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Do you need a digital programme?

The mechanics of making digital change happen in an organisation can be really complicated. What works in one place may well not stick in another. It all depends on strategy, structures, politics and personalities.

One common approach is to have a clearly defined digital programme. In many ways it makes perfect sense: you have a strategy in place, and a programme to implement that strategy. Having a programme helps you bid for some (most likely capital) money to help make it happen, you get a clear timescale to work to, and some benefits (savings!) to realise – not forgetting a programme board to report back to the big-wigs on how you’re progressing. What’s not to like?

Let’s look at the pros:

  • Unlocks money ✅

  • Allows you to recruit people ✅

  • Buys technology ✅

  • Clarity of purpose ✅

  • Clear governance ✅

Sounds pretty good! But wait, there’s cons too…

  • Capital money will disappear ❌

  • Those people you recruit are only there for the length of the programme ❌

  • Have you set aside time and money to ensure your new digital products are transitioned to BAU support? ❌

  • What are you going to do about continuous improvement? ❌

  • How are you going to keep those big-wigs excited about turning up to your board, two years in? ❌

  • The admin overhead can be significant if you aren’t careful – who is updating the programme plan, and generating the highlight reports? ❌

  • You’re on the hook for those savings – are they really in your power to deliver? ❌

The last point is crucial and getting consensus on this early is vital. Capital funds for programmes are usually given on the basis of a business case – in other words, for every £1 invested, £3 is expected to be saved. But, whilst the money is funding digital activity, the savings won’t be coming from the digital team – they will be created within the departments where services are being redesigned. As part of a programme, there must therefore be absolute clarity on what savings are coming from where – and a willingness to offer them up when the time comes.

A digital programme brings focus, and resources. It will get you going for sure. The danger is that it is temporary and they rarely allow for the planning and investment needed to maintain a new digital estate in a business as usual situation.

They can also become real pressure cooker environments, causing stress, anxiety and burnout – so you do have to make sure you look after yourself and your team, especially in the run up to board meetings.

Sounds like I am pretty against digital programmes. Perhaps I am – my preference would always be to build a permament team to do this stuff. Make digital change the business as ususal! It takes out a lot of the stress and anxiety, and makes it far easier to embed digital ways of working, and the core concepts and culture of agile, user centred design and so on.

However, in the real world, creating a digital programme is a mandate to get things done, as well as a shortcut to funds, which means people and new technology, if you need it. If you do go down the programme route, then the two most important things to get in place, for me, are:

  • agreement and clarity on savings and where they come from

  • a plan for the transition to BAU for the new digital services, and a properly funded regime of continuous improvement.

Author: Dave Briggs, Chair, LocalGovDigital.

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