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5 things for local leaders to know and understand about digital and technology

This quote from an article by the always insightful Jerry Fishenden really stuck out for me:

With apologies to the late scientist and author Arthur C Clarke, to those who don’t understand technology, any sufficiently advanced marketing bullshit from snake oil merchants peddling their cryptocurrency, NFT, blockchain and Web3 potions is indistinguishable from magic.

This chimed with Martha Lane Fox’s comments on the paper produced by the unlikely pairing of digital enthusiasts, Tony Blair and William Hague. She wrote:

…although TB and WH did touch on this, I think they massively underestimate the necessity to improve the digital understanding across all areas of government and secondarily the public sector. I can only assume that it is partly why there has been jumpy progress over the last decade. MPs, peers and civil servants have wildly different digital nous. Then think about the heads of CCGs, schools, social services – through no fault of their own, making decisions that are fit for the modern age is hard.

So it’s fair to say that the knowledge of technology and digital is still too limited across the leadership cadre in public services generally and local government is, I am sure, no different.

There are two things here for me and it’s important to split them apart. ‘Digital leadership’ can be applied to those people leading the digital and technology agenda for their organisations. That’s not what I am talking about specifically here, but I do think it’s something that needs some attention, because there is a growing gap in many councils between these strategic leaders, who often don’t have a technology background, and their operational digital and technology managers.

What this post is about is the other king of digital leadership, which is the understanding needed by all those in leading positions in councils and other organisations – folk like the chief executive, directors, heads of service and so on, who don’t have direct responsibility for digital and technology but nonetheless need to know what it can do for their services and how to get the most from it. The days of managers shrugging and saying ‘I don’t do technology’ or similar really ought to be over. At the same time though, the right support needs to be available to engage people and take them in the right direction.

I’ve been mulling on this, and here’s my 5 things that everyone in a leadership position ought to understand about digital and technology.

1. Take ownership

The first and most important thing is for leaders to take ownership of digital and technology. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling helpless and unable to do anything to change things for the better. Adopt a learning attitude, where if you don’t understand something, you feel confident to ask, or you go away and find the answer out for yourself.

Key to this is reaching the right level of understanding between your strategic position and the more operational world view of many of your digital and technology people. It’s vital to find the middle ground, to avoid talking at cross purposes which can then create mistrust and doubt. I’ll never forget the conversation I heard about between a head of finance and their technology lead. The former asked for idea on how technology could transform services for end users; the suggestion came back from the latter that the SAN really needed replacing. Neither are wrong, but it isn’t a meaningful discussion! Take the time to find common ground, to understand the operational concerns but set them in a strategic context.

A key thing for those running services is that the technology your system runs on, to all intents and purposes, is the service. The two are no longer indistinguishable. How your end users access the service, how they interact with you, and how your staff manage it all relies on technology. That means it cannot be seen as someone else’s problem – it’s yours. And it is imperative to work closely with digital and technology colleagues to get it right.

2. Adopt an agile mindset

Second, adopt an agile mindset towards work involved in the digital and technology (and indeed other areas of work, if it’s appropriate). This doesn’t mean forcing your people to slavishly attend stand-ups every day, or making them rewrite their requirements as user stories. It means you living and breathing that agile way of thinking, and encouraging everyone else to do the same, without reverting to old ways the moment the road gets a little bumpy. Focus on:

  • working in collaborative multi-disciplinary teams with digital folk and technologists working alongside colleagues in service areas

  • encouraging those teams to produce usable products and services as quickly as possible, accepting that they won’t be 100% complete

  • ensuring that your teams can adapt to change, rather than following plans no matter what

Much of this way of working goes against the grain of how work is done within local authorities, and so it requires all the influencing power of those at the top to make the culture change and stick.

3. Embrace design thinking

Design thinking is a way of approaching problem solving that is human-centred, focused on achieving practical results and experimental. Rather than leaping into solutions, or trusting third parties to produce results for you, it involves using a range of techniques or approaches to understand the people you are trying to help, and figure out how you can best and mostly easily help them.

That might involve producing empathy maps to understand how needs arise in the first place, and how people are feeling at the time they request help. Or it could be analyzing a journey map, following all the interactions a person might have when dealing with your service. Fundamentally it is about really understanding the problem you want to solve, the people involved in it, and then making something to see if it can help them. Experimenting and innovating is key.

What is really key is working creatively and collaboratively, and acknowledging that there are very few problems that are ‘fixable’ – generally we make progress, we improve things and we should all be relentlessly optimistic about our ability to do that. If someone offers you a digital shortcut to solving problems, it’s almost certainly snake oil.

4. Fund the right things in the right way

If you don’t run the digital or technology service, try not to spend your budget on digital and technology things that they don’t know about. It’s a waste, you never get the results you’re promised and it creates ill-feeling. Instead, involve your colleagues in digital and technology as early as you can, when you are still doing your design thinking, so they can input from their side. This will stop you spending money on technology that already exists, perhaps in a different form, at the council; and will give you the benefit of their experience as they may have worked on a similar problem elsewhere.

Think really hard about how things are budgeted. Try where you can to fund a team rather than a project. The business case led capital spending nature of a lot of transformation work is really challenging in the digital and technology space. Once the programme is done and the money spent, what happens to the people, their skills and their knowledge? Who supports the newly created products and services? So many times the answer is to start all over again, with a new capital bid, new people and new tech. This is incredibly frustrating. How can money be spent more sustainably? Could the same money be spent more slowly? Is there a way to fund it by stopping other work as a result of the activity?

Finally, if business cases are a necessity, be very careful where you assign the savings. Often the invest-to-save approach is the only way to unlock money, but that means savings must be found and invariably that means people have to leave the organisation. This sucks. But it needs acknowledging straight up, it needs commitment from the services areas to making those changes when the time comes and it has to be made clear that the digital and technology folk are not ‘to blame’ for redundancies. Too often staff can dread the idea of digital transformation because they think it means them losing their jobs. If your council needs to save money, digital and technology can be a great way of protecting service quality while you do it – but it must be articulated in that way.

5. Know what good looks like

Too many poor or mediocre digital and technology experiences are tolerated in local government. Some of them are even celebrated! This is depressing and makes everyone look like idiots.

The thing is, we are all using good quality digital and technology products and services all the time. We just don’t think it’s possible to replicate them in our own workplaces. True, a district council is never going to have a resources of Amazon or Google, but then the problems they are trying to solve are at a smaller scale too.

Here’s a tip – try and use some of the digital services your council provides. Try and find some information on the website. Order yourself a garden waste bin. Apply for a parking permit. Is the user experience really acceptable? Does it meet your expectations, raised by your use of digital services elsewhere?

Try using the software that your teams use every day to run your service. How frustrated do they seem? How much faffing about do they have to do? Are they printing things and then scanning them in again? It doesn’t need to be that way.

Talk to other councils about what they are doing. Don’t rely on the supplier-generated case study bumf, find out the real stories. Talk to the people who made these products and services, or the people who use this software every day. Don’t outsource your understanding of quality to third parties, whether that is suppliers or external consultants (even the good ones).

Don’t accept low quality in your digital and technology experiences. Your users deserve better.

Author: Dave Briggs, Chair, LocalGovDigital.

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