Event Reflections – Redesigning Public Services – Strategic Importance of Digital


Wales Audit OfficeDuring September I was fortunate to be able to participate in and attend the Wales Audit Office Good Practice Exchange seminars called; Redesigning public services: The strategic importance of digital. The first was held on the 13th September in South Wales and was repeated on the 29th September in North Wales.

Myself and Councillor Barry Parsons (Cabinet Member) were invited to do a bit of a double act and share our story, not the specific story about Devon’s journey but more about our collective journey – one as an officer and one as a councillor.

Firstly whilst myself and Barry were asked to share our story, we both reflected and found that we also learnt a huge amount from the event and were challenged by those who attended which was great. It was a well organised event and gave lots of opportunities for the participants to discuss with each other, ask questions and attend some workshops which were repeated so you could get into see more than one. It was also only half a day which I felt added to the great attendance at both events.

As a contributor to an event it is always interesting to reflect on what lessons emerged across both events and i’d like to share the key themes and messages which came through and I’d also like to throw a challenge back at everyone.

It is worth replaying the intended focus and objectives of the day:

Public services in Wales are entering a new era in how they deliver services. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act calls for a massive step-change in how we plan and deliver services, whilst technology has fundamentally changed the social environment in which we work.

This seminar is the first in a series of events on the theme of digital service delivery. This particular seminar will share how organisations have laid the groundwork and recognised the need for a cultural shift before tackling service transformation. Public services are likely to already have the necessary talent within their organisations, but organisational hierarchies often separate the knowledge from authority when making decisions. This seminar will share different approaches to overcoming these barriers.

Walking away from this event, delegates will understand how to get the right talent and authority around the table to work collaboratively for better public services.

So let me start by sharing 8 key issues/themes that emerged from across both events

1) Digital isn’t the real problem we need to solve

I’ve said this many times before but “Fundamentally the challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model which is rooted in serving a de-facto purpose which is disconnected from the people and places the organisation or leaders serve”.   

2) We seem to have a Leadership vacuum

Leadership is an overused term and for me it can come from anywhere, however there is very little leadership in this space nationally which explains why so many people are unclear about what they can and can’t do, how to move forward as well as truly understanding the vision and direction of travel. My challenge to everyone is if you think you are lacking leadership from above, be that leadership for others and start taking action. Don’t wait around for people to give permission, it rarely follows, so simply think, do and share and hopefully those around you will start to recognise the value and impact of what you are doing…you may need to ask for forgiveness but most likely you’ll be asked to help others.

3) The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a fantastic opportunity to reinvent the whole public sector landscape (let’s help them)

In terms of direction, Wales has a slight advantage over the rest of the UK and i’m envious in a good way of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – The Act will hold to account public bodies to think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined-up approach. Basically it states that what they do must be done in a sustainable way. How awesome does that sound…clearly there is some way to go before whether we actually see this Act having an impact on the outcomes for local people…but it has certainly created better conditions for those working within its scope.

4) Digital is still struggling with a clear definition that everyone can agree on

Digital will always mean different things to different people and we need to accept that as individuals we simply need to discover what it means for ourselves. What we must do though is not confuse digital with technology, you see many digital strategies simply talking about the implementation of mainstream technology within our current mindset and thinking…I’m full of admiration to any organisation who puts themselves out there and asks for help…But we can’t let this lack of clarity distract us from the real challenges facing us, the reinvention of our organisations around a revised purpose which is absolutely connected to people and place.  

5) We all need a gentle reminder that we can’t design FOR people we must design WITH people

I was surprised and somewhat shocked by the number of questions which basically assume we (public bodies etc) can do this stuff for people and how can we do that better – a traditional model of delivery, we will do stuff for people. Let me say though that the people in the room at these events clearly have/had the best intentions of people in their communities at their heart, however we just need to support each other and gently remind each other why we exist and what our purpose is…Also and more importantly that we need to involve those people in the redesign, otherwise we simply risk re-creating a new legacy of failure…I want to reference again the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act here as I firmly believe that given the right support and conditions Wales can flourish and provide global leadership in this space…The question is will those involved deliver on that ambition?

6) Our wellbeing is important – It’s going to be incredibly hard work…let’s accept that and prepare for it

I think everyone accepts this but we aren’t talking enough about it which i don’t think is helpful – our individual wellbeing is SO important that we need to ensure we are individually prepared for the challenges ahead…the challenge we face in redesigning public services is going to be incredibly difficult and for some people, it will be fundamentally challenging everything they currently do, believe, know and understand…collectively we need to recognise this and find ways in which we can support people on that journey. Let’s be open about how we feel, let’s be open about our fears, let’s be open about our hopes and we can all support each other.

7) Overthinking leads to inaction – start small and get going

It also struck me that some people are overthinking the whole thing, what I heard was people struggling to see a way out of their current worldview and everything new was going to be on top of this world…An example of this was when a question was asked to the panel about how do we find the time to innovate or try new things if people are so busy…My response was that we have the time, it is just that we spend a large proportion of our time on doing the wrong things…easier said than done i know, but it is true…AND we can’t create excuses about this anymore. We need to prioritise doing better things and I’d argue all day for people spending more time rethinking, redesigning and delivering new services than perpetuating the status quo. Nobody wants to see the collective results we are creating, so we are we accepting it?

8) People are still not sharing enough – openly

This is a simple problem to solve in reality but requires people to be bold, brave and trust one another. The open sharing of our learning will help us all discover what works and what doesn’t and also will allow us to connect to each other on different more meaningful levels.

One thing people can do is to connect more with each other through the WAO randomised coffee trials mentioned at the events or sign up to the wider UnMentoring here

Good Practice Exchange

A final comment from me is that Digital is of course strategically important in terms of business strategy and understanding the disruption to markets and consumer behaviours as a result of digital innovations is important but no more than important in terms of being able to actually deliver services than our people, our reducing funds and money and even our data!

Lets recognise that true transformation is a lever for digital innovation and not digital being a lever for transformation

Pondering leadership – why digital is a distraction from the real challenges of leadership


There appears to be a range of articles emerging which are titled along these lines “Digital Transformation is more than just Digital” you know the ones, well, on the whole they are really interesting to read but tend to repeat traditional business strategy advice that has been commonplace for the last 20-30 years. So why is this?

From a personal point of view it is absolutely clear to me that Digital is an enabler and whilst it’s a fantastic opportunity it’s not really where the challenges are in terms of leadership or with organisations.

Fundamentally the challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model which is rooted in serving a de facto purpose which is disconnected from the people and places the organisation or leaders serve.

The reason I say this is that can do “digital” even in the current mindset as some people are claiming that there is digital transformation happening when you can see even from the outside that it is simply automating legacy processes rooted in old ways of doing things and all this does is reinforce the wrong behaviours and then make them visible to people via the internet – a lot of people know this is wrong but yet it still happens.

When you look to the future, things are only going to get more challenging in terms of how leaders to have situational awareness around trends and new developments not just in technology but in society. This long article is a fascinating read or perhaps disturbing depending on your viewpoint. Is essentially a report of a keynote presentation that futurist Gerd Leonhard made at a KPMG Robotic Innovation event on the Digital Transformation of Business and Society.

I’ve picked out some of the key points and takeaways from the article but I would highly recommend reading it if you can find the time.

  • Leaders must shift from a focus on “what is”, to a focus on “what can be” – Wait and see means wait and die
  • Do not underestimate the sheer velocity of change
  • Anything that can be automated will be
  • Industry boundaries will blur – ultimately we may end up with a handful of value ecosystems such as: mobility, shelter, resources, wellness, growth, money, maker and comfort
  • Intelligent assistants and augmented reality will replace the need for actual assistants within the next 5 years
  • Collectively, robotics, automation, intelligent assistants and artificial intelligence with reframe society, business, commerce and culture – this reframing will drive fundamental structural change
  • The exponential and combinatorial growth of the 7-ations will create abundance, job displacement and dependency – the 7 are digitisation, de-materialisation, automation, virtualisation, optimisation and augmentation
  • Total efficiency will be reached within 5-10 years and after efficiency is met – value comes from purpose.
  • Purpose driven organisations must excel at technology and humanity
  • Creativity and social intelligence will become crucial differentiators for many organisations
  • If some of the unemployment scenarios play out influenced by automation – a basic annual income might be required for citizens
  • Experience is a differentiator and you can’t automate experiences
  • We don’t just need better algorithms we need stronger values, ethics, standards, principles and social contracts

So looking forward, what we can safely say is that the future will have a lot more technology and innovation in it, organisations need to be more purposeful and leaders need to focus on what can be – this is a radical shift in thinking for the current leadership landscape.

Coming back to digital, what all this talk and momentum around digital has helpfully done, is represent a diverse range of different influencing factors on how organisations need to adapt and how the people working in them need to adapt to the way people in society live their lives. This is where simple things like understanding how social media can challenge and change communication and customer service. I’m not personally bothered whether leaders are fully versed in the inner workings of social media, but not having an understanding of the implications and potential is no longer acceptable…so their is a legitimate leadership challenge around basic digital skills which needs to be addressed. But when you start to extend this into business model innovation and how organisations can be built around the internet and not just having a website that sits on the internet, well there is a massive leap to take here and i think we need to allow new leaders to leapfrog the current ones…

This leads me onto the bigger and more fundamental issue for me which is around public service leadership itself and in particular the cohort of current leaders in the public service landscape right now. From my personal point of view there are good leaders who understand this and I have total respect for them and admire the work they do in challenging environments, but they are a minority. There are also good people trying to do the wrong things and sadly the leadership challenge is systemic therefore I’d like to propose a vote of no confidence in the current leadership landscape and ask them to either step aside or better still recognise as current leaders they are a barrier and allow the emerging leaders to help navigate the landscape of change and help transition public services into a new environment – the current leaders have a clear role to play, they need to help make this transition by ensuring the current system doesn’t completely fail people, but they need to allow and encourage new leaders to provide the energy and momentum to change the current system.

Now this is probably an unrealistic ask, so in the absence of that I want to offer my help and the help of those emerging leaders in the sector, a small proportion of which are part of LocalGovDigital but the majority are in the services delivering and responding to people every day. Collectively we need to come together around a shared endeavour, share stories, share learning and truly support each other. A few examples of this is that as Devon we have over the last 12 months actively started conversations with other organisations outside the public sector to challenge our thinking, a simple example of this is the Exeter City Future initiative has challenged our thinking around the use, management and opportunity of data. As well as sharing our learning and seeking learning from others examples of this include, Nottinghamshire County Council, Buckinghamshire County Council, Suffolk County Council, West Berkshire Council, Cornwall Council, Bristol City Council to name just a few. This sharing of learning has taken many forms and most recently the learning between us and West Berkshire was a shared conversation between myself, my Chief Executive and Phil Rumens and his Chief Executive via skype, the main purpose of that was to connect the chief Executives and we have already set up a regular catch up. What this has not achieved is any real hard wired collaborative action between any of the councils. There are also more opportunities we have engaged with over the last couple of days which will enable us to share our learning even further, more on this in good time.

Before we start moving forward I want to talk about how digital has unhelpfully complicated the issue as well. The problem with using the term digital is that it is simply too easy to lump it in with a bunch of technologies and start calling it platforms and software etc. Technically this is just technology and those leaders who understandably don’t understand the inner workings of technology start to say they don’t understand digital as this is clearly someone else’s job and most scenarios this is revamped Heads of IT, who have a bloody hard job in just keeping the current legacy environment working – again some who make that transition and do it well are good, but not all have.

In making this link to IT, this is where you end up getting the automation of existing processes promoted as digital transformation where it is clearly just a simple automation of a process, but how many times do we ask ourselves, why are we doing this process, what is the thinking behind this, how is this helping or contributing to meeting the needs of people in our communities.

So this post ends up being another one of those posts titled – digital means more than digital so i apologise for that.

But what I hope to achieve in sharing this is that we need to demand either current leaders step aside or step up. Either way there are people who can help, so just ask for it.



Are we a Digital Council?


The strange thing happened recently, I received an email stating that Devon had been nominated by someone as a Digital Council for the upcoming Digital Leaders 100. Now this was a nice surprise and it was great to think other people believe that we are worth considering as a possible Digital Council of the Year nominee. Initially I was like – yeah, finally we have been noticed, but that quickly faded as I started to think about what we could actually say which was really visible to people.

I started to think about it more and more and looked again at the category criteria, I started to think, it perhaps isn’t the right time for us, we need a bit more time to really show the impact of the work we are putting in.

Now we have made some fantastic progress and worked on ensuring we put the right building blocks in place so we ensure we have a meaningful and transformative impact as we move forward.

The work we have done over the last 12-18 months has been focused on a combination of delivering projects (redesigned public website) as well as focusing on building capacity, growing our understanding through developing new governance approaches and embedding the digital agenda into the heart of our approach to change to ensure end to end service design is embedded in how we work and challenge what we do.

We also have Digital as a key component of the council’s operating model (Digital by Design).

We have a range of activities and projects which underpin our approach to Digital transformation.

We have a new responsive governance board – a Strategic Digital Delivery board – Chaired by the Chief Executive.

We are offering and providing Digital coaching and mentoring to Senior Leadership and Cabinet Members on a group and 1-1 basis as well as a programme of discovery, lightening talks and practical experiential learning.

We have started an in-depth piece of work mapping existing technical capabilities and then reframing these into high level user needs – this work is already starting to allow us to ask better questions of our technology and have a better understanding of our capabilities in terms of how they meet user needs and demand, it has also started to inform “investment” and priorities which has allowed us to start thinking about what work, out of all the work we have to do, is really focusing on improving how we deliver services to people 

We have been working on our public website for the last 18 months working through a process of redesign and then delivering better user focused public information all aimed at better shaping demand at first point of contact. Some examples being:

  • Adult social care with the development of a new public information offer including a local community directory and an online self checker
  • Highways through developing reporting and tracking problems using a simple web application to pinpoint the issue on a map

We (Lucy Knight and colleagues) have continued our work around Open Data and have been developing dashboards with Scrutiny members further developing ad building on our Open Data Champion status.

We are also starting to reference the European Digital Capability Framework within some of our commissioning and procurement activities as we want to be able to look at the market in terms of its maturity around innovation. This is an emergent piece of work and we have yet to formalise anything but we are prototyping some of this within existing areas to better understand how it challenges the market and delivers value for citizens.

We are doing lots of things, too many to list here…What we haven’t done properly yet is deliver significant savings based on any digital agenda, but we are now on a journey to ensure that changes we make are sustainable, appropriate and designed around the needs of people.

I’d like to think we are doing some great things here in Devon, but I’m also very aware that other councils are equally doing some fantastic things…having a category for Digital Council of the Year is counter productive in so many ways – although very flattering that others think we are doing things that make others believe we are digital. I think we would be better off, looking at whether councils who are doing good things are also ensuring the building blocks for sustained improvement and continuous innovation are embedded in their organisations. I certainly believe we are doing that and we are making good progress on this.

We don’t want to simply plug technology into our council and say we are digital – we want to challenge what we do and make sure we don’t make all the inefficiencies, digital inefficiencies.

So are we a digital council…No, but I’m not sure that’s our ambition either – our ambition is to design and deliver services around the needs of people and if we can use digital technologies to make that easier and more efficient for people then we will do, but it will be an informed decision of where technology can play a role and not one driven by the technology opportunity in isolation.





The first signs of autumn and looking ahead


As I’ve been cycling to work this week, I really noticed the colour of the leaves had changed and some trees had such vibrant colours that it warmed my soul on such a chilly morning commute. Its moments like that which you remember…I must take a photo before it changes too much.

I know that I’ve not blogged as regularly as I used to and I’ve been thinking about how I can start to rediscover or rethink my approach, until then, the sporadic nature will continue.

I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections around what has happened since coming back to work from a refreshing summer break.

I wanted to just share some of the activities that have stuck with me the most and things that have happened since returning from summer…it isn’t comprehensive – didn’t have time to pull that list together🙂

  • The main change is that one of our organisation change team (Julie) is working with me to better define the digital transformation picture for the county council…that has provided some really helpful support in a range of things.
  • I’ve started Digital Coaching sessions with one of our Cabinet members (Cllr Barry Parsons), which simply formalises an informal catch up session approach we previously had been doing over the early part of the year. We spoke about making the conversations more visible to the organisation and making them more relevant and strategic so that is how it started – simple really. The first conversation started well with some really productive discussion around digital operating models, government as a platform, Buurtzorg and the Simon Wardley Value Chain
  • I’m also working with procurement colleagues to start to engage suppliers around our digital direction and strategy. I’ve been invited to a provider marketplace day in November which will provide an opportunity to share some of our thinking and direction.
  • I’m working with our Social Care colleagues to work-up the details of a strategic Digital session where we can explore what digital means and the opportunity across social care.
  • We had a visit from colleagues at Suffolk County Council to share digital transformation lessons and will be exploring further opportunities for collaboration
  • Mike Bracken came down and spoke to our Corporate Leadership Team and Heads of Service around Digital and the approach of the Government Digital Service around change and transformation. That visit triggered a range of responses internally (all positive) and has unblocked some minor barriers and opened up new conversations which is great.
  •   I had a couple of visits to London for discussions with Local CIO Council, Socitm and other colleagues including some fellow localgovdigital folks (Dave Briggs, Paul Brewer, Ben Cheetham and Phil Rumens) around Place as a Platform. It was a fascinating session and we still have quite a way to go before we really avoid putting technology first in our discussions about Digital…the example from Adur and Worthing by Dave and Paul demonstrated that it is all about rethinking the fundamental operating model of the council.
  • A visit to the treasury with some other colleagues to have discussions and explore the technical architecture of a digital platform approach to Libraries working  – this was something which our Head Libraries (Ciara Eastell) had asked if I could support as she is the current President of SCL (Society of Chief Librarians)
  • I managed to fit in two coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive and Mike Bracken..I’m finding the coaching/mentoring sessions really productive and helpful and they are having such a positive impact on how I see myself and it has improved my confidence and I believe (although others may disagree) my outputs as well.
  • A fascinating and insightful provider perspective day as part of the Far South West Commissioning Academy – This process really highlighted to me the challenges of procurement and commissioning and the impact on relationships and trust in this process. I’d always suspected as much but to hear the details and insights from providers really validated that.
  • Further mind-boggling fun with the Design Council and in particular an awesome master class from Becky Rowe from ESRO – we shared our thoughts and reflections on the design council blog here
  • Following the design council session we (myself, Kevin Gillick and Jo Prince-White) ran a couple of prototype user insight sessions for around 30 colleagues from across the council – it was a fascinating process to rapidly pull the workshop together and the feedback from the participants was great so we plan to run some more plus other workshops as we continue our learning through the programme.
  • Outside of work – this week I was Elected Chair of Governors at my local primary school. I’m really proud to have this role and it is an exciting time for the school, we recently had a OFSTED inspection and were graded a solid Good and the report outlines some outstanding aspects which we are very proud of as a school. I now look forward to continuing to work with the other governors and the school and most importantly the children to improve outcomes.  I’ve been fascinated by the work of primary schools in particular for a while now and the work they do is such a great insight into how organisations can approach change as well as. In the last few years I’ve witnessed more design thinking in a primary school than in the wider public sector. I suspect the autonomy and relentless focus on children’s outcomes is a great place to start. In a recent conversation with the Head Teacher she outlined an approach to a piece of work around well-being with staff and every step matched the Design Councils principles of “Human centred” > “Being Visual” > “Iterative and collaborative”. It really is fascinating to see this in a different context. OR maybe my connection to design thinking is helping me see the wonder in everyday decision making of good and outstanding leaders.

The one thing I feel I’ve done very little of though is broader LocalGov Digital stuff, However my thinking around this is that unless you have a focus on local delivery and change you can’t effectively engage on a broader level as you end up disconnecting on both levels.  This is all part of the system leadership challenges we all face.  But my aim over the next few weeks and months is to properly re-engage with colleagues in that space as I missed LocalGovCamp which I was gutted about.

But I’m even more passionate and committed to providing support and leadership where I can to help Devon and the whole sector transform.

I’ve said it before in my last post but it is worth repeating here….

The primary purpose of public services is to improve people’s lives not to effectively manage the money, that is an enabler much like digital is, information is, data is and of course the people in and around the system are enablers.


People come and go all the time but


I was surprised as many were to the resignation of a group of people at GDS (Mike, Tom, Leisa, Russell, Ben and others) – I provided a comment here on Mike’s departure and then went on holiday to sunny Cornwall.

The great thing about disconnecting yourself is that you give yourself the space and time to really reflect.

I thought a lot about what I can and can’t do in Devon, my role and what that actually means to me, my impact or lack of impact, whether or not I’m pushing hard enough or too hard, whether I’m too tolerant of some behaviours and not tolerant enough of others. Basically an all round reflection – probably triggered by my previous post. I’m content and happy with what conclusions I made and I’m clearer about what I need to be doing and what I need to be saying and showing.

I also thought a bit about why when things get really hard, I mean really, really, really hard – some people just give up…I’ve done it before and I now know my reasons why I did it at certain points in my life and I have promised myself that I won’t do that again.

I didn’t intend to reflect on what the departure of those people would mean and will mean to Digital Transformation but as you surf the waves of Cornwall your mind tends to bounce from here to there and I started to think about the implications and lessons for local government.

I then read this post on Tom’s blog and in particular this bit resonated with me:

The first government to reinvent its institutions such that their role and values are native to the Internet era will find that it can transform both the efficiency and empathy of public services, whilst creating new digital infrastructure offering the private sector a global competitive advantage. And that’s even before we get onto the potential positive impact on trust, data security and democracy

and then I read this interview with Mike on why he left Government – the whole interview is very interesting but for some reason this particular bit stuck with me.

It’s the wrong mentality to ask: how big is my department? We should be focused on the user need as that always results in reduced cost and better services. We need to say, as public administrators, that we need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that.”

So bringing together my reflections from my time in the sea in Cornwall and reflecting on recent posts I want to say the following…

  • Will the fact that these people (Mike, Tom, Ben etc) are leaving GDS change the direction of digital transformation across public services. I’d like to say no of course not – why would a few people leaving a job make such a difference – its worth stating that many people have started and left at GDS and of course even more have come and gone from local government before now without anyone going into meltdown about the future of digital transformation or local services. but unfortunately many people believe it will… Personally I won’t accept it and I don’t want to let that happen
  • The internet as a culture, as a business model, as an enabler is still so far from being fully understood in public services – it isn’t an evolutionary process into the internet – it has to be and must be a radical shift into the internet.
  • Mandates and support are critical if you really want to affect change – but in the absence of those mandates and support can we give ourselves the mandate and how can we quickly build momentum to show something different?
  • It’s time to step up and be loud and continually demand a the fundamental shift that is required to improve services OR we allow the status quo to continue and we know where that ends up…do we really want to see that!!
  • People will always come and go, it’s the lessons and inspiration they bring that truly matters – but how do we maintain momentum without clear figureheads to help drive and push things forward. Where are the local government leaders who are capable of doing this and how can we collectively mobilise them?
  • We need leadership to guide us to a completely new future – one which we need faith in, not to guide us through variations on the past.
  • I hope we haven’t spent the last 5-7 years telling a great story about digital to only step back and let the opportunity pass us by to radically reform services because it is hard and or because we ALL allow decision makers to be driven by the wrong motivations.
  • If we really want to see change, a range of people (I include myself in that) will have to let go, swallow some pride and start to really collaborate and DO things NOW and SHOW something is CHANGING.  If we don’t the dominant financial narrative will continue (its important of course but its the context not the purpose)
  • The primary purpose of public services is to improve people’s lives not to effectively manage the money, that is an enabler much like digital is, information is, data is and of course the people in and around the system are enablers.