Has your council signed the local digital declaration? What are you doing about digital skills?

Someone putting sticky notes onto a kanban board on the wall.
Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

The local digital declaration is a few years old now and it remains one of the best articulations of what councils ought to be doing in the digital design, data and technology space.

Hundreds of councils have signed up, motivated – I don’t think I am being overly cynical to say – by the fact that doing so unlocked the door to potential funding for innovative digital projects.

The declaration is pretty challenging though, particularly for local public services where the digital culture of user centred service design and agile delivery are some way from the norm, and where the technology in use can often be as much of a hindrance as it is an enabler.

Because of this, the declaration has always been intended to be somewhat aspirational, I think, and that is why quite a few of its elements are focused on mindset, culture and skills.

Ambitions 4 and 5 of the declaration read:

  • We will demonstrate digital leadership, creating the conditions for genuine organisational transformation to happen, and challenging all those we work with to embrace this Local Digital Declaration.
  • We will embed an open culture that values, incentivises and expects digital ways of working from every member of our workforce. This means working in the open wherever we can, sharing our plans and experience, working collaboratively with other organisations, and reusing good practice.

And within the commitments, there are several that point to the kind of culture change that has to be support by serious learning and development support:

  • Make sure that digital expertise is central to our decision-making
  • Try new things, from new digital tools to experiments in collaboration with other organisations
  • Support our workforce to share ideas and engage in communities of practice by providing the space and time for this to happen.
  • Build capacity in service design
  • Take inspiration and ideas from a wide range of sources, and participate individually in communities of practice and interest outside the organisation

I’d be really interested to know how much work in going on in councils that have signed up to the declaration to make these things happen.

For me, a foundational part of achieving all of this is to have common levels of understanding of core digital capabilities across the organisation. A great start would be to make some scalable training available to everyone, explaining the core concepts vital for any council wanting to make the shift to a digital mindset and culture.

For me those things would be:

  • What is digital? – ensuring that everyone knows what we are talking about when we are talking about digital. Based on the Loosemore definition, but acknowledging that it won’t work for everything, particularly complex, non-transactional stuff
  • User centred service design – covering the basics of why we would design around user needs and not organisation needs, how to do it, and why it brings better outcomes for all
  • Agile delivery – focusing on the core 3 elements of an agile mindset (breaking big problems into smaller ones, getting working results to users and learning from them, and working in collaborative multi-disciplinary teams) rather than the nuts and bolts of scrum or kanban etc
  • Data – recognising that adopting a data driven culture is easier said than done, and that the important work is less in data lakes and visualisations, but more in ensuring that people are willing to change their minds when the evidence points to it being a good idea
  • Technology – refocusing people mind’s on the fact that while technology isn’t the most important thing, it’s still pretty important. How local government technology differs from other sectors and why that means we have to adapt our approaches to suit.

It really feels to me like there’s a trick being missed here – that the lack of basic understanding of digital culture and mindset means that opportunities are being missed, and progress slower than it needs to be.

I’d love to hear what organisations are doing about this!