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This article was originally published in the MJ

It is generally accepted that creating digital public services is more about changing culture and behaviours in organisations than it is about introducing new technologies.

It is surprising therefore that we seem to spend relatively little effort either defining what we really mean by ‘digital’ in practical terms, or the skills required to achieve this state of digital maturity.

This, I believe, is one reason that we misuse and abuse the potential of technology by using it to mask or to sustain out-of-date processes.

Out-dated processes manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Perhaps, the obligatory face-to-face weekly team briefing, or being wedded to paper records, or a convoluted ‘command and control’ approval processes for decision-making. These practices come from a pre-digital age, though technology can make them all (marginally) more efficient, without needing fundamental change.

For instance, using telephone conferencing for some in the team, having paper record location systems and using email chains for decision-making.

But for those councils that are becoming truly digital, a step change is happening in how they function before technology is applied, from the ‘bottom to top’, and from the deepest back office teams to customer facing services teams.

One cultural change which results from digital operating is a new relationship with staff, partners, suppliers and customers (read ‘citizens’ for public services – or clients, or patients or tax payers or just ‘service users’). In a digital model, people are trusted (empowered) to do things without recourse for approvals – through automation, self-service, retrospective approval and so forth.

This can make politicians and executives rather anxious if they are used to feeling in control in traditional ways. For instance, there may be fears about allowing staff to use social media, or suppliers being able to check and report electronically on their performance, or citizens having access to and amending their own records, or automated end-to-end payment systems.

There are unquestionably new risks from introducing digital mean – risks to reputation, confidentiality, fraud and safety – hence the need for new skills and training. But this is the digital world we now inhabit, and it is what councils need to grapple with, to reap the efficiency and productivity benefits. This is much more than implementing new IT or dealing with legacy technology, requiring an alliance between HR and IT professionals in particular to re-equip the workforce for the future.

HR has a central function in defining jobs, competencies, individual performance measures, digital policies and workplace impact of technology-driven change programmes (so-called ‘digital transformation’).

Yet the HR aspects of digital change are often tackled organically and in a piecemeal fashion, through individual programmes, teams, and specific technology competencies, rather than a holistic and comprehensive assessment of the skills needed. This includes defining what skills should be brought in and which need to be nurtured internally.

Looking further ahead, this will become even more pressing. New technologies are now not only changing the nature of many professional jobs, but they are doing away with them altogether. This is unprecedented. In the past, we have seen many manual and unskilled roles vanish, but now we are on the verge of professionals’ roles changing or being eliminated as systems become more intelligent and able to be used by anyone.

Councils need to start by assessing their current skills and competency levels, and then decide how to tackle the gaps. They need to set clear expectations on digital competency:

  • Leadership positions – digital competency in general, in understanding the potential of technology to transform and its impact in specific services areas and risk models
  • Staff – data handling skills and systems competency is now as important a skill as the three ‘R’s’ in the past, at all levels since all need to use model tools
  • Politicians – need to be competent at using internal systems, and equipped as politicians to engage with citizens effectively using social media and new communications tools.

Professional specialists also need new skills as their roles change over the next few years, e.g.:

  • HR need to understand how workforce jobs are fundamentally changing
  • Finance need to be equipped to deal with new risks in automation
  • IT need new technology knowledge and business skills to deliver to a digital agenda
  • Legal need to understand the ramifications of digital admissibility and GDPR impact
  • Procurement need to be able to foster new electronic relationships with suppliers
  • Social workers need to support clients who will increasingly depend on technology.

The list goes on, and these skill gaps must to be addressed as part of a strategic HR plan. A failure to anticipate the skills, job design and competency levels, is a failure to deal with the growing gap between technology potential and business need facing the public sector. It is also a growing risk as technology dependency results in new vulnerabilities and regulatory obligations, such as GDPR.

More importantly, the skills and practices necessary for digital will help to ensure new ways of working and that systems are designed well, so that they do not, for example, depersonalise or disenfranchise people as digital services are implemented.

Partners, citizens and suppliers need digital skills too, if they are to engage effectively with a ‘digital council’ and we are to see genuine delivery channel shift. This implies working with communities to help to address wider skills gaps, through support programmes, contact centres, community groups, schools, digital skills courses for adults – in fact any way that will accelerate digital capability in an area.

Local authorities are undertaking this journey from different starting positions and with different priorities, so different approaches are justified. Some are already well advanced, and have dealt with many of their legacy technology and management barriers. But wherever they are on this journey, digital skills and competence from top to bottom must be prioritised above technology knowledge.

Eduserv’s Executive Briefing Programme current core theme is ‘Skills for digital change’, as part of this work Jos is conducting research and running a series of roundtables.

About the author

Jos Creese

As Principal Analyst, Jos acts as the face of our Local Government Executive Briefing programme, independently educating IT and business leaders on a range of business issues and technological challenges. Jos is an independent consultant specialising in helping organisations shift to digital operating models, especially in the public sector. With over 25 years' IT management experience, he has held a number of CIO and non-executive director positions, including with Hampshire County Council as CIO and CDO, supporting business change programmes enabled by IT and leading many IT shared services and IT partnerships in the region. He was president of the Society of IT Management in 2010 and is current president of BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT). He has been named the ‘most influential and innovative UK CIO’ listed in the ‘Top 100 CIO’ since its inception.

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