Commenting on James Herbert’s sensible post about approaching AI in local government, I came up with 5 statements of the bleedin’ obvious that all senior people ought to have in their minds whenever technology is being discussed.
If something sounds like a silver bullet, it probably isn’t one
You can’t build new things on shaky, or non-existent, foundations
There are no short cuts through taking the time to properly learn, understand and plan
There’s no such thing as a free lunch – investment is always necessary at some point and it’s always best to spend sooner, thoughtfully, rather than later, in a panic
Don’t go big early in terms of your expectations: start small, learn what works and scale up from that
Increasingly, I tend to speak about digital being different from previous approaches to technology because it includes a healthy dose of cynicism about the ability of technology to improve anything, ever. Perhaps these points reflect that!
This week brings to a close my two and a half years as Head of the Local Digital Collaboration Unit (LDCU). In this blog post, I want to reflect back on the lessons learnt and achievements, such as bringing local authorities together to solve common challenges, and in particular how a group of local authorities and suppliers are cooperating together to deliver an open source solution.
Revenue and Benefits systems are one of the key digital systems for all local authorities, processing payments to and from local businesses, council tax payers and hundreds of low income households on a weekly basis. They hold key customer data and, as such, are a linchpin in delivering councils’ digital transformation strategies and should link seamlessly into other key council systems.
You would expect that transformation of these systems would be at the forefront of every council’s mind. And they are, but because there are limited options (3 main suppliers in the market), there is a level of dissatisfaction with the market and transformation is considered to be costly and risky. Only 2 LAs in the country have their own in house Revs and Bens systems and Sedgemoor are one such council.
It’s always great to receive recognition for the hard work our team is doing. At the beginning of March we were delighted to win the Gold award for Customer Focus at the iESE Public Sector Transformation awards… Our entry focused on two areas of Cumbria Council – Highways Enquiries and Fault Reporting and Targeted Short Breaks for SEND Children.
I have competed my first 3-day design sprint to build a prototype digital playbook. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – so while a little hectic, sometimes intense – all in all it was a great experience and I am becoming more used to feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable! Below for the record sets out what we did, how we went about it and what we discovered.
What is servant leadership, and how can you use it to help your teams fly? Clare Sudbery talks to Katy Armstrong about how to empower teams to do their absolute best work, by removing blockers, identifying vision and giving them everything they need.
I began my journey as a BA half a decade ago, and here I am today: a lead BA at Made Tech. I love being able to make a difference to a very diverse mix of users of public sector systems, which has ranged from Home Office frontline users to clinicians in the NHS, as well as the general public. Learning about the different systems and processes involved goes hand in hand with this, so I’m constantly learning and developing my skill set. But there’s much more to the job than this. Here’s the lowdown on what we do, what makes a good BA, and how we contribute to success.
Folk in all sectors are being constantly bombarded with instructions to digitally transform their organisations, or calls to digitise services, and to make use of the cloud.
With all these meaningless exhortations, it’s easiest just to ignore them. After all, isn’t this the sort of thing that our IT departments are hired to worry about on our behalf? It’s just computers and software, and dealing with technology is just operational detail!
Well… no, not really. It’s actually absolutely vital that those in leadership positions in councils, whether they be politicians or officers, understand the potential and the pitfalls of embarking on a large-scale digital change programme.
Technology for technology’s sake can lead organisations down the wrong path very easily. That is what makes it so important that leaders provide a vision and understand how that vision is enabled by digital and IT. It’s too important to be left to the technologists!
Digital is fundamentally not just about taking services and putting them online – a classic case of doing the wrong thing righter. Digital is also not guaranteed to save you money. It can save money – but only when it is done well, and that users are happy to take up your new digital services.
Good digital transformation happens when leaders grasp three strategic principles:
Firstly, that digital transformation is in response to people’s raised expectations. Those expectations have been raised by almost everything that has happened to the organisations they interact with, no matter what the sector, in the last decade or so.
People can now open bank accounts on their phones, without needing to speak to a human being or use a pen at any stage. They can set up limited companies in the same way, and tax their cars. Their shopping is done online, they watch television via the internet and they communicate with friends, family and colleagues using voice, text and video on a bewildering variety of apps.
And yet, when it comes to their local council, they still need to download PDF forms, print them out, fill them in and post them back. It still takes days or weeks to get decisions or responses. And all of this is true for the staff working in councils, too. They get as fed up with all the printing, scanning, copying, rekeying and general inefficiency as anyone else.
We have seen the pace at which councils can embrace digital workflows through the pandemic, and that has given both staff and citizens more than a glimpse of what could be.
Meeting these raised expectations is key to the success of digital transformation. You have to meet the needs of your users first. If everything you do in digital is to save money, you will likely end up with digital services that nobody wants to use, and that will result in failure and more expense. Instead, put the user front and centre, design around them, and the organisational benefits will surely follow.
Second, one of the key changes that taking a truly digital approach will make in your organisation is cultural. An organisation cannot succeed in digital transformation with the same culture it has always had. What does this look like?
The culture of the internet age is open. It rewards those that share and collaborate. Think about Wikipedia – an entire encyclopedia written by people giving up their knowledge and time for free. It’s a remarkable achievement, and yet we barely even think about it these days. Likewise, almost the entire internet is built upon software that has been shared openly, often for no cost, with volunteers of all descriptions contributing to fixing bugs and adding functionality. Modern organisations need to operate in similar ways.
The culture is also agile – by which I do not mean hotdesking, or working from home. Agile is a way of delivering work, by focusing on getting products in a usable state as quickly as possible, letting users loose upon it, and then iterating based on feedback. It focuses on starting small and growing from there, and by reducing risk by failing – if you must fail – early, and cheaply. This is in contrast to traditional approaches to technology projects, that see long specifications drawn up, teams disappearing for months or years to implement them, only to re-emerge into a world that has moved on, or one that doesn’t like their interpretation of those requirements.
These are just two examples of digital culture. There are many more, and when put into effect they create happy, well functioning working environments.
Third, that whilst digital can apply to new technology, the real impact is being seen in operating models. AirBnB is a global hotel chain with no hotels. Uber is a worldwide taxi service that owns no cars. Facebook, the world’s most popular media entity, creates no content. This sounds strange, and yet it is true.
This is because these companies have been designed for the internet age. The way they deliver their products and services is predicated on the existence of the internet, and the fact that the vast majority of people can access it pretty much anywhere, and anywhen. Technology enables this, but the genius lies in the way the companies adapt the way they work to fit the new world that the technology has helped to create. After all, Netflix didn’t beat Blockbuster because they had a nicer website – they won because their operating model suited a world where people didn’t need to drive to a shop to rent something to watch.
So what would your services look like if they were designed from scratch, today, by people taking as a foundation that the internet exists? Imbue that vision with the public service ethos to ensure the most vulnerable are still catered for, and you have a plan for really transformative digital work.
The really important bits about digital then are not about technology at all, but instead about focusing on people’s needs and expectations, changing your culture, and redesigning your operating models. Digital can deliver savings, but not if that is the overriding consideration above all others, and not if the work is considered an IT project.
Aspirations, culture and operating model design are led from the top – and that’s where you come in.
I had a fun chat last week with Richard Godfrey of Syncity. Richard, like me, has a big interest in how local councils use technology, particularly acknowledging the need for more traditional IT to be modernised alongside the sexier digital stuff.
In this video we talk about good digital and technology strategy, what levels of digital confidence people in senior positions need, and what’s happening in smart cities. It’s well worth 45 minutes of your time!
More nuggets spotted online, shared for your edutainment.
5 tips on running virtual events – DWP Digital
One of the biggest learning points for the events team was that you can’t take a plan for a physical event and simply run it virtually instead. It just doesn’t work. You need to create a way to engage attendees remotely, while they’re having to do most of their work through their screens, from their home. However, virtual events have a lot of opportunities for being inclusive and allowing people to join in regardless of whether they can travel to another location.
Retail, rent and things that don’t scale — Benedict Evans
Part of the promise of the internet is that you can take things that only worked in big cities and scale them everywhere. In the off-line world, you could never take that unique store in London or Milan and scale it nationally or globally – you couldn’t get the staff, and there wasn’t the density of the right kind of customer (and that’s setting aside the problem that scaling it might make people less interested anyway). But as the saying goes, ‘the internet is the densest city on earth’, so theoretically, any kind of ‘unscalable’ market should be able to find a place on the internet. Everyone can find their tribe.
Bureaucracies are designed to protect themselves from harm – they have formal complaint routes and escalations and a hierarchy that is there to maintain the status quo. And when you look at a wider context you can see some of the drivers for this – the more we see a world based on risk and blame the harder it is for us to be human and authentic in our interactions.The first time fix of customer services is allowed for simple questions – to go there with more complex stuff brings levels of risks that most bureacracies are not comfortable with as it takes you to the place of difficult choices and trade off – the messiness of complexity.
Today, the internet is a lifeline that keeps us tethered to each other even as an airborne virus has us all locked up indoors. So it’s easy to imagine that, if the ARPANET was the first draft of the internet, then surely the world that existed before it was entirely disconnected, since that’s where we’d be without the internet today, right? The ARPANET must have been a big deal because it connected people via computers when that hadn’t before been possible.
That view doesn’t get the history quite right. It also undersells what made the ARPANET such a breakthrough.
Doing things better is hard because it presupposes you know what you are doing and why you are doing it. You have to understand and be clear on your goals and your vision, and the outcomes you want your projects, programmes and organisation to meet. And you have to have the trust and explicit support of everyone around you.
Recently on my visits to councils and to conferences, and in the conversations I have with people across the public sector, leadership in digital has been identified as an issue.
I think the problem is that within many organisations, there’s nobody with sufficient clout taking the digital agenda forward: identifying the vision and setting out how people can get there.
Part of this is because digital doesn’t easily fit into any of the slots of the traditional organisation chart. It’s definitely not IT, nor (just) communications, and probably not (just) customer services.
Perhaps the closest fit would be within the organisational development bit of HR.
To kick start an organisation’s journey to become truly digital, having an inspirational leader in place is, I think, vital.
I’ll be talking about this in more detail this coming Monday, in a free webinar. Sign up here.