Shifting Digital Sands

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An edited version of this has also been published on the Guardian Public Leaders Network Blog

The landscape of digital is constantly changing and being redefined with every new development, technology breakthrough, success and failure. We need digital public sector leaders who can properly navigate this environment, and ensure that they are connected to outcomes and not traditional organisation objectives.

Here are three guidelines to get your started…(i’ll follow these with more in the next post).

1. Champion open data
We need leaders who can ensure that information and data is open by default, and secure when absolutely required. Too often councils commission digital programmes only to find the data generated does not easily integrate with other systems, or that data is not council-owned and can only be accessed at further cost.

2. Don’t get distracted by flashy products
Leaders must adopt an agnostic approach to technology, and not get seduced by the ever-increasing number of digital technologies and lose sight of real user and business needs.

3. Learn from research and practice
Tales of misplaced IT investments plague the public sector, and senior leaders are understandably hesitant when considering future investments. To avoid causing even more disruption, we should learn from each other and research findings from across the digital landscape.

Making the decision to properly invest in digital leadership will not just improve decision making about digital solutions and strategies. It will also bring in the knowledge needed to navigate the complex security requirements that surround public-sector IT. And it will ensure that practices honed in the digital environment become embedded in the council more generally.

In Devon, for example, we are making sure all the public information and services we offer online are based on the experience and behaviour of users – not an easy shift but its the hard work we should do if we want to make things better. This has led service teams to refocus on the needs of citizens rather than those of the organisation, a subtle cultural shift and we are now starting to see some positive responses from within services. And our experiences of future proofing, agility and responsiveness are informing service design throughout the council.

So what is holding us back?

Across local government there is still a fragmented approach to collaboration, although this is starting to improve and I hope that LocalGov Digital can be a part of shifting the perceived value of informal collaboration away from unprofessional outputs. In central government, the Government Digital Service is charged with providing the right environment for change across all government departments. However, in local government, digital leaders often work alone without a unifying strategy across the sector. It is important to understand and recognise that the Government Digital Service is more than just a team pushing and promoting digital in central government: they are the future of central government, attempting to transform everything – transform how government works as a system.

Initiatives such as LocalGov Digital, NLGN Shaping the Digital Agenda, O2′s Local Government Digital Fund, the DCLG/LGA local digital alliance and the Guardian’s many public sector forums and networks are all helping to push forward debate, spread good practice and build a sense of urgent optimism around the local government digital agenda. But at present there is no equivalent to the unified force of the Government Digital Service.

Local Digital leadership can provide an alternative approach to a centralised local government digital service, after all this is exactly what LocaGov Digital is doing. But do we really want to or can we rely on it alone?

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