Why the public sector needs its leaders to be digital leaders now
Mark Gannon, Director of Client Solutions at Netcall, discusses
There has never been a more important time to focus on digital leadership in local government. It is imperative. For a long time now ‘underfunded’ and ‘understaffed’ have become words synonymous with the public sector, and they have dominated news headlines. Local authority ‘spending power’ falling 16% since 2010, and staff numbers dropping significantly and consistently since 1999 in the UK, for example. We talk about hitting a breaking point, but this time we really have.
Rising inflation has had a detrimental impact on public spending. Councils are facing their 12th round of budget savings, and these budget cuts are not helping to meet customer demand. Unfortunately, councils are still reeling from the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the decade of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash – austerity that some would argue never ended as it feels like we are still going through it.
Leaders are now left wondering how to continue to deliver services as complex and wide-ranging as adult social care, and revenues and benefits, to housing and waste management, when budgets are being slashed and staff numbers are dwindling. Meanwhile, citizen expectations continue to rise.
Employees expectations must be met
Public sector ‘customers’, or ‘citizens’, are not like other customers. They don’t really have a choice to consume or not consume services. Yet citizens rightly expect local government services that are similar in style, quality and speed to those offered by some of the best known digitally-enabled businesses. And they’re not alone – council workers have the same high expectations of their employers.
Indeed, the sector is struggling with recruitment and retention. Therefore, they are suffering. Suffering from what would be better described as ‘brain haemorrhage’ rather than ‘brain drain’, with the most enthusiastic and digitally savvy people seeking to work for digitally-advanced organisations. Skills and experience are leaving the sector, as people become disenchanted when they realise they can’t make a difference with legacy applications and technology, and an organisational culture that fails to embrace modernisation and a digital mindset.
Digital leadership is a must have
All councils are, of course, accelerating their journeys to digital, “applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations in order to meet these challenges, achieve efficiencies, increase productivity and deliver cashable savings”.
However, the reality is that there are still many in senior leadership positions that simply don’t understand digital, and this has been an ongoing topic – but it is a problem where the digitally savvy can be the solution.
The reality is that every public sector organisation is a digital organisation, and every public sector leader is a digital leader. It’s therefore essential that those in the highest positions are advocates for digital and understand the characteristics of being a digital organisation, including how to create the kind of culture that encourages digital thinking and, ultimately, champions the development of good digital services.
Cultivating a new culture
Culture is one of the biggest barriers to achieving digital transformation, and this is not something you just create or ‘add’ into a team. It takes place through small changes and incremental advances. Therefore, the single most important job of a digital leader is to create the right environment for a culture of digital transformation to flourish by modelling and/or supporting behaviours that reinforce this. These cultures are often built from the ground up, rather than top-down. By giving teams on the frontline the freedom to ideate and innovate, digital leaders can help shape organisational culture for the greater good, benefitting both citizens and council employees.
Visibility, capability building and collaboration all play major roles in this too. In the right environment, even small teams can harness digital to demonstrate the art of the possible that can cross organisational boundaries. For example, what started as a waste application created with low-code technology at Hertsmere Council helped spark a culture of transformation that has had a ripple effect throughout the organisation, with more and more departments coming forward to update their systems and processes. By bringing staff on the journey, the culture of the organisation shifted to embrace more agile and digital ways of working.
Similarly, Cumbria Council rolled out the UK’s first ever local Test-and-Trace system in just 10 days, before the national government system was up and running, using low-code. This was the catalyst for the council’s dedicated digital team to write innovation into every job description, with continuous improvement now very much part of the team’s DNA. Working together to roll out new services has generated a buy-in that is best described as ‘infectious’.
Faced with increasing demand, Tewkesbury Council turned to digital for their online services to not only improve citizen services but, by simplifying back-office systems and reducing admin time, significantly improve the council’s finances. In fact, in the first 18-months the council saved over £100,000 net of investment.
The attributes of a great digital leader
As well as promoting a culture of innovation, being able to advocate the benefits of digitalisation to a team and create a dynamic of confidence among them is invaluable. Then there’s the matter of ownership; that is, realising that digital transformation is an organisational capacity equivalent to financial management, health and safety and good governance, rather than just being limited to a CDO/CTO/CDIO responsibility. Digital transformation isn’t an opt in. It is the future that we all need in order to move forward.
The best digital leaders are those who are keen to learn and share their expertise with their team, to help those around them develop into digital leaders themselves. Digital leaders are the missing cog that teams today need. They fund teams, rather than specific projects, and cultivate learning mindsets by encouraging teams to collaborate and share their successes with each other, seeking support when needed and always learning from one another.
Some may suggest that digital leadership takes courage. Nevertheless, the alternative of not embracing digital isn’t really an option in today’s public sector. That said, like all heroes in any story, digital leaders need the right supporters behind them too – those that are passionate about delivering public services and advocate for digital autonomy in local authorities, and those with experience and understanding of the unique challenges faced by the industry and the ability to provide the right solutions to allow digital leadership to flourish.
Mark Gannon is Director of Client Solutions at Netcall.
Netcall is a leading provider of low-code and customer engagement solutions.
A UK company quoted on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange. By enabling customer-facing and IT talent to collaborate, Netcall takes the pain out of big change projects, helping businesses dramatically improve the customer experience, while lowering costs.
Over 600 organisations in financial services, insurance, local government and healthcare use the Netcall Liberty platform to make life easier for the people they serve. Netcall aims to help organisations radically improve customer experience through collaborative CX.
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