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.

What do we need to be telling councillors about digital?

I’ve done a fair bit of councillor training on digital in the past. Every time it focuses on social media, digital engagement and how members can use the web to interact with the public.

It usually goes away, people have an interesting time and one or two actually start doing new stuff as a result.

However.

Right now I am not convinced that this is the most helpful thing we could be doing with councillors when it comes to digital, the internet, and technology in general.

Just as the work I have been doing recently on capability with civil servants emphasises the importance of understanding the mindset and approaches of digital ways of working, the same is also true of elected members.

After all, members – particularly those with a role on the executive in their authorities – are making decisions with digital implications all the time. They are asked to signed off digital and IT strategies. They might be asked to give their OK to a big spend on the implementation of a new system. They might be signed up to a big transformation programme with a heavy emphasis on digital ways of working.

Do they really have the capability to be making these decisions? Are they asking the right questions of officers? Can they really be held accountable for decisions made which – in al truthfulness – they possibly don’t understand?

I think this is something that needs to be looked at.

The trouble is, as anyone who has been involved in member development knows, providing ‘training’ to councillors is really hard. They are very busy people who operate in a political environment. This means they have little time, and little appetite to admitting weakness or ignorance.

So I think there is something to learn here from the top of the office coaching programme that Stephen and Jason run at DH.

This is where the eight (I think) people right at the top of the organisation get one to one coaching with digital experts once a month – an opportunity to ask questions without fear of looking silly in front of colleagues, and to really dig into what relevance digital has for them and their bit of the organisation.

I’m pretty sure something like this could work very well with councillors – matching them up with digital coaches who could give up an hour a month for (say) six months to provide answers to questions, coaching and mentoring on specific topics and being a sounding board when needed.

It would be great to get people’s thoughts on whether this is a problem that needs a solution, and whether a lightweight volunteer coaching programme would work.

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.

Why digital capability (or comfort) matters

keyboardI spend a lot of my time at the moment talking about digital capability. To my mind, this means the ability of people throughout an organisation to make the most of the opportunities offered by digital technology.

Capability is less about skills though, and more about confidence – or maybe comfort.

Sure, a certain amount of skill is involved. I sometimes refer to this as the ‘Alt-Tab’ test. If someone knows that Alt-Tab means to quickly flick between applications on a Windows based computer (it’s Command-Tab on a Mac), they are probably going to be ok in the new digital world.

To me though, digital capability is more about knowing where to look for the answers as it is knowing the answers in the first place. It’s about understanding why people might want to use a certain tool, rather than using it yourself. It’s about being curious, networked, agile, user centred and flexible rather than knowing how to use this app or that.

This matters because the landscape is changing. A few years ago, an average worker in an office might need to use four or five systems on a regular basis. Their email, the database for doing their jobs, Office, the intranet and perhaps an HR or other system.

These days though, people are being invited to Dropbox folders, Huddle projects, Asana task lists, Trello boards, Basecamps, Nings, Yammer networks, Google Docs and more. The numbers of different systems are growing and often the first people will have heard of them is when they are invited and expected to use them.

Nobody can learn in advance about systems they have never heard of! Instead, they need the confidence and comfort with digital tools that they can recognise how they probably work, and have the knowledge to know they are unlikely to break them just by having a go.

As I have written before, and will do again, the days of monolithic, one size fits all IT systems is over. As Euan Semple says in a recent blog post:

Building a technology ecology from small iterative deployments of specific tools, with a throw away mentality that allows more constant adaptation, driven by ongoing conversations with users is the only way to do technology efficiently.

In this new world, everyone needs to be comfortable with switching between apps, even when those apps are doing rather similar things, just in a slightly different way. This won’t come from learning each app one by one, but instead by understanding the principles of digital tools, and the underlying philosophy of how they work.

As is often the case, the online comic XKCD nails it:

tech_support_cheat_sheet

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Five for Friday – 14 March 2014

linksFive for Friday is WorkSmart’s weekly roundup of interesting stuff from the week’s reading.

  1. About change, defaults and disruption – “large organisations are racing against start-ups to stay relevant”. Great stuff from Anne McCrossan
  2. Creating a minimum viable product using WordPress – Chris Lema on using WordPress to throw together prototype services
  3. 5 More Unexpected Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder – useful ideas. Thanks to Dan Slee for the link.
  4. Is it time to quit your job and launch that new start up? – nice video from Bethnal Green Ventures via the Nominet Trust
  5. Forrester argues piecemeal digital transformation won’t work – interesting research. Lovely quote: “Dabbling with digital isn’t the route to success”.
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