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DIGITAL DH: Understanding what digital means to us in DH

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Explain what digital is
  • Explain how digital affects the way we work
  • Give some examples of how government is changing


What is digital?

‘Digital’ is the context in which we work. We live in a digital age, and from shopping online to accessing the news through social media, the internet affects everything that we do.

‘Digital’ is not a synonym for IT. It’s more a culture than it is a description of a particular technologies, infrastructure, tools or techniques.


What does being digital mean?

We’re accustomed to using digital technology in our daily lives – and we don’t really think about it most of the time.

Amazon, Google, Facebook and Zoopla are all successful digital products because they are so easy and intuitive to use – they’ve been built with what’s called ‘the user experience’ in mind (you’ll learn more about this in the Users Module).

These products  save us tons of time. Imagine booking a weekend away to Barcelona in 1980. Now think about how you’d do it today. (You might want to think about Airbnb, tripadvisor,, skyscanner, kayak,,, or even twitter, facebook, google, or youtube if you’re really stuck for ideas.)

The first step towards being digital is about being informed and open to trying new digital opportunities out. That means trying to build knowledge (eg. by doing the beyond google course) to make the most of tools.

The greater change comes when we begin to behave like people who are designing successful digital services. That’s likely to mean considering agile project management methodologies (more about this in the Agile Module), changing the tools we use to do our work (more of this in the Tools Module), and adopting an internet-first way of thinking about our day jobs.
How is digital changing the way we work?



The public expects government services to be as intuitive and interactive as the commercially available services they access in the private sector. It’s in our interest: some services cost 20 times less when delivered digitally.

The Government Digital Service has expertise in transforming services that large numbers of the public use – for example, take a look at the Carers’ Allowance Exemplar Project, and read their blog to learn about DWP’s service transformation experience.



According to the latest data (Aug 2015), 78% of the population access the internet every day – for work, life admin, and pleasure. 91% of households have fixed broadband internet connections and two-thirds of people now own a smartphone and use it for nearly 2 hours every day (Ofcom)

We’ve had a paper-based government since around the 12th Century. But 21st century people interact differently with information. Reading a webpage is different to reading a book- you’ll learn more about this in the Content Module.

Our communication tools are expanding too – free video, text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts complement text publishing on GOV.UK.
We need to think about keeping the right pages at the top of google (feeling lucky?), making public health messages go viral (no pun intended) and using the internet to help our users reduce the burden on the services that they pay for through tax.



Digital thinking puts the user at the centre of the service. Our policies need to take the same approach.

Thanks to organisations such as 38 degrees and, suddenly, citizens are able to make their voice heard much more easily and powerfully. Achieving 100,000 signatures on a petition is much easier when that petition is not being posted through letterboxes, but being pushed to specific communities by engaged activists through social media.

And when politicians begin to crowdsource questions for the prime minister through email campaigns, the civil service can respond by involving those citizens in developing the right policy answers.

This sort of thinking should make things easier for us in designing and delivering policy too. Digital offers us new ways to consult– and new ways to gain insight from users of our policies to inform our thinking.

In the digital age, pretty much every job is a technology-based one. There is something for everyone in the department to gain from having a thorough understanding of what digital can do for them, which is what this passport aims to provide.


Policy example

Ben is a policy officer.

It’s his job to research into a policy area and produce solutions to some problems. He makes use of the internet in his work all the time.

He uses Evernote to store all his research notes, as it means he has a searchable record available to him wherever he is

He tracks several keywords relating to his policy area on Twitter, enabling him to find out the latest thinking as soon as it is published.

He recently ran an online consultation to easily find out what large numbers of people think about his policy area.

He uses Google Drive to collaborate on reports with colleagues, rather than emailing round Word documents. And for non-urgent questions and feedback, he asks his colleagues on Yammer.


Analyst Example

Ruth is an analyst.

She pulls together data from a number of sources to build an evidence base to help her colleagues in policy come to the right decisions.

Using digital tools, she has access to a lot more data than if she just used traditional resources.

She can use open data published by other organisations, web analytics from various relevant websites, and social media content data – such as what people are saying on Twitter and Facebook on a relevant subject.

She uses digital tools to help make sense of this ‘big’ data, including Gephi, a free tool that helps visualise networks, and R, a statistical programming language that’s perfect for this kind of work.


Further reading

The digital team blog: find out what we’re doing to transform services, policy and comms in DH

21st Century Public Servant: a project at Birmingham University

GDS Service Transformation: read about the 25 exemplar service transformation projects.

Gov Ethnography Toolkit: for thinking about User Research

Twitter: Set up your own account for work, follow people related to your policy area, and people related to digital. Soon enough your feed will be full of interesting reading!


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