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Discovering what leaders need to make decisions in the digital age

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When we launched the Local Digital Declaration in July 2018, we said that we need to make sure all local government leaders everywhere have access to the skills and training they need to capitalise on all the opportunities that technology brings.

Over the past two months, we’ve been researching what leaders and their teams need, what good looks like in digital leadership training, and designing the content for a course based on that research.

Participants at our consultation workshop
Participants at our consultation workshop

Great digital leadership is essential to sustainable digital service transformation

This strand of the Declaration work started from the recognition that the greatest successes in digitally enabled service transformation are happening in councils where leaders create the space for digital practitioners, user researchers and service designers to flourish.

I vividly remember the delight we felt as practitioners in Bristol City Council, introducing agile approaches and user needs based digital design, when our Chief Executive said “Don’t ask the Board about the right design for the website, tell us what works best for users and we will approve it”.

But we also know that the digital teams in some councils still struggle to convince their senior leaders that it’s safe to iterate in small increments or to move away from traditional products and vendors to newer, cloud-based, more flexible services. So we wanted to find a way to bottle the knowledge and understanding from leading councils and share it wherever it’s needed.

This isn’t skills training - as one of the people we interviewed put it, Digital Leadership training should be about “what senior leaders need to understand enough about in order to make decisions in the digital age”

The proposition we’ve been testing

We had some ideas but wanted to do some user research before we could be confident that we are on the right track. So over the past couple of months we’ve done several things:

  • Spoken to organisations delivering transformation and digital training for leaders in the sector already - like Solace, LGA, GDS Academy and the Public Services Transformation Academy.
  • Run a survey of CEOs, Directors and people involved in delivering digital change
  • Held a workshop with council colleagues to invite direct feedback

Through this we’ve been testing an initial proposition:

  1. Senior leaders in councils would benefit from learning:
    a) how the internet will continue to change and shape public services
    b) what good looks like through real case studies of local digital service transformation
    c) what hands-on agile digital service design feels like
  2. The course should be aimed at CEOs, Executive/Strategic Directors, Service Directors, Heads of Service, Leaders/Mayors, and Members with the relevant portfolio.
  3. The offering would be delivered as an initial 2-day block with one-night residential, followed by support for ongoing peer networking and a review day after a period of time back in the organisation.
  4. The first cohort of the course would be reserved for leaders in councils that are selected for funding through the Local Digital Fund. From the second cohort onwards we will offer places to any council that has signed up to the Declaration and made commitments to deliver service transformation in line with its principles.
A screenshot of our digital leadership training consultation survey
Our digital leadership training survey

What have we learned so far?

In our research on who offers learning and development for digital leadership we found that a number of organisations have developed great learning experiences within their own organisations, that extend over a long period - between six months and a year - and often involve a strong degree of self-direction and links to live projects that organisation is doing.

We also found a number of similarly structured offerings aimed at the leadership of local public services in the complex and interdependent world councils now operate within.

For instance, Solace offers CEOs and aspiring future leaders a range of intensive development courses like IGNITE and Total Leadership which develop many of the underlying attitudes and behaviours that digital leadership requires. And the LGA offer councillors a variety of development opportunities, from the Leadership Essentials seminars to an Academy. But neither of them include a specific focus on the nature of the internet age and the impact of digital technology and data on council business models and services.

In the past year, DCMS had run a “Digital Government for Director Generals” course, aimed at senior Civil Servants, delivered as a five day residential, by a stellar cast of people with serious central government digital transformation credentials.

And the GDS Academy has been delivering agile and digital training to leaders in the Civil Service from their four locations across the UK  (London, Newcastle, Leeds, and Manchester) and provide ‘pop-up’ academies in Wales and the South West. They have trained over 8000 civil servants in the past three years, and now have a capability that is available to local government.

Feedback from senior leaders and sector bodies that train CEOs and Members strongly suggested that council CEOs and Directors wouldn’t be able to commit an entire week out of the office - our survey has confirmed this with the majority of responses saying they would commit to two days.

We also know that council CEOs and Directors will come with strong backgrounds in operational service delivery and expect to see real examples of transformation in local public services that they can interrogate and feel confident are relevant to their context.

We are also very aware that the leaders we are targeting are likely to be engaged with the Solace and LGA networks, and will want to see how this digital leadership course relates to the other offerings they may be signed up to already. Indeed, one way of offering this new learning on digital leadership might be to embed it within existing courses so that it is delivered in context.

Our refined proposal

Our survey responses showed that GDS is recognised as a centre of digital excellence, but that LGA and Solace are thought of as the places to look for local government leadership training - so we are working with all of them to explore how we could best combine their strengths, and hope to release a more detailed curriculum and delivery plan next month.

Follow @GavinBeckett on Twitter and subscribe to the Local Digital newsletter to keep updated. 

Are you a leader who wants to understand how digital enables you to change your organisation? Complete the survey and let us know your needs

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