The Right Conditions for Digital Success


At #localgovcamp this year up in Leeds, I ran a session to talk through what conditions need to be in place in order to implement a digital strategy successfully.  Thinking this stuff through is important for any change programme, and it was really helpful to share experiences.

It’s a worry for the sector, to put it mildly, that there aren’t many significant digital change programmes around that aim to build digital-age operating models using internet platforms and open standards.  So if you’re interested in the detail of the strategy we’ve adopted in Adur and Worthing, here are a some useful links that outline the approach we’re taking:

At the technology level, there will be plenty of different ways to do this, so we make no grand claims about our particular response to the problem.  But how can more of local government move to making some big strategic decisions about the role of digital, and think about making the right level of investment?

Thinking about the right conditions

Landing and then delivering a digital/change programme in an organisation is extremely difficult.  There are a lot of things that need to be in place and it’s important to consider these carefully before you set off.  You really need to spend a lot of time thinking about the support and structure needed around your programme – not just at the beginning to get it off the ground, but considering the need for careful stewarding throughout, because it’s a process of continual touches on the tiller, thinking about your stakeholder needs, accepting challenges and compromises, and above all, holding the direction clearly.

Circumstances differ of course in different places – there will be special conditions to account for in your own situation, but I think there are certain things that are pretty much essential.  I’ve blown a lot of energy (but learned a lot) in the past on projects that just didn’t have the support and structure around them they needed.  It’s amazing how far you can get with drive and ingenuity, but it’s not enough in the end.

An honest assessment about the prevailing conditions in your organisation will save time, money and above all that valuable personal energy. If you think you are missing some essential conditions, time is better spent trying to get them in place, rather than risking proceeding without them. Let’s consider the following:

      • The Chief Executive must get what digital means for the organisation, and communicate the vision strongly

        In Adur and Worthing we have a Chief Executive who has a strong understanding of the role of digital in enabling fundamental change. Our Catching the Wave strategy, with its themes of supporting wealth generators, promoting enterprising communities and organisational adaptation provides a strong guide for all our work, and recognizes how vital digital is across the piece. Digital is often discussed in strategic conversations at A&W – the profile is high, there is huge support and encouragement and also – the expectations are clear!

        But if that’s not the case in your organisation, you really do need to work out how to land the message with them, and try to connect the their strategic vision, or their immediate pressure, with the potential for digital to help.

      • Digital should be at the top table

        My role as Director for Digital & Resources makes me a member of the senior leadership team, which means digital is a key strand of many of our discussions – not just coming from me – everyone gets it and supports it, which is incredible. I feel this nurtured and shaped narrative ‘settles in’ to the consciousness over time. My span of control covers the resource functions, including finance and this gives the role enough ‘clout’.  Given the importance of digital in our times, I think a top table role for someone with a very clear understanding of digital and the internet is critical.  In time, I suspect such roles become more about public service design and digital/social infrastructure, but we’re not there yet.

      • You should have a good, coherent and sufficiently ambitious digital strategy

        At Adur and Worthing we developed ours one step at a time, developing the thinking with external consultants Methods Digital and gaining support from members in stages through reports to committee. Here’s a list of the stages we went through.

        July 2014: “ICT Position Statement” which set out the problems and opportunities, and requested funding for “discovery”
        October 2014: reported findings and requested “blueprinting”
        December 2014: presented the strategic programme (go to page 161) and requests for funding to be released in stages
        January 2015: programme began (tech procurement and architecting)
        April 2015: gateway approval from cabinet members from April
        Sept 2015 : gateway approval for next phase (we hope!)

      • User-centred design should be at the heart of the work

        Without a design approach, you could end up only driving out efficiencies, leaving a pre-internet age service in place, albeit a cheaper one to run. Sometimes that’s ok – don’t forget this is urgent, real world work. But you can expect to drive out efficiencies as a  by-product of the service design approach to digital change, and this is the right way to go.  Digital service design is about rethinking the operating model in the light of the internet.  It ensures users get services they like using, and helps disrupt who creates value in a service (i.e. customers and communities doing more).  In Adur and Worthing, we have further to travel down this road for sure, but we’re working on it.  We are building in-house capacity for service design and moving the team into a space where we can create a lab type environment, in a low key kind of way.

      • The digital strategy should meet the needs of elected members (they represent citizens and committees approve programmes)

        There are two aspects to this.  Members want residents to have a good experience of council services, and to maintain or improve service levels while revenue support grant reduces year on year. Services must be efficient and responsive, and the digital programme must deliver returns in cost savings and improved customer experience. Some members may not quite see the need to invest in digital services, and may for example be (too) concerned about the digital inclusion issue. The narrative has to be about staying relevant , protecting front line services and improving customer experience. 

        The other area here is members’ experience of council IT, which is often poor. A good, balanced digital strategy will think about the basic needs of users and provide solutions to common frustrations .. for example providing email, calendar and document access to any device as we have done at A&W with the rollout of Google for Work.

      • IT spend controls should be put in place and contracts examined for opportunities to exit legacy systems

        We heard in the session from folk who struggle to control the purchasing of departments that hold their own IT budgets. IT budgets must be centralized and governance put in place. At A&W we have a Digital Design Authority that assesses and makes recommendations up to the Digital Programme Board for approval. Renewals are sometimes allowed (this is the real world) but we aim to renew on a 1+1 basis rather than lock in for longer. Some big systems remain in the architecture.

      • Digital programmes must deliver cashable savings

        That’s what digital does when it’s done right. It cuts out human effort (.. I know it’s about other things too). We have been able to develop a clear understanding of how the digital programme fits with our medium term financial strategy, with hard targets for cashable savings. This is simply a must for any investment of public money. Digital does need to be a quite serious undertaking, at least to begin with while the point is being proved. We have a process for identifying digital savings in the annual service planning process, so we’re plugged properly into the system.

      • Continuous communication with key stakeholders is hugely important, and we must be responsive to people’s immediate needs

        There are areas here where we could have done better to be honest, but we did grasp the nettle on a knotty problem and negotiate an early exit from our enterprise telephony provider, and this sort of thing helps the reputation of the overall programme. At A&W we do as much as we can to improve day-to-day IT delivery, ordering WAN connections, fixing network and hosting issues etc. But there is a balance here – business as usual is a full-time job, so to make progress you have to create the space for the new stuff – those calls are sometimes difficult and can be unpopular for very understandable reasons.

      • There’s nothing quite like a crisis ..

        Most existing council software applications have process inefficiency hard-wired in, and the inflexibility of systems kills the innovation of staff and managers’ abilities to respond to the needs of their customers. Because of this, I think everyone can build a narrative that is pretty much a crisis story.  You just need to quantify the waste, perhaps by doing some analysis in a couple of areas and producing some numbers.

        When I started in May 2014 there was an air of desperation about an unreliable IT infrastructure (system outages) and there had been a lack of leadership and strategy. This did give us an audience keen for direction, focus and effort. Of course, in this situation the first steps you take are pretty vital because you have to secure people’s confidence! My strategy was to produce a first committee report that was an honest “all is not well ..” piece, which people appreciated and set a different tone – they felt they were being heard. I should say the IT infrastructure, provided through an ICT partnership we have with Horsham and Mid Sussex Councils, has recently improved with the help of a new leader there.

      • One unit should have the change function and all of IT (digital projects, service design, applications, infrastructure)

        In the autumn as part of a “tier 3” restructure exercise, I created a role “Head of Digital & Design”. This role, occupied by the fabulous thinker, do-er and joker Dave Briggs, has control of the whole IT budget and strategy. Our digital programme is not a “special project” outside IT somewhere. It’s core enterprise business. And whilst change leadership can and must be distributed across the organisation, IT must be design-led, those skills and approaches are critical requirements in the team.

      • Identify and encourage the people who are up for it

        No project can survive long without its supporters, so seek them out and give them a role in the change.  Having digital champions around the business, as we do, gives us a culture change capability as well as a fantastic training resource around digital skills.  Their help in rolling out Google has been such a great success and we have a growing army of disruptors and do-ers in the organisation, using the Google tools to create new, more collaborative ways to work.

Thanks to Valerie Pearce and Ian McGraffin so far for their feedback which has helped improve this.  I will keep tinkering with this, so more feedback welcome.

Many thanks to Jonathan Flowers for his blog post earlier, which was most kind as well as interesting

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