Navigating the Digital Climate

This post is part of a series which will also be cross posted on the Guardian Public leaders Network.

Investment in digital technology is undoubtedly key to the future of local public services – from providing public information all the way through to protecting and safeguarding vulnerable people. Whether you are a local council, voluntary organisation, private company or a community group, ensuring our collective investments are fit for the future also requires identifying and investing in supporting leaders with the digital and managerial skillsets needed to steer the course in a constantly shifting digital landscape.

Within the current financial climate, digital technology is often held up as a means of providing cost effective solutions to a wealth of problems dealt with by local public services. Through digital technologies councils hope to be able to integrate multidisciplinary teams, reduce customer contact, encourage self service, provide digital by default services and internally enable mobile and flexible working so that we can make the most of our estate and property, although that in itself is about opening up our estate where possible to allow others space to work and provide services.

We also look to digital products and services to improve the transparency and accountability of our decisions, to provide efficient and effective communications with citizens, and to foster community capacity by enabling citizens to connect with each other. We are also pushing our staff, officers and elected representatives to embrace and integrate digital into their own lives so we can connect on a more personal level and build new and more direct relationships.

Personally speaking and I make no secret of this, I’m a huge advocate of digital and the opportunities it presents, even in the current climate I get excited by the transformative potential of digital but none of that means anything without a shift in how we think, how we see ourselves as organisations, as employers and how we provide local services. Here in Devon, we recognise that digital is an important opportunity and a foundation for change and will be necessary to secure future savings but no more than recognising that we must change the way we think to ensure we do things differently and do different things. But none of this is easy when we are wrapped in a complex web of legislation and statutory responsibilities and the traditional risk adverse approaches creep back in when uncertainly reigns supreme.

For me digital is much wider than simply products and services and is about creating a climate where digital products and services contribute towards reconnecting people and places to enable problems to be solved. It is about creating a culture where local public services are Open by Default and Digital by Design.

Looking at a couple of examples here at the council we have explicitly stated that digital products and services are key to the success of our Estates Strategy by which we hope to deliver a reduction of 29% in running costs and 35% in occupied floor area between 2012 and 2017.  And targeted investment in digital systems is also key to both our Digital Content Strategy and Public Information Strategy and the service redesigns that will follow our upcoming reviews of council services – which together we hope will enable our citizens not just to ‘self-serve’ but also to ‘self-help’.

This cannot be simply about the technology and its delivery. For this work to really succeed we must invest in the leadership capacity both of our council and of our citizens. We need to make sure we are not just investing in products, but a culture that ensures that the right products are taken up and which allows these products to flourish.

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