
The irony that transformation – the shiny and the new – is seen as an easier path than evolution should be lost on no one. In central government especially, history tells us that new isn't always better.

The new normal

New is usually exciting and fun, the genesis moment is always so appealing. But it always involves more graft, more money and more energy than taking an existing foundation and evolving. Sure, cloud and new emerging technologies such as serverless and quantum will require some more fundamental shifts, but I am not talking about some of the systems built in the 90s or 00s – you know, the ones where people are having to buy spare parts from eBay to keep them going.
No, I’m talking about those systems that have been designed and engineered well, do what they intend, but perhaps suffer from technical debt that make them a bit clunky. I’m talking about the systems that have this technical debt because they’ve never been afforded the opportunity to fix the issues as it is never prioritised. Or, as is more often the case, the investment is put into building the next new system – and frequently not learning the lessons of the past.
Other reasons for building new are often rooted in a lack of knowledge and understanding, increasingly, the insecurity of new people in an organisation coupled with the desire to create a legacy, the ability to say, ‘look what we built’, rather than, ‘look what we fixed’.
Furthermore, building something new gives the impression that one has greater control over it. You can claim that you know it inside and out, because you've been there from the beginning. However, my experiences suggests otherwise; the lack of detailed understanding of capability often remains low.

More with less

Making the most of good investments is critical; even more so with the imperative to save money as part of the post-pandemic economic recovery. Doing more with what we have, and asking oneself the really hard questions about whether to build or fix is better, will help policymakers spend less, while doing more.
So how do we do it? How do we extrapolate maximum value from investments?
  • Understand – really understand what capability exists and what capability is needed. Don't just pay lip service to this process as it is the most crucial element. Engage with suppliers if they have built capability; assume nothing and put preconceived ideas and unconscious biases to one side. Only by doing so are you able to truly examine the as is.
  • Explore – explore the options for evolution, really explore them – don't just think they're too hard and base decisions on personal bias. Look for the examples where evolution has been successful, and also look at the lessons of the past. Somewhat disappointingly, government has a rich tapestry of IT and transformation failures to learn from – let’s not repeat mistakes that have already been made.
  • Evaluate – not just the ‘as is’, but the ‘to-be’ of both evolve and build new. It is easy to get fixated on a solution and not do the due diligence on all the options available. Of course, if evolve remains too risky, then also don't make oneself a hostage to fortune; I’m not suggesting we become as dogmatic about evolving as we currently are about transforming –balance is needed.
  • Evolve – to being data and user centric, not systems centric. Technology has never been the end in itself, it has always been the means to an end. This has been lost in translation somewhere along the way and so for too long the focus has been on the tech and the system.

Market matters

It’s also important not to come to market before you know what you want and don't allow people to create jobs for themselves. If you create an environment for a large commercial contract – well, you can see the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Critically, the public sector should seek to leverage open standards as much as possible and drive interoperability. There is so much now available that doesn't tie you in to monolithic, single source procurements, but the market will continually tell you that that is what you need.
A key differentiator for us as a professional services firm is that we don't have much product to sell, but instead have people with knowledge, tradecraft, capability and experience. So, if you ask for our advice, and we suggest that you don't build new, it's because we genuinely believe that you shouldn't. Others, by contrast, may encourage you down this path because they want to maximise their commercial position.
As a consultant, it is in my DNA to understand the motivation behind what is driving the positioning and the decision, it is equally important for those looking to procure such transformational solutions, that they look at, and challenge, the motivation for the messages they are being given by the market.

Subscribe to Government Insights to hear more about the perspectives and experiences of our clients and stay up to stay with the latest insights from our experts


About the Author
Andy Lethbridge is Head of Consulting, Central Government, at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

Further reading


Andy Lethbridge

Global Consulting Director and Head of Consulting, Central Government, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence