Tech 100: ‘We must put people at the heart of our digital business as we do already for the rest of our services’

Written by Lorraine McMillan on 4 April 2017 in Comment

Lorraine McMillan, chair of the Local Government Digital Transformation Board, on digital being all about people

Lorraine McMillan - credit East Renfrewshire Council

All councils need to be digital. That doesn’t mean a bit more investment in ICT or a pretty front-end on our websites. It means digital from end-to-end.

Neither does it mean that we stop being a people business. We must put people at the heart of our digital business, as we do already for the rest of our services. This means considering how digital can improve all our services from the perspective of the user.

Transactional services are the most obvious place to start.  Most councils already have a wide range of transactional services available online such as paying for council tax and submitting planning applications.


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However are these online services truly digital? Have they been fully automated end-to-end to be as efficient and easy to use for the customer as possible? My test is whether services are as easy to use as it is to tax my car online. 

Only once councils make online services much easier to use will customers regularly use them.

Increasingly, we are realising that digital can also help with relational services. These are the services that are absolutely dependent on human intervention and interpersonal relationships. This could be in teaching or social work for example, where digital undoubtedly has a big part to play.

In East Renfrewshire Council virtual reality and 3D learning is about to become an embedded part of teaching for all our pupils. Every school is being provided with a class set of virtual reality headsets to expose pupils to entirely new experiences and transport them on virtual reality school trips across the universe. For example, plunging into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and then relating these experiences to learning in geography and biology.

Given the pace of digital transformation and the opportunities it presents, councils are now working together to ensure that through collaboration we make the best use of digital to deliver better services for citizens. In local government we have set up a Digital Transformation Board to harness the energy across councils and last year we launched our strategy.  

Our strategy has three themes. The first is to design and deliver more services digitally, which has to be at the forefront of any digital strategy. To support this we need a second theme that is strong digital leadership.

Digital leadership is absolutely crucial and I’m not talking about ICT expertise. I’m talking about leadership in a digital world where leaders can see the opportunities that digital presents and understand the emerging ways of working to implement digital solutions quickly, successfully and in a customer focused, agile way. This is quite different leadership from that required to deliver a huge ICT system over many years.

To support this, good solid digital foundations are more important than ever. The security of our systems becomes even more important as more users interact with us online and trust the public sector to protect their data properly. However, that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for not moving to digital - we need to focus on mitigating the risk.

Through our board, 28 councils have come together and set up a digital office. We already have a chief digital officer and chief technology officer in place and April will see the launch of a partnership forum involving all 28 councils in helping to prioritise the strategy. It’s exciting times for local government but it is not without some nervousness that we go forward. 

The digital world moves so quickly and is so disruptive that we need to have an open mind to the opportunities ahead. We must not be bound by old models of how a council should operate or make assumptions about how our customers will react without testing those out first.

Whilst digital technology is one of the biggest challenges facing local government it is also one of the few ways which will help us meet increasing demands for services at a time of reducing budgets and keep our focus on the people we serve.

At East Renfrewshire Council we have been looking at how we use digital across the organisation. We quickly realised that a very traditional model of change management wasn’t going to give us the pace and scale of change we needed in a digital world - where the technology can have changed before the ink is dry on the project mandate.

Instead we have looked at the most recent work of John Kotter, a world-leading expert in change management from Harvard Business School. His approach is called Accelerate and he proposes a variation to his well-used eight-stage model of change.

Kotter’s work has guided organisational change programmes worldwide for many years and from his experience organisations that survive in our fast-moving world are those that utilise networks of people across the organisation to lead and manage the change as well as targeted use of the more formal project management structures.

Therefore, alongside the formal hierarchical networks running the organisation, they also have informal fast-moving empowered networks driving change, which run in parallel.  That’s what we have been doing at East Renfrewshire and we believe that we are reaching the tipping point where ideas and progress around digital are coming as much from our informal networks as from our mainstream formal change programmes.

Kotter’s sector leading thinking also brings me back to people. For change he now proposes that we need to win the hearts of our staff as much as minds. In local government if we can demonstrate to even more of our staff that digital will improve the lives of our citizens and make their jobs easier then we can indeed accelerate change.

Lorraine McMillan is chair of the Local Government Digital Transformation Board and chief executive of East Renfrewshire Council

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