Some rough notes on local gov and digital

There was a debate raging late last week about the needs of digital in local government (again). I wrote up some thoughts to share with everyone – I was feeling somewhat limited by the 140 character confines of Twitter – and I may as well post them here too.

The GDS has set out, in the service manual, a pretty good template for how an organisation should go about ‘transforming’ services to make the most of the internet.

It covers taking a user-centered approach; delivering using agile, iterative methods; the importance of good design; and the need for measurement and continuous improvement.

This could easily be taken and given a quick edit to make it work within the local government context. Local government would benefit from having a consistent, shared set of processes to use get this stuff done.

Different councils will use these processes and get different results depending on their context. However, the shared process means they can share experience, staff and other stuff with one another and all be talking the same language.

What local government really lacks across the board is the capability to deliver this change. The service manual talks of what is needed in the multi-disciplinary team. The vast majority of councils do not know what these roles even mean, let alone have people able to fill them.

This is not to be critical of councils or the people working in them. GDS had to go on a massive recruitment drive to bring this talent into central government. Local government needs to find a way to do the same.

However, many councils are too small to justify having full time permanent employees doing these roles. They cannot afford them. Also, even if they could, they would find it incredibly hard to recruit anyone of the required standard. There just aren’t enough to go around.

So, a shared capability pool is something that ought to be looked into. Something made a lot easier by having a shared process, mentioned above. Councils could pool together locally and create a shared digital service. Counties could provide a service to local districts. Private sector suppliers could have consultants available for hire that cover all the necessary roles as and when they are needed.

The other thing GDS has done is built technology platforms and services. The big one is the single domain project, with the publishing platform. This is not the place for local government to start.

With lots of councils using the same process at a similar time, with shared people delivering it, it will soon emerge that lots of councils will be working on transforming the same services at the same time. This should lead to conversations about collaborating on developing digital services – those building blocks that all public services rely on, like booking, paying, registering, emailing, web-hosting, data storing, consulting, etc etc.

So, by creating a shared set of processes, working out how to develop the needed capability to deliver, and then emerging collaborations on technology, a local ‘digital service’ starts to form. Only, it’s not one organisation, it’s not a central gov imposed thing, nor a big fat IT outsourcing contract.

Shared CDO – looking for alignment

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A key role for any CDO in an organisation is looking for, and creating, alignment.

The obvious one in the digital sphere is looking for alignment between the organisation’s preferred outcomes, and the needs of the people who use its services or products.

Take channel shift as a fairly obvious example. The outcomes that a council wants to see are more people using cheaper channels to access services and interact with it.

The needs of the people doing this interacting are to have efficient, usable services that let them get the help they need with the minimum of fuss.

By aligning these two things, a strategist can easily plot a course where developing high quality online services gives both sides what they want.

Not aligning them, by focusing too much or even exclusively on the organisation’s outcomes, will lead to failure to achieve either side’s objectives – because even if people want to use online services, they won’t if they are poorly designed.

It is possible to think of alignment as a tool for making things happen. Within an organisation, there will be many different motivations and objectives. Senior leaders want one thing. Service managers another. As CDO, you will have your own.

Rather than trying to convince people to do things they don’t feel they want to, the better approach is to consider what their preferred outcomes are, and align them with your own.

Finding this alignment allows you to build a shared sense of purpose and mission, and will reduce the friction you get when people feel like you are trying to make them change against their will.

What attributes does a shared CDO need?

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After a brief hiatus, here’s another post on the idea of the shared chief digital officer. The others are here.

So, what does a shared CDO look and sound like?

Firstly, perhaps it’s a good idea to say what the shared CDO is not – and that is just a rebranded CIO, or chief information officer. The role of CDO is not an IT position. Instead, it is a strategic role where end user needs and the objectives of the organisation are aligned.

So, what are the things we should look for in a good, shared CDO?

  • people and outcome focused – and definitely not solution focused. The CDO must be totally bought into what the organisations want to achieve for their people, as well as a focus on the needs of those people themselves. This should be what drives the design of the solutions, rather than picking tools first.
  • influence and persuasion – hugely important will be the ability to be able to convince senior people across the organisation and those in political roles of the importance of digital, especially in terms of the new ways of working, focusing on user needs with agile methods
  • strategic – the CDO has to be able to take a strategic view, freeing up practitioners to get on with what they do best whilst providing the vision so everybody knows where they are headed
  • great communication – being able to communicate what can be complex issues and technical issues to different audiences is key. Being able to come up with a narrative that will bring different groups on board with transformation activity is a key skill
  • networked – a shared CDO needs access to a large network, in terms of finding support and advice, examples of good work elsewhere and so on. Equally, having a network of suppliers in the form of SMEs and freelancers will be vital in filling in gaps in capability on the team
  • open – the shared nature of the position means that the CDO cannot be anything other than open in the way they work. This means not seeking credit, but ensuring that the delivery of outcomes alone will be the evidence needed that the role is being done effectively. Sharing knowledge, experience, tools and processes openly will help embed them in the organisations the CDO works with
  • technical understanding – whilst the CDO is not a technical role, having an understanding of how the mechanics of the web and other technology works is really important. This will help keep those delivering technology on board, as they trust that the CDO knows what they are talking about, and will also give others confidence in the CDO’s ability to deliver
  • team-building – as mentioned several times in my recent post on digital innovation, building the digital transformation team is a key role for the CDO. This requires the right skills to do so – a collaborative attitude, the ability to get people to buy into a vision and to provide just enough leadership to motivate people without getting in their way
  • thorough understanding of and commitment to user centred design and agile – a bit wordy, but these two things are absolutely vital to the CDO role. They are, in a way, what separates digital from other ways of working. Not only must the CDO be totally fluent when it comes to user focus and agile, they must truly believe in it. Anyone pretending will be found out pretty soon.

That’s my list. I’d be interested to hear what others might add, or indeed take out.

The shared CDO – putting the team together

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So in my last post I discussed the idea of the shared CDO – a chief digital officer who works across a few different organisations to help them transform their services and working practices.

One of the first tasks facing a shared CDO would be to get the multidisciplinary team together to make things happen. The CDO can’t do everything on their own, after all.

What are the skills needed for the team?

  • delivery management
  • service design
  • user research
  • development
  • content design
  • technology architecture
  • digital inclusion / assisted digital
  • technology operations

Note that while these are all roles that need to be present on the team, they don’t necessarily map to full time roles.

The CDO being shared also means, I think, that the team should be shared as well, with people with the required skills from all the organisations involved being a part of the team. This means the councils sharing staff when needed, but also others, such as whoever delivers a shared back office, or other organisations delivering services.

It is likely of course that some of the roles or skills are not present in any of the organisations involved. That’s fine, and so part of the team must be made up of SMEs and freelancers, who are considered members of the team but come in as and when needed. It’s helpful if it is always the same people, or at least from a pool, so relationships and trust can be built.

It may well be that this team will operate virtually, with full time roles at their parent organisations, who come together – black ops style – to get stuff done when needed.

Once the team is together, it’s time to start work. More on that in a future post.

CDO as a service – the real local GDS?

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Emerging technologies and new ways of working bring with them new jobs, and new roles. One of those is the ‘chief digital officer’ or CDO.

I’ve always been an advocate of organisations having a senior member of staff who has the clout to be able to push through digital transformation and the necessary culture change. A CDO could well be that person.

However, for many smaller organisations – take district councils, say, or mid sized charities – who nonetheless have the scale in terms of service delivery to need the skills of such a person, might not be able to afford one. So what do they do?

In conversation with Adrian Hancock from SOCITM earlier this week, we discussed the potential for a shared chief digital officer between a group of organisations – around four probably being the maximum.

Each organisation would use a common framework and process for managing the digital shift and transformation. The outcomes in each may differ, of course, but the underlying process would be the same – making the CDO’s life easier but also enabling the partnering organisations to benefit from shared experience and sharing other resources, human and otherwise.

This then could form what the “local government GDS” should be. Local centres of good practice centred around a leader in the local digital space, with shared platforms, code bases, processes, services and people.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Be opinionated

To make things happen, it helps if you have opinions.

Apple are a great example of a company that has opinions. They express those opinions in their products, and like most opinions, some people don’t like them – but that’s fine.

For instance – lots of people moan about the lightning cable used to charge iPhones and iPads – why don’t Apple just use micro-USB like everyone else? The answer is because Apple is of the opinion that micro-USB isn’t good enough, hence the need to design their own.

Apple have made lots of similar decisions based on opinions – like whether the original iMac needed a floppy drive (nope) or if laptops need CD/DVD drives (nah).

GDS is equally opinionated. As an organisation, they have views on the way websites should work, and how they should be made. You might not agree with them, but there’s no doubting where they stand.

Opinions help in two ways. Firstly, they set you apart from the crowd (this can work in a good and a bad way, of course, depending on how appalling your opinions are). Secondly, they help you to move on.

Here’s a real world example. At the Department for Heath, I’m working on digital capability, as are lots of other people in lots of other organisations. Everyone has different views on what digital means, and what capability means.

Again, that’s fine. What we’ve done though is to have an opinion on what those things mean, and how they should be delivered. Quickly coming to this opinion has enabled us to move forward quickly, with the confidence that comes of having a good idea where we want to get to.

We’re not so opinionated, of course, that we can’t change direction if we need to. The joy of an agile approach is being able to respond to feedback and experience.

By taking a position though, and executing on it, we’ve been able to kick start our capability programme. Not everyone may agree, but then they probably never will.

So if you find yourself in a situation where a project is stalling, perhaps the thing to do is to have an opinion about it. After all, you have to start somewhere.

Need some help getting your digital approach right? Join me at my Achieving Digital Transformation workshop in December!

The need for internal digital evangelism

If you’re going to make your organisation sit up and take notice when it comes to new, digital ways of doing things, you need to get out there and sell them.

Pretend you’re a techie startup trying to sell your product to your organisation.

Get on every team meeting agenda that you can. Speak at every senior leadership team meeting. Come up with new and interesting angles and stories that will pique people’s interest, whilst still hammering home your core message.

Have chats with as many people as you can to find out what is going on in the organisation, make connections, build links, put people in touch with each other. Fins out what their pain points are and think how digital might help solve them.

Produce an email newsletter to send every week with interesting digital stuff in it that will enthuse and motivate people to give digital a go.

Find a way to use internal systems – maybe the intranet, or a social tool like Yammer, or even the staff magazine – to promote your digital agenda to people.

You might not have a specific product or service to sell, but you still want people to change the way they do things – and they will need convincing.

So try pretending that you are that little startup wanting to land a big contract – and get selling.

Communicating customer access

I’m at Channel Shift Camp in Birmingham today, organised by my good friend Nick Hill.

It’s an opportunity for people involved in customer services in the public sector to talk about ways of delivering services using new channels, such as online.

The point for organisations is that online channels tend to be a lot cheaper than phone or face to face; for the customer, hopefully the experience is quicker and more convenient.

The first session I attended was a very interesting one about how to communicate the benefits of using new channels for contacting councils and so on to users of services.

The problem was soon identified of the quality of the new service being sold. Often the user experience of online public services is pretty bad – to the point where most people would rather phone up or turn up to an office than try and figure out how to use them.

After all, think about the big, successful online services, like Google’s search engine, or Facebook, or Amazon. When have you seen an advert, or a poster, trying to convince you to use them? Probably never, and yet we do in our millions, because it’s better.

It was mentioned that it might be possible to ‘nudge’ people into using online channels by doing things like hiding the organisation’s phone number and address on the website, so people have to use the web service.

That is not nudging! It’s bullying.

Users ought to be able to access a service in whatever way they prefer to. The job of the organisation delivering that service is to design it so that their preferred channel is also the one their customers would choose.

So to start with there is a need, I think, for communications folk to challenge those asking them to promote a service to ensure that it is actually an improvement on the traditional alternatives. If it isn’t, then trying to persuade people to downgrade their user experience is not really a goer.

In other words, the service ought to sell itself. To do that, it needs to be designed with the user at the centre, meeting their needs and solving their problems first, and not those of the organisation.

Use what you already have

When planning a new project or activity, it’s easy to decide to get something new.

For instance, you might see it as the perfect opportunity to buy a cool web service to help you deliver this piece of work.

Or maybe you know that you could do a great job customising WordPress to do exactly what you want.

Hold on for a minute, though. What have you already got available to you that you could use to make this happen?

It might not be the perfect fit you would like in a perfect world, but it might be good enough. It might also come with a few advantages:

  • you can start work right away
  • no problems with access or other IT issues
  • your users will be more likely to be familiar with the way it works
  • there will be internal knowledge of the system to help you get stuff done

I’ve an example to share in a future post, where I resisted the temptation to do something new, and instead used what was already there and already familiar, in my work at the Department of Health.

Just what is digital, exactly?

I’ve seen a few comments bouncing about Twitter and other places debating the meaning of the word digital, and why it hasn’t caught on in some places at all.

I’ve also seen some people saying that ‘digital’ is an unhelpful term, given the broad range of things it seems to describe.

I’d agree that it isn’t perfect, however, it’s what we’ve got. May as well make the most of it.

My definition of digital is:

The delivery of information, interactions and services over the internet.

However, that’s not all. It is also:

The approaches, skills and behaviour that have been popularised by digital projects.

Hence agility, responsiveness, user focus, and so on are all ‘digital’ even though they don’t specifically require the internet.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but this definition works for me, and hopefully for those I work with.