Local government transformation needs leadership support and understanding

If councils wish to make their digital ambitions a reality, senior managers need to familiarise themselves with digital ways of working and the role they should play, believes Alex Yedigaroff of dxw

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The first step towards digital transformation in local government is often the signalling of intent to transform through signing up to the Local Digital Declaration. Proof of the right attitude must be present if councils are to engage with the funding that’s been made available by central government. 

That starts at the top, with people who have the power and influence to make change happen.
We’ve seen that general attitudes towards digital transformation have changed for the better over the past year or so. That’s due in no small part to leaders signing up to initiatives like the Local Digital Declaration and Local Digital Fund. But what happens if the leadership team is not convinced? Now that councils are thinking about digital transformation, do they need a new type of leader?
It seems to me that the role of leaders in local government must evolve if councils are to succeed in implementing long-term, viable transformation. We need leaders with intent, and the understanding and willingness to reimagine how their local authority can work. 

Having the right vision is crucial. Equally important is the knowledge of what this means in practice. That means becoming familiar with digital ways of working, and the approach to governance and budgets that is needed to support the user-focused design of council services

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Already, we’re seeing changes like this start to happen. 

The recent appointment of Neil Williams as chief digital officer at Croydon Council is one example. This new role signals a change in the approach the local authority is taking towards digitising services. 

The new Croydon Digital Service will support all council services, implementing a digital strategy to become “more connected and integrated, using digital to reimagine service delivery that is user-centric and meets users’ needs”.

Success for Croydon, and others like them, could cause a snowball effect. I expect to see more and more councils looking to develop the roles of their leadership team to meet the challenges of the digital age.
Digital vs IT
Currently, the CDO role rarely exists in councils, with leadership teams structured around the management of services rather than functions. Typically, heads of IT and digital are lower down the management chain and report into non-specialists. This can lead to misunderstandings at leadership level, which result in complications or diversions on their transformation journey.
One common misconception is that ‘digital’ is a subset of the IT department. As leaders realise they need to ‘do digital’, their understanding of digital as ‘computers’ means it is combined with IT. Where IT departments have evolved to become IT and digital departments, usually nothing has changed except the name.

One common misconception is that ‘digital’ is a subset of the IT department. Where IT departments have evolved to become IT and digital departments, usually nothing has changed except the name.

Sometimes there is a transformation team that is separate from the main digital team. In which case, it often becomes siloed and counterproductive. Teams can even end up competing. Digital should be a partner to transformation, not an all-encompassing overlord or a siloed competitor. 

So, even when the leadership team is convinced, if their understanding of transformation falls short, projects are vulnerable.  

Leaders in councils need to embrace the idea of transforming their services. They need to get to know their digital teams, understand how they work and the changes required to traditional structures and processes. And they need to ensure that knowledge is spread across the organisation. 

Only then will their digital ambitions see real results.


Sam Trendall

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