Learnings from digital leaders: Driving forward innovation in Government
Updated: Nov 4
Harvey Neve headed up digital products and transformation at Public Health England for three years before moving on to become director of a digital technology services consultancy. In this interview he shares his extensive experience of leading change and driving forward digital innovation.
‘Enabling our best work, because our best work saves lives’ is the mantra of the Smarter Working Programme at Public Health England, and within the first five minutes speaking to Harvey, you start to get a feel for how that is applied to every area of the organisation. Harvey says “Digital transformation as a phrase is going off the radar and it's becoming more about business transformation. You’re talking about the relationship between people, place and technology.“
“Exploiting technology and being digital-first is embedded in our strategy. Not just rolling out technology for the sake of it, but rolling out capability, benefits, and enabling people to do their work with less friction.”
When we asked Harvey what the best investment he had made in the last 12 months was, he said it was upgrading all the staff laptops and getting good bandwidth sorted. “It’s all about getting the brilliant basics right, and that comes down to removing bottlenecks for your team. There’s no point in doing the whistles and bells, if you can’t do the stuff no-one gets any prizes for. When Covid hit, it meant we could get our staff set up and working from home very quickly. Ultimately it comes down to treating your people like users of your business infrastructure, and understanding what your business needs to do to enable your people to do their best work.”
Leadership that enables autonomous decision making and the impact of Covid
Self-empowered, autonomous teams who can also deliver is often a hard concept to get across in the corporate environment, and on top of that many people are saying that Covid-19 has forced us to cross the digital rubicon and there’s no going back. We asked Harvey whether he thought these ways of working are here to stay.
“Covid has brought about a heightened expectation of that way of working. I think people have found it empowering and liberating. A lot of companies will find that if they have a very entrenched, controlled culture in their business that they’ll have to move away from that.”
“If you take a venn diagram of people, place and technology, and digital transformation is where they all meet in the middle, when you drive change in all 3 of those spheres you get digital transformation (or the potential for it) as a result. Covid has been a fast forward button for that: suddenly technology has gone flying off and the other bits of the venn diagram are going to have to catch up.”
“On top of that, the next generation who are coming up have a very different relationship with technology, and it will create a very different user base and different expectations for systems and services - especially in government.”
Failures, informed decision making and the buy vs build debate
Failure isn’t a word many organisations like to use, but agile is built on failing fast and learning, so we asked Harvey what he’s learnt over the course of his career as a digital leader:
“I think one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen across the industry is people being promoted into roles they weren’t ready for, or didn’t have the training for. Never underestimate the importance of leadership training. It comes down to seeing your people as your most important asset, ahead of your brand, systems or whatever else. Your company is nothing without its people. When people don’t get investment in them, so that at a senior management level they don’t understand the difference between command and control vs servant leadership, the impact this can have on a wider team can be catastrophic.”
Finally, we asked Harvey about the bad recommendations he hears in the industry and how he makes decisions over what you should buy and what you should build.
“It’s about informed decision making. Anything you’re doing you should know why you’re doing it and to what end. It used to be all about outputs, and what you get from them, then it was outcomes, and now it’s benefits. Before you decide to do something you should always work backwards and start by asking yourself ‘what are the benefits?’ It’s the same with the buy vs build debate – do you want to create a capability that you’re going to need to leverage in the future? If you are then you might want to build it. Are you going to use this stuff for a year and then chuck it out? Then you might be better off buying. It also doesn’t have to be the same all round. It could be buy in some places and build in others, but ultimately it should come down to making an informed decision based on data and well-researched insight.”
*This article was written from an interview between Mark McNally, CEO of Worth Internet Systems and Harvey Neve, then Head of Digital Products and Transformation at Public Health England. It forms part of our Learnings from Digital Leaders stream.
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