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Where are the digital leaders in local government?

Brexit presents a challenge and an opportunity for digital leaders in local government – they need to work together to find the best solutions

On 5 July 2016, the then digital economy minister Ed Vaizey introduced the Digital Economy Bill into Parliament. At the time, he said: “We want the UK to be a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government.”

Calling on the digital leaders community, he added: “The UK has always been at the forefront of technological change, and the measures in the Digital Economy Bill provide the necessary framework to make sure we remain world leaders.”

How do we who work in government and the public sector respond?

A recent roundtable debate organised by recruitment firm Harvey Nash brought together a selection of digital leaders in Birmingham, chaired by Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council. He summarised succinctly what many of us feel in the post-Brexit world.

“Effective leaders have to understand this context and challenge themselves to deliver a sense of place and reconnection in a confused world,” he said.

“We can use the power of digital technology to challenge and meet these opportunities for the future. We all need to consider, what is our role in redesigning the way we interact and communicate with people meaningfully and create more certainty, and more understanding of how people relate to each other? Can we play a real role in uniting Britain?”

What is our role?

So how are we responding to the compelling post-Brexit challenges? We develop and publish digital strategies and invest in digital channels and tools, but there is an absence of true digital leadership responding to the opportunity of digital disruption to really do things differently.

Nearly all government CIOs have the common experience of slow organisational mobilisation when it comes to making the transformational step-change that our citizens and businesses deserve and expect through digital technology. We can either blame the organisational constraints for the inertia, or we can take control ourselves for making a difference.

We can start the disruptive change by following some simple steps:

Embrace and live the change

Talk digital in your work life, in your personal life and even in your sleep. The passion you have as an informed advocate will seep out and infect those you work with.

Put in cheap and fast-to-market agile projects

If it takes more than three months to deliver an outcome then don’t do it. Agile has taught me that breaking down any delivery to a number of short phases maximises the benefits and likelihood of success.

Engage users and consumers at all stages

I am a convert to engaging at start, middle and end, building in time for design and collaboration with those who need to convert digital systems into something beneficial, and often this is the critical success factor. Follow the simple rules of continuous improvement – plan, do, check, act.

Collaborate on the spend

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts – 400 local government organisations in the UK are all re-inventing the wheel.

Don’t use the same old solutions expecting different results

We are tied into software house monopolies that lack innovation and make a lot of money out of the fact we simply don’t collaborate enough in local government. Let’s get more joint development and use more products from smaller suppliers.

What about skills?

The requisite skills won’t be difficult to acquire – they are eloquently described by Libert, Wind and Beck-Fenley of Wharton business school in their February 2015 paper Is your leadership style right for the digital age?

They found that good digital leaders need skills of collaboration and co-creation – throw in agile working and you capture the disruptive nature of the digital age to our workplaces, our style of working and what is expected of us as aspiring digital leaders.

In their research, Wharton found that employees want more ownership rather than following instructions; and customers want to participate in the marketing and development process.

In local government, we are like 400 companies all doing the same thing but with entrenched views about our uniqueness in delivery to our customers and our sovereignty with regards to political constituents. This leads to behaviour that limits our collaboration opportunities.

We need to recognise and embrace the experience of our staff and customers in other areas of their lives where they have digital relationships in which they can make a difference, whether it is ratings on Uber and other websites or sentiment expressed on Facebook or Twitter.

Read more about digital in local government

We will see change in the local government sector when we use digital products to seek engagement from our customers with our important decisions and seek opportunities to co-design our systems with them – or even better, give them access to our data and get out of the way and allow them to drive the digital innovation.

Good examples and best practice are starting to emerge in local government and are best illustrated from information sharing and providing information freely to the public and to private sector companies to come up with their own solutions to problems and services in our communities.

For example, Bath has provisioned real-time parking data on its website, which citizens have consumed, and then provisioned their own parking app, so that visitors and residents can easily check car parking availability.

The time to make a difference in post-Brexit Britain is now.


Sean Green, Tower Hamlets council
 Sean Green is service head ICT, customer access and transformation, at London Borough of Tower Hamlets. If you want to widen the debate and engage in these ideas contact Sean on Twitter at @seansgreen.

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