Creating a ‘Digital First’ culture in your public sector organisation


“2014 needs to be a key year for digital in government”. That’s the conclusion drawn by Tim Lloyd, the Department for Business’s head of digital communications, writing for the Government Computing website.

After examining benefits of a Digital by Default approach, such as staff connecting better with real people and communities, officers building their professional networks and showing their department to be more ‘human’, Lloyd emphasises the importance of organisational culture.

“None of these changes are going to amount to much without a big culture change. It would be all too easy to pick holes in the detail of the changes taking place. ‘The new IT won’t really be much better’, ‘we’re still not allowed to use social media’, ‘collaborative tools are just another platform on top of email’ and so on.”

Lloyd argues that the real public sector challenge is not finding the tools to deliver Digital First services and ways of working, but nurturing digital working among staff. He believes it can be done by ‘trusting each other to use tools sensibly, to share information appropriately and to learn from mistakes in the digital space, rather than to avoid them at all costs.’

Or to summarise still further, by ‘putting users first and working smarter, not harder.’

Lloyd’s post got me thinking about how public sector organisations can achieve the necessary culture shift needed to fully embrace the Digital by Default agenda. In particular, it put me in mind of a post I wrote last August on how to create a culture that supports digital stakeholder engagement.

In that post I argued there are five steps to creating a culture where online stakeholder engagement becomes both effective and instinctive. They are:

1. Putting stakeholder needs and engagement outcomes first.
2. Creating a clear stakeholder engagement strategy
3. Choosing software approved for public sector use
4. Shortlisting and trialling stakeholder engagement software
5. Providing training and mentoring.

In other words, keep focused on what you need to achieve; plan how you intend to achieve it; choose tools that are fit for purpose and simple to use; and support staff as they learn to embrace new ways of working.

I think there are significant parallels here that would benefit organisations trying to embed a Digital First culture in their work. Based on my experience of how public sector organisations have put Kahootz at the heart of their collaborative work, both internally and with external partners, these are my key tips for achieving the long-term culture shift the sector needs. 

1. Involve staff at the outset

Management will have specific objectives for moving to a Digital First culture, such as cost savings and improving service delivery. But remember – it’s your staff who will be responsible for delivering these changes – so involve them in finding ways of making their own working practices efficient, simpler and Digital by Default. Are there digital tools available that will help them collaborate internally and externally; that will bring purpose and context to their work; that will help break down geographical barriers, or give them flexibility to work at home or on the move?

Task colleagues with researching staff priorities like these, and then give them the opportunity to research and source digital tools that can help them work smarter. In this way, moving towards Digital First becomes a ground-up movement, rather than a top-down imposition.

2. Don’t assume management understand digital

One major obstacle to change of any kind occurs when management don’t fully understand the culture they are trying to guide. As blogger Paul Boag puts it, ‘The most dangerous of managers are those who think they are digital when they are not’.

Boag’s point is that many people in senior management in public sector organisations cut their teeth in the pre-digital era, and a significant proportion of them are not really immersed in the digital world. This can lead them to believe that their organisation is ‘already utilising digital to its full potential’ when it is not.

You need strong leaders who understand digital, otherwise they will not be able to inspire colleagues to experiment and innovate with new technologies.

3. Start small – and give staff freedom to innovate

One of the best ways to stimulate ground-up support of a Digital by Default culture is to give staff the freedom to experiment with digital tools. With many cloud software packages available via the G-Cloud CloudStore — often with fully featured free trials — it makes sense to allow staff to experiment. Many public sector organisations have trialled Kahootz online collaboration software in this way to meet an immediate need, such as a small project, only to see the software adopted by colleagues to manage stakeholders, develop shared services, create user communities and more.

4. Be clear about what you want to achieve

While ad hoc experimentation with digital technologies can reap major dividends, you need to put it in the context of a wider strategy. For example, Hampshire County Council’s Digital First strategy links together ambitions and actions in three key areas, enabling it to make fast progress towards the take up of digital services – by staff and customers. These areas aim to:

  • Ensure services are accessible to all, either by increasing opportunities for direct digital access or providing mediated access.
  • Create a strong digital infrastructure to promote business growth, regardless of location – and in turn support strong local economies and sustainable communities.
  • Make public services simple to access and as automated as possible – thereby speeding up transactions, empowering staff and reducing costs. Part of this process involves sharing both front-office and back-office technology between public service organisations so wider ‘shared services’ further improve delivery and increase efficiency.

An approach like this is essential to creating a Digital First culture because it inspires whole organisations to pull together when implementing digital initiatives, and helps prevent duplication of effort.

And when staff begin to enjoy major benefits of digital working, such as simpler procurement, new skills, flexible working, greater control over their work, and providing more for less – you’re well on your way to creating a truly Digital First culture.

Learn more. Download our free guide Creating a Digital Strategy for Local Government below today.

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