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Digital is not just for techies – it’s now a core leadership competency

Nick Cole explores the concept of ‘digital’ and the leadership skills required in local authorities to respond to raised consumer expectations

It is that time of year when clients, colleagues and candidates ask me what the next big thing in recruitment will be for 2018 and beyond. We all know that place-shaping, commercialisation and social care remain the principal areas of hiring focus, as they have for several years now and I am sure this will continue. However, from my own personal perspective less has been said of the digital agenda and the impact of a lack of talent on forward hiring trends. Perhaps controversially for a piece about recruitment, I am not sure this is just about there not being many local government people out there who are truly ‘digital first’. I think it’s also about the need for a shift in mindset –  for us, ‘digital’ is about disruptive interventions that change behaviours – and not always about using technology.

Firstly, some context. From what I see and hear in the sector, aspiration seems to be relatively low in local government compared to the private sector or parts of central civil government. Amazon et.al. have set a precedent in the minds of the general consumer that is only partially being met by many councils. Definition is also important. I remember when the phrase ‘commissioning’ entered the local government lexicon. It meant something different to almost everyone; yet it evolved into a way of working rather than a process. Perhaps the same can now be said of ‘digital’. When I look at my children, ‘digital’ isn’t something they think of, or even articulate as a concept – they just do it 24/7. For the internet-era what we refer to as digital is a culture and default lifestyle that responds to this heightened expectation around service delivery. To them, it’s normal. From a council perspective, it is not; not yet perhaps. And perhaps the starting point for councils is to think about the digital response to consumer expectation from the perspective of people and culture not kit, apps or technology per se.

Digital in local government to date has been more about responding to a specific problem or process than developing this new mind-set of raised consumer expectation. I hear many senior leaders who seem to be bombarded internally with conflicting approaches to digital from the most basic to the radical. And it can be hard to know who to listen to. There is also huge variation across the sector and the system. Whilst putting forms on a council website or enabling citizens to request or transact basic services online is now the norm, we are a long way from driverless waste trucks or gritting drones. But there is at least consensus that we have started the journey. Social media has for example been embraced by many as a key way to hire or communicate though for a relatively a small number of chief executives is their default communications tool.

So rather than just recruiting digital experts from the Amazons of this world (and I have recently done this for a local authority trading company), what will also be needed at the top table will be people from a range of professional backgrounds with digital skills and capability – digital is not just the responsibility of the Chief Technology Officer – digital is now a core leadership competency that needs to be developed by the organisation.

Should you look to hire externally, give some serious thought about the configuration of the role and removing barriers to entry for private sector candidates from the job description and person specification. Private sector candidates will be more interested in your ambition, attitude and approach than role descriptors. You will need to pay well and you may not contain or retain them for long. Sometimes however, a disruptor is exactly what is needed.

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Nick Cole

Director for local government, Veredus, part of Capita

Nick is director for local government search & selection in the North and Midlands for Veredus, part of Capita. He heads up the team that specialises in recruiting to senior management and leadership roles in local and devolved government across England and Wales. He provides a strong partnership role, advising chief officers, in-house HR and elected members on the whole appointment process from executive search and selection to assessment and psychometric profiling. Nick’s experience and knowledge of the sector have helped him to successfully recruit to many high profile and hard-to-fill roles from head of service to chief executive level over the last 10 years.

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