In the dash to save money and innovate, public leaders across the country are putting ever more faith in digital technologies. But is that faith well founded? All of us working with the public sector know of at least one ICT project (and probably many more) that has significantly under-performed.
One global hardware provider recently told me that its kit only gets used at 20%-30% of its potential because clients don’t have the skills or organisational culture to use the technology properly; and this is especially bad in the public sector. In 2007, Joe Harley, chief information officer at the Department for Work and Pensions famously said that “only 30% of government IT projects and programmes are successful.” It’s not obvious we have improved much since then.
Andrew McAfee’s recent book, Enterprise 2.0, argues that getting the most from the web is often more an organisational culture challenge than a technical one. Pat Dade, director of Cultural Dynamics agrees. “It’s very rarely a technology problem . These days we have cheap technology beyond our wildest dreams [but] most of us don’t know, or won’t use it to even a fraction of it’s capability.” Robert Madelin, the director general in charge of the European Digital Agenda explains that “it’s no longer just about kit it’s now about organisational transformation”.
The good news is there are now real opportunities to get the benefits of digital by investing in people who are better skilled, at a fraction of the cost. But organisational transformation isn’t easy, so here are seven simple steps to get started:
Many digital projects are a step into the unknown. You can never know completely if the technology will work as expected, or if users will respond as you hoped. “The truth is it probably won’t go as expected, and that’s really fine,” says Emer Coleman, director of digital projects at the Greater London Authority. It’s almost the point, says Dominic Campbell, director of the Futuregov agency: “Digital can often deliver more than expected in ways you never dreamed of. But to give serendipity a shove to new and often unforeseen possibilities we have to be open, right from the start, to change our approach”.
This doesn’t mean forgetting goals, it just means reflecting on an ongoing basis and being open to new goals based on evidence emerging from the project about what it can really deliver.
Low cost first
Wherever possible start with free or very low cost solutions. Bespoke solutions that deliver “all your needs tend to be very expensive to set up and to maintain. “Free” options may not meet all your desires but probably cover the top 70%, and, most critically, allow you to learn what your needs actually are. This is fundamental to creating the experimental culture at the heart of the best social tech projects.
Build in-house skills
A small amount of in-house technical skills can go a long way. The reason Devon county council was able to deliver one of the UK’s most impressive social media campaigns on the budget cuts last year (known as Tough Choices) for less than £5,000, was by employing Carl Haggerty, an in-house digital communications manager. His work involves an intimate knowledge of the organisation and the technical knowhow to exploit platforms such as WordPress, Ning and others, to get maximum impact at low cost. More in-house staff also mean is you don’t become locked in to working with specific technology platforms or companies, which often have vested interests .Then when you have more expertise you can think about consultants.
Duncan Cheatle, founder of the influential Supper Club and technology entrepreneur, says it is “almost impossible” to deliver a really impressive technology project without failing first. This is a big challenge for us in the public sector. We need to create the conditions that make ‘failure’ ok. . Susan Ritchie, former partnership development manager at the Home Office, says that if you want to do meaningful innovation, it’s often better to start it “under the radar, before the bureaucracy sees the risk and tweaks it until it’s no longer meaningful”.
The new 80/20 rule
In any technology project never allocate more than 20% of the budget to the technology. The rest should go on staff training, creating content, engaging the users, evaluating what’s working and launching the applications. Never be fooled by technology consultants’ beautiful PowerPoint presentations or proposals; what counts is the outcomes you need, not the technology they can offer. It’s people that create the change not the technology.
Understand audience motivation
Invest in understanding your audience. Are they motivated by points or prizes, or do they want to improve their community or local environment? Never assume they are exactly like you.
Last year one London council offered a weekly £50 lottery prize for participation in an online consultation. When it explored who had accepted the prize, it turned out that no members of the local voluntary sector had applied for it, as they found it demeaning to be paid for their involvement. In contrast, many members of the public said the prize was the only reason they had got involved.
Get good advice
Don’t fall into the trap of the taking the most obvious advice. This gets immediately interpreted in most public bodies as going to Facebook or perhaps engaging people in their local pub. Such advice is inadequate; many people won’t want to be ‘engaged’ by the council via Facebook or over their pint on a Friday. Some will. Some won’t. The point is that good advice is often the product of good local, technical and institutional knowledge.
Technology is transforming many of our institutions, but it’s people who are driving it; who know how to build relationships as well as websites and know your needs and that of the communities concerned.