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Max St John

A manifesto for digital change in Government

I recently took part in the cross-government digital communication capability review – interviewing people from across 17 government departments, and arms-lengths bodies, to work out how government needs to change how it does digital.

I was invited by the Cabinet Office, along with the founder of Metrica, Richard Bagnall, and ex-Head of News at Sky, Chris Birkett, to contribute from a people, culture and behaviour perspective, and both the process and findings were fascinating.

We heard that right across government the approach to digital differs dramatically.

There are areas of excellence, where ground-breaking work is being done (like using emerging patterns in social media data to inform real-world resource planning), and where digital is being built into the day-to-day work of people outside of traditional comms roles.

However, we also found big gaps where digital is siloed to a small group of specialists, where even the wider comms professionals don’t have the skills or confidence to be building digital into their planning and public engagement.

Some of the key factors that I noticed were around understanding and attitudes to perceived risk.

Where departments have staff (particularly senior staff) in post that really *get* digital engagement and social media, there was a more relaxed attitude to providing access, more trust that staff would use social platforms responsibly, and more individuals upskilling to build digital into their work.

Where there was less understanding, there seemed to be more fear about the implications of digital, access was limited, technology was poor, there was a worry that staff would waste time on social, and digital was much more likely to be restricted to a very small number of specialists.

In this latter group, the result is that digital is more of a bolt-on activity or not even considered a core part of external comms work – it was less likely to be effective, integrated, evaluated properly and getting staff to take on new skills or behaviours was much more difficult.

As a result of the interviews and workshops, we (the reviewers) put forward a number of recommendations for people across Government to consider – and these are currently open for comments from anyone in Government.

You can read the full report here but some of the guiding principles for digital in Government that we proposed are:

  • Government needs to keep up with the mainstream, its customers, citizens.
  • We need to put an end to digital silos – digital is just how things get done.
  • Attitudes to risk need to be balanced, pragmatic and informed.

We also came up with a whole range of recommendations around structure, culture, leadership and more.

One of my personal contributions is the manifesto for change - an idea inspired from work with our clients.

The fundamentals of the manifesto are the building blocks for any major shift around digital in most large organisations:

  • Access – people need access to the websites where their audiences are, trust that they’ll use them sensibly and to be given technology capable of using them fully.
  • Leadership – senior staff will support their teams to make digital mainstream and integrated into roles and decision making, they need to understand and sell the benefits to others.
  • Skills and confidence – developing new skills and behaviours needs practice and experience (preferably in a safe setting, like internal social platforms), not just training – and people need to be able to say: “I don’t know” without fear of judgement.
  • Taking risks – people need to be trusted to use their judgement (and in this case, to follow the Civil Service Code), and if they make mistakes they need to be supported to share them, so everyone can learn.

I’m really excited to see how the recommendations report will be received, and for any feedback from people in other sectors, given we’re talking about such wide ranging and typical organisational development challenges.

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  1. By Whither digital communication? | Postbureaucrat on 8th October 2013 at 8:28 am

    [...] of the external reviewers, Max St John of Nixon McInnes, has written about the process and why rather than just coming up with worthy recommendations, they’ve drafted a manifesto [...]