The journey to a Future Council is digital

Written by Heike Schuster-James, Programme Manager at Digital Birmingham

I have recently returned from a year-long secondment to the Future Council programme, where I helped initiate change in the organisation. In this post, I’m going to share some of my observations and in particular why digital culture matters.

Future Council

For those that have not heard of the Future Council before, here is a summary of what it aims to achieve.  In brief, it’s about change on a major scale to make the council fit for the future because of external pressures such as diminishing budgets, changing demographics and growing expectations of citizens about what councils can do. And of course there have been a number of critical government reviews of the council’s activities (e.g. Kerslake Report) recommending improvements. In response, Birmingham City Council brought together a range of activities to develop a new organisational culture, improve how we work in partnership with other organisations, develop neighbourhoods and change how we deliver frontline services and back-office functions.
Why then is digital culture so important? Firstly, let me clarify what digital is about, because it is NOT about hardware or software or simply using social media.   A quote from one of my favourites, the Government Digital Services (GDS) blog (quoting Tom Loosemore) says: “Digital means applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations”
To make this statement a bit more tangible, think about:

  • social media and the direct communications they offer to anybody and how it promotes sharing of good ideas
  • open data and how it promotes transparency
  • how the internet empowers people because anybody can find information or set up a trade
  • agile development that promotes taking quick small steps, fail fast and improve.

Here are some examples of how digital culture could become a powerful tool to support the objectives of the Future Council:

Evidence based decisions and service design

Frontline services as different as social care, housing or waste management aim to work differently based on:

  • Understanding citizens and their needs better
  • Designing services based on citizens’ needs and demand for the service

This means getting the data, digesting it and talking to more citizens to qualify analysis results where necessary; sharing our ideas early and seeking feedback. Online media are an easy way to do this.


Frontline services aim to work differently based on:

  • Seeing people as bringing their own strengths i.e. everybody can be an asset
  • Enabling people to be independent and resilient
  • Learning from other organisations and seeing them as equal partners

This means talking to people at eye level and listening to them like we do in the hierarchy free world of social media.  It means to look outward and be curious like picking up suggestions from your favourite blog or Twitter stream.


Frontline and back-office services are due to undergo major changes to reduce costs through better response to customer needs and a lean approach. Thus improving customer satisfaction by focusing on what’s most important and at the same time cutting out unnecessary offers.

Most activities could benefit from an agile approach and it could be done at a really small scale. To resolve one problem in one team at the time, change one behaviour or communication when dealing with one group of citizens and see if it has the desired effect. If it doesn’t work, take note and try something different. If it does, try and apply in a wider context.


With so many changes planned that affect citizens and staff good communication becomes paramount. It means listening to others and the world wide web is a great tool to gain local insight by individually following the communities we serve online (web, blog, twitter, instagram… you name it) or by processing social media trends large scale for the organisation.

It means sharing and keeping people up-to-date for example through blog posts and tweets rather than press releases and the willingness to be challenged and engage in dialogue, with anybody.

Personally, my most exciting experiences last year were, when I got the chance to have a conversation with people, going out to meet the public at District Community Workshops and then turning things on their head by having a ‘listening post’ at TEDx Brum.

This blog post first appeared on the Digital Birmingham Blog here.

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