Sunday, 30 November 2014

Carl's Conundrum of Internal Influence

I'm writing this partly as a reply to an excellent piece that Carl Haggerty published about the disconnect between internal and external influence and partly due to various conversations over the past month about how to make using tools like collaboration platform Pipeline common practice.

This isn't really about Carl though, or Devon County Council, or any other council specifically, it's more a comment on the influence of digital teams in local governments, or lack of, and how to resolve this.

So here's the question that prompted this piece. How can someone who's been recognised nationally for their work, first by winning the Guardian's Leadership Excellent Award and who has more recently been placed in the top 100 of the Local Government Chronicle's most influential people in local government, "sometimes feel rather isolated and disconnected to the power and influence internally".

First, let's consider whether is this a problem to unique to Carl; is he's doing something wrong?

He discusses if he should do things differently, and for me this is an excellent reminder that we should all be on a journey of learning and self-improvement, rather than an admission of doing anything incorrectly. It's the LocalGov Digital mantra of thinking, doing and sharing applied to oneself and in this he's leading by example.

I regularly talk to people from many different councils and it's certainly not a problem unique to Carl. There are those who have created great digital services and saved their local taxpayers tens of thousands, and in a few cases hundreds of thousands of pounds through promoting and delivering good digital practice, who also feel marginalised and unable to extend this success to the whole of their organisation.

So why is this happening?

IT departments generally support how things work now. Yes they provide electronic services, so email has replaced post, word processing has replaced the typewriter, and so on, but the manner in which these electronic services are used is very similar to their analogue counterpart. There are some excellent CIOs in local governments shaking things up, but as a general rule IT services are inward facing and respond to the demands of the business.

Digital service teams are different. They're predominately outward facing, often taking the business' information and publishing it in a clear and customer friendly format. They may use service design principles to borrow, build or buy digital services to meet local users' needs. In the best cases, they work with the business help to re-design the process behind a service to take advantage of the benefits digital can bring.

The problem occurs when service delivery managers see digital practitioners as "IT people". If you're an "IT person" and you're advocating widespread change to how your organisation does business, perhaps you're not going to be taken seriously by some.

The ever straight talking Kevin Jump summed this up well:

and he's right. Might some service managers think "why's that computer nerd telling everyone how we should run our business"?

It could get worse when "that computer nerd" has some success in doing what they proposed with another service a council offers. Suddenly someone who should be supporting the business is succeeding in changing it, "computerising it". They could be coming for you next, and how could they ever know more about what you do, than you and your team? This is madness and it'll be a complete mess.

So collectively, how do we resolve this disparity between perception and reality?

First off, digital and IT teams can be equally guilty of using jargon and buzz phrases and they need to start using language people can understand, not terms like "digital transformation" or "channel shift". Sure we know what they mean, and if you're talking to another digital practitioner it's fine, but if you're trying to teach a new language and sell a concept at the same time that makes it twice as hard for both parties involved.

We need to explain the difference between digital and IT and promote how a progressive approach to both can benefit service delivery teams. Jos Crease recently wrote about this piece about the distinctions between the two and Tom Steinberg wrote about councils being websites back in 2012. These might help.

The Society of IT Managers advocate empowered in-house digital teams which I support. They also suggested that incentives are needed to make this happen, but this is indicative of the problem. If better services and happier customers aren't an incentive enough, then I don't know what is, so clearly there's a disconnect.

So here's what I propose. We need to get the message across to service managers that digital teams aren't "IT nerds" knocking how they run their business. We need to show how we can work with them to save them money, create capacity and make their service users happier, and we need to do this in language they understand.

That isn't going to happen through seminars, reports or papers about digital transformation so we need to start getting service managers involved in the process of digital service design. We need more practical days like the Waste Services Discovery Day that LocalGov Digital ran recently with the Local Digital Campaign

We need to run events that aren't about digital but instead are about better services and happier users and communities, because whether you're a service manager or digital team this is our common goal.

In 2015 we should strive to change any perception that we're stomping our feet and try to do things together, because only working together will digital teams truly be able to influence service delivery, to gain the maximum benefit for their organisation, and more importantly, for users.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.