I was invited to a panel debate recently about whether the public sector has the capacity and skills to embrace ‘digital’. It’s an important topic and you can argue both ways (which always makes for a good debate!). I was asked to argue in favour (i.e., yes, we do have the potential capability) – and we lost the vote at the end after an impassioned discourse!
Here are my thoughts. You can make up your own mind….
It always strikes that, when something new like ‘digital’ comes along, the public sector tends to want to buy in the answer. We sometimes seem to lack the confidence in our ability and our existing talent to grow or develop in the face of challenge. This is not universally true, and many public organisations have proven able to adapt as fast as anywhere in the private sector, especially recently.
As an analogy, the public sector are in Ray Mear’s territory.. suddenly shipwrecked in an alien country, without enough to eat and some pretty hungry predators around – the demographic time bomb, social care demands, customer expectation rising, new technology, cuts to budgets… But I reckon Ray wouldn’t start by parachuting in some advisors to save us (although some rations would be welcome!). He would advocate creativity, hard work, managing and assessing risk, quick reactions and adaptability as the route to survival.
That doesn’t mean we should not be taking advice from both public and private sector experts and sharing best practice. Indeed, that is essential if we are to respond quickly and at the same time manage risks of change. But every business is getting on the digital bandwagon and the fares are going up as everyone clamours to attract the best talent. We need to be judicious about how we source and externalise our digital capacity, using external expertise to support and grow our own teams for the future.
I remember the IT revolution of the 1980s. Many existing IT departments were considered too inflexible (and many were) so we outsourced. By the 1990s we were able to start to embark on a swathe of exciting new IT projects, especially in the public sector.. which, during the 1990s and early 2000s often crashed and burned in a spectacular public display. We wrongly believed that simply buying in the technology answers would be faster, cheaper, more innovative and lower risk. Sometimes it was true, but too often the fastest, most successful, cleverest and lowest cost delivery programmes were by the in-house teams where they proved themselves to be able to truly adapt – as repeated SOCITM surveys have shown.
This does not mean we all need to run our own IT departments and datacentres, or that outsourcing cannot work. Nor does it imply that we already have the right culture, capacity or capacity to do ‘digital’ without outside help (we don’t). Smaller organisations in particular will increasingly struggle to justify and sustain in-house IT provision and will need to join forces with others. But we should be under no illusion that technology and now ‘digital’, are strategic, not commodities. This is especially true in the public sector, where the complexity, pace of change, scale, diversity and unpredictability of requirements is greater than much of the private sector. Misunderstanding this has been the downfall of the savings (and profits) or many an IT-enabled ‘transformation’ programme.
‘Digital services’ require a different model for the design and the delivery of services. For the public sector ‘digital’ (if done well), is probably the nearest thing to a ‘silver bullet’ which can reduce cost whilst improving improve services and enabling sharing. Yet done badly, the reverse is true – higher costs, disenfranchised customers and IT seen as a barrier to joining things up.
It is the risk and uncertainty, coupled with the size of potential benefits, which sometimes result in ‘digital’ being spoken of in reverential terms. We want ‘digital leaders’ to take us safely to digital nirvana; ‘entrepreneurial innovators’, gifted leaders, aged under 25 years, but with 20 years of ‘hard-bitten’ delivery experience. Digital is “the ectoplasm of technology”.
Yet when it comes down to it, the success or failure of digital is more about culture than it is the technology and its more about collective action than it is vested in a single revolutionary or adventurer, such as a CDO or CIO. It needs a collaborative corporate culture with a willingness to change, high-levels of creativity, good risk and change management skills and above all a team that can help bridge the gap between technology opportunity and business need.
So whilst we are going to need a lot of external help along the way, we also need to equip ourselves for long-term fundamental change. We must therefore build on the potential of the talent we have, a talent which knows the business and the challenges we face and which has often already proved able to deliver some of the best, most efficient and the most imaginative services in any sector.