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We Need to Talk About Public Sector Digital Leadership

Leah Lockhart


Leah Lockhart describes a growing chasm between rhetoric and delivery within the public sector.

I’ve been working with people in Scotland’s public and third sectors to build capability and skill for digital engagement for many years. It’s always been challenging work but moving into 2017 the evergreen issues that prevent progress toward being 21st century organisations are amplified.

While citizens and communities around the world are organising, creating, collaborating, engaging and mobilising online, our institutions and organisations are creeping along on IE10 and busy blocking social media sites. They’re painstakingly hiring the wrong people and procuring crap technology by using outdated frameworks and processes that encourage them haemorrhage money.

Our leadership is often ill equipped to be intelligent commissioners

Our leadership is often ill equipped to be intelligent commissioners and some still wear lack of digital skill as a badge. I recently heard a senior civil servant announce in a public forum that they didn’t even know how to take a screenshot so surely ideas about innovative tech solutions for creating better public services would go over their head. This is not OK.

My view from the front-line is this: the gap between high level rhetoric and delivery/public interface is huge and getting bigger. I am currently working with Scottish Councils and community groups to help them integrate digital tools in their engagement work. Not a day goes by without me hearing from Officers that they quite literally can’t carry out the work their Council or Scottish Government is encouraging them to do because they don’t have

– Human or financial resource
– The right skills in themselves or in their teams
– Permission, either from management or because websites and software are blocked
– The right equipment or systems
– Sufficient confidence in knowing data, records and information handling legislation and policy

I have been hearing these stories since 2012. I have also been hearing stories from on high about innovation and digital integration in Scottish public services since 2012. Left hand, meet right hand. Now shake and become more efficient, person centred and transparent.

You’re playing fast and loose with words like ‘digital innovation’ or ‘digital engagement’ if you don’t have the receipts. Where’s your evidence and integrity? Your organisation’s digital aspirations can’t be met without the workforce being able learn, change their ways of working and being allowed to experiment. From internal culture to hardware and software, resource needs to be assessed against future business plans.

Citizens are moving on without you

Citizens are moving on without you, creating their own networks and systems with which to challenge the binary status quo of their institutions. Staff are creating workarounds so they may share and collaborate online. In the time it took you to read this article, another swathe of information and data came off your network into someone’s private email/Dropbox/social media account. Valuable interactions and relationships have been made outside your walled garden and you’ll probably never know about it or be able to leverage it.

None of this can be changed overnight but you can make a start now.

Leah Lockhart

Digital Democratic Engagement Officer, The Democratic Society

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