Why all public sector leaders need to be digital leaders… and now

9th March 2023

Mark Gannon

by Mark Gannon

The importance of strong digital leadership in local government is not a new concept but one that’s recently become imperative. Why? ‘Underfunded’ and ‘understaffed’ have long been words synonymous with the public sector, with local authority ‘spending power’ falling 16% since 2010 and staff numbers have dropped significantly and consistently since 1999 in the UK. It seems we’ve finally hit a crisis point.

Local authorities are seeing rising inflation reduce the real value of public spending. Councils also endured their 12th annual round of budget savings in a row, whilst still reeling from the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the decade of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash – austerity that some would argue never ended.

Leaders are now left wondering how to continue to deliver services as complex and wide-ranging, as adult social care and revenues and benefits to housing and waste management, when budgets are being slashed and staff numbers are dwindling. Meanwhile, citizen expectations continue to rise.

It’s clear that public sector leaders need step up to become digital leaders…now!

Employees have high expectations too

Public sector ‘customers’, or ‘citizens’, aren’t like other customers as they don’t really have a choice to consume or not consume services. Yet citizens rightly expect local government services similar in style, quality and speed to those offered by some of the best known digitally-enabled businesses. And they’re not alone. Council workers have the same high expectations of their employers.

Indeed, the sector is struggling to attract and retain talent — suffering from what would be better described as ‘brain haemorrhage’ rather than ‘brain drain’ — with the most passionate and digitally-savvy people seeking to work for digitally-advanced organisations. Skills and experience are leaving the sector, as good people become disenchanted. They realise they can’t make a difference with legacy applications and technology, and an organisational culture that fails to embrace modernisation and a digital mindset.

Digital leadership is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but an essential

All councils are, of course, accelerating their journeys to digital, “applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations in order to meet these challenges, achieve efficiencies, increase productivity and deliver cashable savings”.

However, many in senior leadership positions simply don’t understand digital beyond a basic awareness they should be doing something. Whilst they may not be digitally native, it’s not an acceptable excuse for people in the highest positions in local government, not to understand the requirements and opportunities of modern public services.

The reality is that every public sector organisation is a digital organisation, and every public sector leader is a digital leader, whether they accept it or not. It’s therefore essential that those in the highest positions are advocates for digital — understanding the characteristics of being a digital organisation, and how to create the kind of culture that encourages digital thinking and, ultimately, champions the development of good digital services.

You can’t create culture… but you can cultivate it

Culture is one of the biggest barriers to achieving digital transformation. You can’t simply reinvent or create a culture; it happens over time through small changes and advances. The single most important job of a digital leader is to create the right environment for a culture of digital transformation to flourish, by modelling and/or supporting behaviours that reinforce this. These models are often built from the ground up, rather than top-down. By giving teams on the frontline the freedom to ideate and innovate, public sector digital leaders can help shape organisational culture for the greater good, benefitting citizens and council employees.

Visibility, capability building and collaboration play major roles here too. In the right environment, even small teams can harness digital to demonstrate the art of the possible to cross organisational boundaries.


What started as a waste application, created with low-code technology at Hertsmere Borough Council, helped spark a culture of transformation that’s rippled throughout the organisation, with more and more departments coming forward to update their systems and processes. By bringing staff on the journey, the culture of the organisation shifted to embrace more agile and digital ways of working.

Cumbria County Council

Similarly, Cumbria County Council rolled out the UK’s first ever local Test-and-Trace system in just 10 days, before the national government system was up and running, using low-code. This was the catalyst for the council’s dedicated digital team to write innovation into every job description — with continuous improvement now very much part of the team’s DNA. Working together to roll out new services has generated a buy-in that is best described as ‘infectious’.

Faced with increasing demand, Tewkesbury Council turned to digital for their online services — to not only improve citizen services but, by simplifying back-office systems and reducing admin time, significantly improve the council’s finances. In fact, in the first 18-months the council saved over £100,000 net of investment.

The characteristics of good public sector leaders

There are some common characteristics of good digital leadership. As well as promoting a culture of innovation, being able to articulate and advocate the benefits of design thinking to their teams and peers, and instilling confidence in their employees to think differently are invaluable.

Then there’s the matter of ownership; recognising that digital transformation is an organisational capability equivalent to financial management, health and safety and good governance (rather than just being limited to a CDO/CTO/CDIO responsibility). Digital transformation is not something people can opt in or out of, nor is it something that one person can own on behalf of everyone else.

The best public sector digital leaders are pleased, keen even, to share their knowledge and expertise to help develop the people around themThey fund teams, rather than specific projects, and cultivate learning mindsets by encouraging teams to collaborate and share their successes with each other, seeking support when needed and always learning from one another.

Some would argue that digital leadership takes courage. But the alternative of not embracing digital isn’t really an option in today’s public sector. That said, like all heroes in any story, digital leaders need the right supporters behind them too – passionate about delivering public services and advocating for digital autonomy in local authorities. And those with experience and understanding of the unique challenges faced by the industry, and the ability to provide the right solutions to allow digital leadership to flourish.

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