Why culture and skills make digital magic happen

Local public services are facing all manner of challenges, which can be fairly neatly summed up / grossly over-simplified as:

  • The need to meet increasing levels of demand
  • The need to make organisations as efficient and cheap to run as possible

The use of technology to support transformative change is not a new concept, and there have been multiple rounds of activity over the years to put it into practice. From putting business processes onto mainframe computers, to the development of line of business systems used by staff on their desks, through to the days of ‘e-government’ where forms were put online to enable self-service on the web.

The last ten years have seen a new focus under the term ‘digital’. This word has come to mean a lot of things to different people and organisations – from a very broad sense of being ‘modern’ to more specific meanings around employing cloud technology, or agile delivery methods, or trying to copy Netflix in as many ways as possible.

The working definition I tend to favour is that coined by Tom Loosemore, one of the founder members of the Government Digital Service in the UK:

Applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.


Which isn’t always perfect in every situation, but it’s a good start and can always be tweaked to suit local context. I like it because it broadens the focus to include culture as well as technology, business models as well as processes – and it makes clear why it is being done: because expectations have changed dramatically in the last decade, of both service users and the people who help to deliver them.

So that’s digital defined reasonably well, and we must now consider how it can help meet the twin challenges posed above. How is digital different to what has gone on before in the technology-enabled change space? And how does that make it more likely to help us do better for less?

  • Digital culture encourages us to be open and transparent about what we are doing and why we do it; it encompasses learning and collaborating; it  focuses on an agile way of delivering results; and it motivates us to take a user-centred approach to designing products and services.
  • Digital processes are designed to be as convenient for the user as possible, often all being done via a device such as a phone, with no need for forms, or pens, or envelopes and stamps. Not only are they more convenient, they are often quicker and cheaper to deliver, too.
  • Digital business (or operating) models reduce the number of intermediaries between the user with a need and the ability to meet that need. Uber links you up directly to a cab driver, no need to chat to a dispatch caller first, for example.
  • Digital technology – things like cloud, mobile, open standards, and so on – makes a difference because so much more is now possible. Lots of technology projects have failed in the past because the tech wasn’t quite there in terms of being flexible or easy to use enough. Now – quite often – it is.

Now, the first of the bullets in my list above, and the first of the elements of digital that Tom  mentions, is culture – and not by accident. Culture encompasses the way we do things and also the way we think about them. If an organisation wants to implement new ways of working, using new approaches, new processes, new technology and maybe even an entirely new operating model, then it can’t do so with the same culture and the same skills as before.

So, as part of any digitally themed change programme, there must always be a track to bring people in the organisation up to speed and confident with digital culture and ways of doing things:

  • Those in leadership positions in the organisation needs to be comfortable with uncertainty and agility in achieving outcomes.
  • The people doing the work itself – your specialists – need to be confident working in agile teams, delivering user-centred digital work.
  • Teams need to be able to work together well, often in hybrid or completely remote environments, sometimes doing certain activities that are new to them, and being open to learning by doing.
  • Everyone in the organisation needs to understand the core elements of digital, as outlined in Tom’s definition. This is so that when their service is involved digital work, the concepts aren’t new to them, reducing their resistance to the change.

Too often this vital work, building digital confidence,  is missed out. Sometimes organisation bring in skills externally via consultants or agencies, and when they go, so does their experience, leaving the culture remaining as it was. Sometimes the enthusiasm for new ways of working wanes after a period of time, or up until things start to get difficult. Sometimes learning and development is focused on too small a group of people, which means it doesn’t get truly embedded across the organisation – resulting in missed opportunities or pockets of resistance.

This is a problem because these things will likely mean that your efforts to transform using digital will fail. You won’t see the uptick in satisfaction from service users, and you won’t see any savings on the bottom line.

Organisations aiming to use digital to drive or support change therefore need to have a scalable and sustained approach to building digital confidence across tier workforce. It needs to work with three key groups of people:

  • Leaders, to give them the knowledge and confidence to inspire their staff.
  • Digital and transformation teams, to provide them with the specialist skills to deliver great results. 
  • The whole organisation, to ensure a foundational level of digital knowledge. 

These learning activities must be tailored to the needs and size of the groups involved, for example: 

  • Large scale e-learning that can provide the whole workforce with the core knowledge around essential digital concepts
  • Online classes providing smaller scale, group-based learning that focuses in more detail on specific areas for those that need it
  • In person workshops that are ideal for building trust amongst teams, and that give hands on experience within a safe space; or providing organisational leaders with the confidence to promote and inspire digital activity
  • Coaching in both small groups and individually, to support people in their development as digital leaders

So, to sum up – digital can help local public services by using the culture, processes, business models and technologies of digital-age organisations to effect meaningful change. When done successfully, this results in delivering better services to users in a more efficient way. To do this well, workforces need to adopt a new culture and develop new skills, and to do that, you need a plan that provides the right level of support to the right groups of people.

By thinking strategically and investing in increasing your organisation’s digital confidence, you can achieve a sustainable shift in your culture, embed new skills and knowledge across your workforce. This gives your digital transformation work the best possible chance of succeeding, and for the change to be both sustainable and scalable.