Political transition and succession

Screenshot of this article during the Signals design phase

Leadership counts. It’s a simple truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re public or private sector.  Substitute CEO for politician and the same thing applies. But here, I’m going to talk mostly about the public sector, in part because success and failure is more transparent.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a succession of digital services teams make exceptional progress with political support. The UK’s Government Digital Service thrived with political backing. Leadership allowed Mexico to build out gob.mx; it briefly allowed some radical changes of approach in Australia and Italy.

It’s imperative that teams use this time with political support to make lasting change. “The strategy is delivery” has become a bit of a cliché, but there’s power in it. If you’ve spent a year and a half writing a strategy paper, then there’s not much time left on the clock before the next political change. It’s important to embed excellent service design so deeply that it’s hard, even impossible, to remove. It’s much harder for an incoming political administration to switch off a notification platform that powers over 430 government service, than it is to ignore a strategy document.

But service or platform development aside, there are a few things that can only really be implemented with strong political support. The best example is spending controls. For the uninitiated, that’s about getting approval to spend money. In this context, on a digital or technology service. Many governments already have some kind of business case approval, so it’s worth saying that spend controls implemented effectively should go beyond this, in a few key ways:

  1. The team need to understand the technology market enough to properly interrogate and help departments understand if they are getting value for money, and doing the right thing. This often means that at least some of the team need recent private sector experience.
  2. The team needs to be able to say no, and mean it. Most often, approvals processes are more about managing risk and prioritising spending, than they are saying ‘no, you’re doing the wrong thing here’.
  3. Even better, and built over time, is the ability to see patterns across the team and develop services to help. For example, in the UK the spend controls team often help teams understand how to buy cloud technology and digital specialists differently, and introduce them to the digital marketplace.

Another thing that political support helps with is making progress on things, fast. Peru’s gob.pe is a good example of this, or MiArgentina – both of them built swiftly, with political support to make sure departments or agencies beyond the centre co-operate.

A team needs a leader, but the leader needs a team

A few people have asked: this is great for those with high profile political backing, what about those of us without? It’s a fair question. So something to keep in mind is this:

When a reforming politician or government comes in, it’s very rare that they alone cause change to happen. Momentum behind the strongest digital delivery teams we’ve seen was started by small groups of practitioners, determined to show that things can be done a different way. They might be outside of government, advising the new leaders, or they might be in government, waiting for the opportunity and backing to try doing something a different way.

Don’t think “digital” speaks for itself; it doesn’t

It might be self-evident to you to that government must respond to the radical changes happening in our societies and democracies, but it’s probably not to your political leaders. With some laudable exceptions, it’s common for politicians to be out of touch with technology. Take the Japanese cybersecurity minister, who with perhaps refreshing honesty recently declared that he’s never used a computer.

This is not a reason to give up. There a real, concrete issues where your approach, your radical ideas, your skills, can help. So find what is a political priority to your potential sponsors, and make your work relevant. Political sponsorship is just as important as user needs.

And it’s no different in a for-profit company – if what you’re doing doesn’t add to the bottom line of the company, now or in the future, what are you doing it for?

Build a team / recruit allies

You’re definitely not alone. Really. If you’re in the depths of an organisation, hoping for change – organise. Build up communities of practice to share expertise across the organisations you work in. Take the small opportunities where you can to demonstrate open, collaborative ways of working that could be scaled up later.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned from working across different governments and organisations on digital, it’s that change is a long game. It needs leaders (not necessarily in the hierarchical sense) who can push and make difficult decisions.  But it also needs patient practitioners who deeply understand the culture and needs of their users and organisations.

It needs patience: because sometimes political priorities are simply elsewhere, and that’s ok.

Emma Gawen is a Partner at Public Digital

This is part of Signals, Winter 2018

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