Digital leadership: Building for a smarter state

Framework for digital?

I was at the Solace conference recently and one of the topics which came up repeatedly (along with finance and devolution) was “digital”. This post is a combination of my reflections on this and an attempt to move the discussion on a bit. I also think that there is something in the ether at the moment – as we move towards the next spending review I see signs in all parts of the public sector that people are starting to take the need to make a paradigm shift to digital ways of working seriously. Its clear though that we don’t really know what that means.

When I wrote about the 7 tribes of digital last year  I was, and still am, frustrated that people keep seeing “digital” through just one lens. This has moved on and while people are still a bit too stuck in the current technology wave around data there is seems to be a wider belief and urgency around the transformational potential of “digital” – but no clear consensus as to what that means.   You know what – this is not good enough – we need to do better.  This piece feels a bit unfinished but I’m offering it up anyway –  I don’t think that we are each going to make sense of this in isolation – the question of the leadership demands of digital needs a wider debate.

The phrase ‘building for a smarter state’ came up more than once and I have been thinking about it a lot – I’m doing some work on smart city concepts at the moment and there is something in the word ’smart’ which gets my back up but I can’t quite pin it down. If however we are talking about developing public services which make the best of digital and networked technologies and the data they create to have real world and human outcomes then I am all for it.

In common with the smart in smart cities, the digital revolution is wrestling with the lack of a firm definition of what we actually mean. I’m not proposing to try and sort this out here – but in order for the rest of this post to make sense this is the definition that I am using:

“Digital” in its widest sense refers to an approach to disruptive systemic change which is often, but not always, enabled by digital and networked technologies. This change is both social (culture and behaviours) as well as technical (process design and infrastructure).

Digital isn’t the point of the change – but it is both a driver and an enabler.

The 7 tribes piece outlines some of the different strands of thinking within the landscape of digital but here I am trying to turn this into more of a framework that could be used to realise the fuller definition of digital rather than being stuck deploying particular technologies without the potential or momentum for system change.  Since writing the 7 tribes piece I have been thinking a lot about future workforce requirements for two reasons; 1) you need to get the right people in place if you are going to make a radical shift 2) you can’t expect people to embrace change if they don’t see their own place in it. So the 7 tribes can be developed in two ways:

1. As a list of the disruptive waves of technology that need to be responded to
2. As a framework for the future skills needed in a digital and networked organisation

Part of this framework needs to include some kind of description of a target model architecture but thats perhaps one for another post.  There are a few key concepts that I think also need to be in the frame and which need more thinking about – there are others but these are the ones in my mind at the moment:


Person centred
The question of digital identity and data management is going to become more and more pressing as we commit more of ourselves to the online world. The current growth of health tracking and quantified self apps and services sees a new intimacy to the data which we are storing online and the way in which we present ourselves digitally. The breaking down of the advertising model which has supported online media for the last 15 years also causes us to look at the value of our online activity. Concerns about online privacy and security are a constant presence in headlines and while we still appear to hold a cognitive dissonance that allows us to see these concerns at the same time as failing to change our behaviours we are one killer app away from adopting new behaviours in the identity space.

This is a matter of deep concern for civil society if we wish to avoid negotiating with private providers for access to our citizens – which arguably we already do when we try and do online engagement via a platform such as Facebook.

More pragmatically there are three main reasons for taking a person centred view of services:

  • User centred design is the acknowledged best practice approach for developing effective digital services
  • By building from the person outwards you remain flexible and able to adapt to changing organisational structures
  • Person centred thinking makes it easier to consider service users as potential co-producers of services rather than seeing them as a sea of un-met needs

Finally – and this is a bit of a soapbox statement but true nonetheless; person centred design should be about increasingly agency and efficacy of individuals – it has to be done with people and not to people.

A shift to persistent delivery
Related to the idea of person centred approaches is the need to appreciate the persistence of a digital environment. There are three aspects to this on my mind:

  • We need to adapt to an ‘always on’ or persistent context and by doing so accept that this is a complex system and not a controlled environment and adjust our attitudes to risk accordingly
  • We should have reasonable expectations of being able to access systems and data wherever and whenever we want to.
  • We have to make ability and adaptability the way in which we do business – we are working in a constantly shifting context

The flip side of persistence is that nothing is ever finished – websites needs gardening and nurturing as they are not made of stone.

The relationship between digital and IT
This last point leads to the fact that of all of the relationships and cultural change that is needed within a system the relationship between digital and IT is probably the most crucial. Put simply, it will be almost impossible to deliver a digital strategy without the active participation of the IT team but they cannot be allowed to be a blocker with respect to change. This needs to be addressed through culture, method and leadership because its not simply about a difference of opinion about approach with a simple right and wrong answer. Part of this comes back to attitudes to risk which are fundamentally different in these two disciplines or approaches and which need reconciling at a senior level if you are going to be able to get the best out of practitioners.

What next?

This piece goes hand in hand with this short description of the theory of change which I work to – I’m working on a number of projects to keep developing both of these frameworks and will keep blogging as I do so……you’re only as good as your last experiment as we are none of us experts in a world that is constantly changing.

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