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Digital government: Why liberating users and data from spreadsheets matters to me

For a whole variety of reasons, I seem to have spent much of the past few weeks staring at spreadsheets. As those who have worked with me for more than about 5 minutes will know, it’s not a part of the job that I like, but it’s occasionally a necessary evil. Such a period often makes me think of this oft paraphrased cartoon from XKCD:

Source: XKCD

My own version of it would have “strategic policy decision” at the top, and the pillar at the bottom would be “A spreadsheet that some random person in a windowless office has been thanklessly updating since 2003”.     

I’ve seen it time and time again throughout my career. Perhaps one day I’ll sit and try to calculate how much of my life I’ve wasted trying to get two different spreadsheets to give the same answer. It would probably run into years, given that seven inglorious months were spent in a dusty hut in Helmand Province doing just that. However, working it out properly would likely involve starting a new spreadsheet, which sort of defeats the point a little…  

Emancipation of both users and data

The organisational predisposition towards spreadsheets can have serious consequences. Issues such as version control, collaborative editing, error handling and scalability are commonly cited issues. There are numerous high-profile failures, such as during the height of Covid when the NHS’ “Test and Trace” system fell over due to hitting a row limit on the underlying spreadsheet.  

Both with Zaizi and in other positions, I’ve been involved in numerous projects where thankfully we got there before failure occurred. A recent example is when we assisted a Home Office team in getting rid of their legacy spreadsheets system by implementing a modern digital solution. I have seen first-hand the positive impact it has on users when their latent potential is unlocked from the drudgery of cleansing and entering data. It’s so rewarding to see them actually apply the creativity and acumen that they were employed for; interrogating and synthesising data to make positive interventions in the real world.  

The positive outcomes often extend beyond an immediate process improvement, to slightly less tangible (and hard to capture in a spreadsheet) factors such as improved staff morale and more effective management interventions.  

It’s no understatement to say that some of the most impactful work I have done has involved migrating users off a spreadsheet. It’s not the sexy side of digital transformation, but I still feel an immense sense of pride in every spreadsheet that we can archive.

Transformation Day: Here’s how to make a start on getting rid of your legacy spreadsheet system

The strategic implications        

In the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the government discusses the need for “deeper integration across government… support[ing] faster decision making, more effective policy-making, and more coherent implementation.” 

This was a strategy of such importance that it was refreshed just two years later. Although it didn’t say as much, there was a distinct undertone of “we’d better get a move on…”.  

I suspect, if you dig a little deeper, one of the key barriers will be a lack of effective digital tools to manage the complex workflows of information needed to help the country stay one step ahead. 

Just like the XKCD comic, in their stead will be a myriad of spreadsheets, being thanklessly maintained by an incredibly dedicated army of people dispersed across multiple departments and locations. Individuals whose talent and ingenuity are being stifled trying to fix conditional formatting or chasing up who made the last edit. 

Artificial Intelligence vs Organic Intelligence 

I’ve been involved in numerous Transformation Days, industry engagements and bid reviews in my time at Zaizi.  

Unsurprisingly, we hear lots of talk about the potential for Generative AI, and its seeming ability to cut through complexity and make sense of all the noise. I agree it has the potential to be a game changer. It can also be very hard, and potentially eye-wateringly expensive, to do well at any kind of scale. 

Before we go chasing the White Rabbit of Artificial Intelligence into Wonderland, I’m always keen to challenge clients whether they’re sure they’ve made the most of the Organic Intelligence available within their organisations. If they have people outside of finance and accounting roles spending large portions of their time filling in spreadsheets, it’s often a red flag that they haven’t.  

If you want help emancipating your team from the shackles of their spreadsheets, and in doing so begin to realise the full potential of your operation, please do get in touch. We’d be happy to discuss your needs and whether or not a Transformation Day workshop might help.  

About the author

Adam is Zaizi’s Principal Consultant focused on National Security and Defence and has nearly 20 years of experience in the sector.  Adam specialises in solving problems caused by inadequate digital systems and resources that prevent users from working effectively and efficiently in complex environments.

To find out more about our Transformation Days or chat to Adam, please get in touch.

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