Digital leaders in the local government sector

members of local government at DL Cities workshop

Written by Mikko Lintunen, Founder & Managing Director, Townbase

About the author: Mikko Lintunen worked more than 13 years at Nokia, where he headed for example global knowledge management programme, and at Microsoft, where he led the development of digital TV, books and news services. Five years ago he founded his own consultancy and solution company Townbase to help local authorities in the digital transformation.

Complexity in building digital capabilities in the government sector

There are 408 principal (unitary, upper and second tier) councils in the UK – 26 county councils, 192 district councils, and 190 unitary councils, and there are 343 councils in England.

All councils are facing the same challenge: how to prepare the right capabilities for digital economy. 

On the 12th of February, I was asked to facilitate a discussion in the Digital Leaders workshop in Wigan, where participants from councils like Manchester (GMAC), Wigan, Leeds, Sunderland, Suffolk, Cardiff, Newcastle and Bristol took part in an active debate about skills and training needs in the new digital economy.

As digital services become more commonplace in our everyday lives, councils are facing many challenges. Some of the underlying facts are that people are more mobile and can more freely choose where to live and where to work. Trade is moving online, which has a huge impact on local economies. These trends put pressure on rethinking the funding model of the councils’ service production and delivery. As the central government funding for the councils is declining on average ten per cent every three years, funds need to be allocated with good focus. Digitalisation can help achieving cost advantages while allowing better service production and delivery.  

“When we look at the 750+ services our councils are providing, we see a huge pressure on rethinking the way we deliver obligatory services and choose which optional services we can produce”, said one of the participants. “How we deliver these services is key, and digitalisation offers many options and tools to do things better”, continued another participant. 

The structure of the discussions

To get most out of the discussion about capabilities, the two groups I facilitated focused on slightly different sub-topics: building capabilities, deploying and using new capabilities as well as programs which can enhance the impact and uptake and build a better and more sustainable future for people, businesses and enabling council. 

Building and continuously improving capabilities

With our first table of participants we had a lively discussion about building capabilities, about necessary skills and training, and the mindset, which may sometimes require a paradigm shift. 

In the analog world, service delivery could be defined week one and delivered the next week over the counter. In the digital world, more effort is required in the initial phase. 

  1. Describing individual services comes first. The key question is: ‘What are we doing and for whom?’
  2. Documenting these services, their objectives and audience in the digital world is paramount. They form the basis of “needs”. Needs based analysis shed light on whether the options of various processes and systems can deliver the desired outcomes. 
  3. Thirdly, the processes describing how the services are delivered require detailed attention. This initial work may already require breaking down silos which may currently exist in council organisations. But this work is crucial for ensuring that processes work.
  4. Processes are supported by systems. All systems have features and functionalities based on needs and requirements, which need to be defined. Non-functional requirements like 24/7 availability, accessibility of systems, and desired time from starting a request to receiving a service can be based on current law (for example: how fast should a person get medical aid), or internally defined delivery objectives, like the maximum time for getting a response to a general enquiry. 
  5. Features and functionalities are defined keeping the above in mind. To design the right features and functionalities, a list of additional requirements is drawn from understanding the underlying needs.
  6. Selecting systems for digital service delivery may be simple or complex. The complexity depends on the desired outcome. Previously prepared service descriptions, processes and needs assessment help choose the systems which can deliver desired outcomes.
  7. Systems themselves can be autonomous. But focusing on the outcomes helps understand the level of interaction between the systems. In large enterprises solution areas, combining several systems focusing on the shared outcomes, are be formed to manage complexity. 
  8. To close the loop, outcomes need to be monitored and analysed in order to continuously improve processes and systems capabilities. Generally, this is done on process and solution level and cascaded down to the individual systems and processes they support. 

When it comes to skills and skill sets, this type of new environment requires new skills in the local government. As one of the participants explained; “it is hard to come by the skills which are needed to build (aforementioned) digital capabilities.” “The skills required to make an informed decision requires multidisciplinary teams and we don’t have all of these skills always available,” continued another participant. 

Today many projects fail due to the lack of disciplines which are required for successful outcomes. 

Disciplines such as social sciences, psychology, and user action design, user experience design, systems engineering and process engineering are disciplines not often seen in councils’ job announcement boards. However, these skills and roles are essential in council organisations as the hardest job in creating the digital world is to define what it should look like, feel like and result in.  It is not always cost-effective to outsource these tasks, as the work is never over. The digital world is all about re-iteration, continuous improvement and optimisation. It is all about feedback loops, delivering services better over time – and, “hopefully more effectively and efficiently gaining more empowered and satisfied citizens”, like one of our participants put it.    

One of the members added in the end of the discussion; “nobody cares what’s under the hood – people just want services that work.” And this requires a lot of pre-work.

Utilising services and interacting with councils

On the flip side of producing and delivering services are the customers. The aim is naturally to fulfil law stipulated requirements, but also to ensure that people are comfortable when utilising new digital channels. 

Wigan council’s ‘Big Listening Project’ is a case to the point. Instead of trying to come up with answers alone, the project was set up for listening to what people have to say. More than 10 000 ideas were obtained e.g. from one-2-one discussions. The insight helped the council define their digital mission as “Harness the power of digital to improve people’s opportunities and prepare for the future”, taking into account the people’s varied levels of knowledge of the digital world. The guiding principle was coined into the statement: “Consider our digital agenda whatever we do”.

“More than 12% of our people have never used internet, and a high percentage of our people do not have data access home or on their mobile phones,” explained one of the group participants.  

“Many new digital channels may also pose challenges to hearing and vision impaired. We have to have readiness to serve these audiences as well. Technology can help”, said one of the participants.

Designing digital services based on the lowest common denominator usually results in services that everyone can access and use. This might sub optimize some of the outcome’s objectives, but it is a necessary consideration that councils can’t afford to lose their sight on. The services really are for everyone. 

What to consider when setting your ‘digital-first agenda’ 

In the second group we discussed “digital life-skills”, and how to improve and up-skill people, and what type of activities and programs can help achieve more digitally savvy communities. 

Digital access

Sometimes we need to start from the beginning. Several members explained that actions like organising digi-courses, handing out tablets and computers as loan devices, and offering free Wi-Fi had been effective ways to familiarise people with new digital services and technologies. Understanding that the digital world requires investments – and investment support on individual level was seen as an important factor to get people to use digital services. 

Digital literacy

Digital Eagles by Barclays was mentioned by some as exemplary work towards improving digital literacy in communities. Many councils also offer free courses and deep dives ranging from using the internet browsers to learning how to code. These types of activities are an important part of the digital agenda and increase the inclusiveness and participation of everyone.  

Skills & educational strategy

One mentioned area of disconnect was between the general education system and the needs of the local areas, and enterprises. “Education strategies and national curriculum could better reflect the needs of the local enterprises, and we have many tools at our disposal,” explained one participant. “The problem is sometimes connecting insights from local enterprises with educational institutes implementing the curricula,” continued another member. Collaboration would help create future skills pools, where people and future jobs are better connected. In the GMCA area, media, aviation and space technology, and biosciences were mentioned as examples. 

All discussion members agreed that on-the-job learning, shadowing, face2face learning, and internships were important elements of the education-mix to build future skill pools. Too few opportunities are still offered to satisfy the youngsters’ hunger for knowledge. 

The idea that local enterprises and schools (with council) could also do a lot together to support the young, got unanimous support. For example, offering portals on education and career advice was mentioned as one, where people could see what education options would unlock what jobs. “It is not always clear (for the young) that early choices in A-levels may unlock or block future education options”, explained one participant. 

The whole table also agreed that as many future jobs don’t even exist today, it is sometimes challenging to provide help and assistance for future education and career options and opportunities.

Digital principles

“As user demographics vary, anything we do we need to co-design with people”, said one of the members, continuing that “people should always know what data and information is collected and why. This is not always happening, and people are wary of giving their personal details to different services.” NHS services were mentioned as one area where people are still reluctant to use digital services – as not enough information is provided on who can access the data and how. 

One member stated “it would be prudent to give people a full access to their own data; whatever data is collected and stored of them”  – a service the central or local government could provide in the future, the idea being that access to one’s own data would potentially foster more trust and uptake of different services. 

In summary, building capabilities for the digital transformation requires a holistic approach in the way services are designed, developed and delivered, in how people are included in the process, and in ensuring trust, openness and transparency. Ensuring everyone can take part, be engaged in building a better future together requires a pro-active approach in up-skilling people – so that nobody is left behind. 


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