Senior leaders as agents of digital transformation

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

As part of an investigation with the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), Cllr Theo Blackwell, Camden Council’s cabinet member for finance, technology & growth, considers the role that active senior leadership plays in digitally transforming councils.

Since 2010 Camden Council has been on a huge journey to understand the emerging benefits, opportunities and challenges to residents of the digital revolution. It is remarkable how in 2017, the budget we set is so much more reliant in almost every way on technology than the first budget I set seven years ago when I came into post: from our new ‘outcomes-based’ spending, to supporting online services, business intelligence, open data platforms and promoting growth and investing in the local tech sector. 

Local authorities are currently responsible for £56bn of spending annually across 418 principal (unitary, upper and second-tier) councils in the UK, employing in excess of one million employees. They provide 80% of all local public services  that citizens encounter, ranging from high-volume transactions to tailored support for individuals with complex or very high needs. Local authorities typically have more lines of business  than most companies of equivalent size of turnover: a large council can have over 700 operations, many of which are underpinned by technology already. 

Today, major public service reforms are being driven by factors such as overall budgetary restraint on councils from central government, a much more permissive pro-technology national policy setting (think Industrial and Digital Strategies), regional devolution and the development of intra-authority collaborative frameworks, better use of data and new common standards. All of these are driving authorities to consider how they provide services cheaper and better, as well as using the huge amount of data councils store to deliver services more effectively. 

Together with the LGiU, we wanted to consider the role active senior leadership plays in transforming councils. We set out to investigate for the first time the attitudes and perceptions of local elected representatives on digital technology, governance and leadership in their authorities. With data gathered from over 808 councillors across England, our report, ‘The Start of the Possible’, gives a unique insight into digital leadership and the potential sleeping giant that local public services represent both for reform and the growth of markets for solutions to public service challenges. 

Outlook on technology, automation and big data 

Overall, our research found that local councillors reflect the populations they serve – they are not ‘digital dinosaurs’. Whether veteran or first-term, metropolitan or district, leadership or non-executive, they generally hold strong and positive views about technology, automation and big data and how public services can benefit from them. 

The majority of councillors, who we dubbed ‘digital enthusiasts’, held strongly positive views about digital progress, but a minority (‘digital sceptics’), usually non-executive councillors, held negative views or remained to be convinced of these benefits. The digital leadership challenge is how to engage with this latter group while supporting the former.  

Current leadership 

Digital is not usually led by the very top decision-makers in local councils, confirming our suspicion that there is a leadership deficit which hampers organisational change. Most currently express digital transformation plans through one or more means, primarily through a customer service, transformation strategy or the corporate plan. A significant cohort said they didn’t know or didn’t have a plan. 

This poses a number of immediate questions: is it acceptable for organisations as large and complex as councils not to have a big vision about how they collect and use data, promote innovation and develop the skills of their workforce? As Janet Hughes from digital leadership practitioners Doteveryone said, “it’s acceptable for leaders to say they don’t understand technology, but not when it comes to finance – why?”. 

Digital exclusion 

Tackling digital exclusion is still the number one issue now and for the future, and connectivity also remains a big concern for more rural councils. For a small and vociferous cohort, digital exclusion and the fear of the digital divide is a major issue. While this challenge does not stop change, in a political environment demanding further compromise than originally anticipated it may impede progress or slow the pace of change.   

Exclusion constitutes a major digital leadership issue, not just a practical ‘channel shift’ concern. Digital leaders need to identify the nature and extent of this challenge in their local authorities developing further interventions of the kind seen in Croydon and Lewisham by Doteveryone and the Good Things Foundation, or a public scrutiny of the kind undertaken by London Borough of Ealing. 

Access to public data 

Finally, the big question of access to public data was addressed. Data are in many ways the raw material of innovation – being able collect and share data consistently and securely allows authorities to work together better and be more adaptable. The successful adoption of private sector innovations in the public sector (e.g. advanced data analytics, design-led innovation) has involved closer collaboration with technology firms. 

The ability of councils to innovate will increasingly depend on the terms of their relationship with the tech sector, posing questions about access to public data, privacy and the sharing of information in its various forms. Councillors are quite evenly split on the private sector using public data, even with appropriate safeguards. Digital enthusiasts (net +34%) and leaders and cabinet members (net +18%) take a more positive view. 

Councillors were evenly split on the advisability of the private sector using public data (even with appropriate safeguards) to solve problems. Councillors who were more positive about digital services (digital enthusiasts), leaders and cabinet members responding to our survey took a much more positive view on use of data, while those who held a more negative view (digital sceptics) strongly disagree. The clear divide between these two camps is food for thought on how the politics of data use are negotiated for senior leaders in the future. 

Digital devolution 

There is clear backing for digital to be included in thinking around devolution. Local councillors of all levels of experience, seniority and outlook on technology overwhelmingly think local public services do not currently share information effectively. They strongly agreed that councils should procure technology functions together and strongly support better co-ordination of digital transformation through devolution and multi-authority or regional chief digital officers (CDOs).  

There was a thirst for councillors to be better supported to understand more about technology and transformation in all its forms. One approach focused on identifying needs and developing leadership support is the Scottish government’s Digital Champions Development programme. Aimed at chief executive and director level, public sector organisations are able to understand the role that digital technologies can play in helping transform their organisations. 

While the role of a CDO provides a pivot for strategic integration, in reality finding local public service CDOs expert in technology service transformation, data and leadership is likely to be a near impossible task. 

In practice, the focus should not be reliant on one individual to modernise all technology, data and delivery but on the assembly of digital teams under effective leadership. Scotland, Manchester and now London have taken steps to secure a ‘digital devolution’ programme of team-based work starting with discovery missions around existing tech procurement, legacy systems, common and open data standards. 

There is much more to explore in more in-depth research, but in order to address the co-ordination deficit local, regional and central government must invest together and co-ordinate digital leadership at a senior officer and councillor level so that, at the very least, there can be a framework that enables multi-council procurement and better data-sharing across public services.


The ‘State of the Possible’ report can be accessed at:



There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest news

View all News


Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

21/06/2019Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

Taking time to say thank you is one of the hidden pillars of a society. Bei... more >
How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

19/06/2019How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

Tom Chance, director at the National Community Land Trust Network, argues t... more >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this feeling of imminent change than the article James Palmer, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, has penned for us on p28. In it, he highlights... read more >

last word

Prevention: Investing for the future

Prevention: Investing for the future

Rob Whiteman, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), discusses the benefits of long-term preventative investment. Rising demand, reducing resource – this has been the r more > more last word articles >


Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

17/12/2018Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

It’s no secret that the public sector and its service providers need ... more >

the raven's daily blog

Cleaner, greener, safer media: Increased ROI, decreased carbon

23/06/2020Cleaner, greener, safer media: Increased ROI, decreased carbon

Evolution is crucial in any business and Public Sector Executive is no different. Long before Covid-19 even became a thought in the back of our minds, the team at PS... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >

public sector events

events calendar


July 2020

mon tue wed thu fri sat sun
29 30 1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31 1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9

featured articles

View all News