In my relatively short 15-year career, organisations outside of local government have begun to change out of all recognition.

The 20th century came to an abrupt halt for some in the commercial sector as the internet era spelt trouble, with consumers rapidly adopting better, cheaper online experiences. This crashed companies like HMV and Blockbuster. We all ask ourselves which high street giant will be next?

Stuck in the recent past

Compare this to the local government and other public services. After a wave of e-government led to change, most organisations have frozen in time as 20th-century institutions, modernised but not transformed by technology. Most, as yet, are not even considering how to move into truly 21st-century digital government (and no, I don’t mean just buying a better website).

We are still sat on top of deeply old-fashioned and unnecessarily expensive organisations; in how they work, the technology they use, the assets they sit in. Just as with HMV, our response to digital has been one of slapping an average website over the top of unchanged and expensive organisations that haven’t begun to consider “What might be the digital age business models for public services?” To extend the HMV analogy, it was disrupted by Spotify — 200 tech-savvy Swedes whose understanding of business model disruption was as important as their understanding of internet technology.

We remain stuck in a repetitive cycle of restructures, addicted to high cost, locked-down technology born of another era, unable to unlock ourselves from old ways of working and cripplingly old-fashioned governance and decision-making.

Transformation from within

Corporate services, boring as they might be for some, are where the DNA of organisations exists, sending messages out across the corporate body that determine the very essence of our councils. Procurement, project management, legal, financial, HR and technology: it’s all determined here. Yet we purely focus on fixing the arms and legs of social care, environmental services and others when we need above all to set about re-coding our governance frameworks with the same enthusiasm. Releasing us from the beige weight of bureaucracy that holds us all back from true change and innovation.

Digital government is more than just technology. It’s more than your website or upgrading your laptops and corporate software systems. Yes, they’re important, but they’re a given in a 21st-century organisation. Instead, full-stack organisation redesign is required: new ways of working, new governance and thoughtful application of 21st-century business models only now possible due to the internet. These will unlock the next wave of change in the sector. And huge savings with it.

A different kind of leadership

To make this happen takes leadership willing and able to listen to new ideas, to learn and adapt, and, as ever, able to put together a strong strategy and narrative for change. One that builds a coalition for change and can invest the superhuman time, effort and resources to help their organisations transcend a 20th-century state of mind through instilling belief and momentum into the people around them.

Make no mistake, this will be tough. Which of you reading this has worked in or even witnessed an organisation born in this millennium? While that might not matter in itself, as leaders it’s vital that you ensure your organisation has the space to try, succeed (& fail) and learn to bring those experiences into your world. To have a fundamentally different look and feel of a 21st-century organisation.

Think it sounds too good to be true? Well, don’t just ask HMV about their regrets, talk to your peers from across the country — from Hackney LBC to Homes England, North-East Lincolnshire Council to the City of Bradford MDC and Essex CC where they are starting to put some of this theory into practice. In these places, they admitted that they can’t say they’ve tried everything to close the budget gap, to improve public services until they’ve tried everything. Until then, can we truly say whether we have a budget problem or an imagination problem? The latter, of course, is all about leadership.

Owning the future

What the sector needs now more than ever is a new radicalism. A self-confidence that admits to not having all the answers, but one that doesn’t look to outsource the problem either. All the target operating models and 20th-century transformation projects in the world won’t get you where you need to get to. We need leaders with an openness to change, building a strong in-house team to own the strategy and vision of a future led by new ideas, supporting keen colleagues to re-skill in order to deeply challenge ourselves to rethink how we run our services.

While the challenges are particularly urgent and extreme, one thing remains true. The future is owned by those with the vision, leadership, creativity, political guile and guts to both imagine a different world and push us towards it.

This post was first published by the Local Government Chronicle.

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