Public Services > Local Government

Building the right team to support the beautiful local government game

Published 25 August 2016

Chris Ginnelly, managing director of Civica Digital Solutions, explores the similarities between running a digitally enabled local authority and managing a winning football team


Running a local authority could be compared to running a Premier League football club, if not a little more complicated. It needs a strong manager, team players, a clear strategy, business mind-set and the drive to give its community what they want – winning experiences.

And just like Jose Mourinho, Arséne Wenger and David Moyes, leaders will be publicly lauded for their successes and vilified for their defeats. Or at least, this is something which sprung to my mind during a recent Civica roundtable where representatives from some of the nation’s best and brightest councils discussed the challenges around plotting a course for digital transformation.

The year-long and evolving transfer window

With the football transfer season upon us, the reality is that many clubs will soon have to learn to cope with the loss of some of their longest standing and best players. The same can be said for local authorities. However, unlike the football world’s set transfer period, local authorities face a year-round challenge.

Our panel discussed how the drive towards delivering efficient services has seen many view headcount reduction as a rudimentary way to try and balance the books. Naturally this is a cause for concern when years have been spent training up a team of players. As one of the roundtable delegates pointed out, this drain of key skills and knowledge has led to many experiencing an inevitable impact on service levels. This dip is particularly acute at a time when end-user demands are so high. Much like football fans, communities want their experiences of ‘the game’ to be fast, easy, digitally enabled and ultimately positive.  On top of this, the sheer number of ‘fans’ has increased enormously, thanks to an increasingly diverse, vulnerable and ageing population. 

These evolving demands mean that the very rules and objectives of the game are having to shift to accommodate them. This is why there is an increased focus on developing more streamlined, agile, cost-effective and innovative ways of working. Having the right team and culture and the strong leadership to drive this is essential, but unfortunately something many authorities are still struggling with. As one participant explained: “You are often faced with some difficult decisions where you have got people who have a lot of organisational history, knowledge and background that carries value, but know deep down they probably aren’t bought into the change.”

Develop new skills on the pitch

While tough, the on-going transfer season can also present the perfect opportunity to reinvigorate your team to meet your transformation objectives. Rather than focus on the potential dip in service levels, local councils must focus on building the best team for the job.

However, it’s not always possible for authorities to tap into the transfer market and acquire the skills they need, so they must take the time to re-invest in upskilling existing team members to ensure the right digital skills are included. As the delegates discussed, if you are “passionate about the journey you’re heading on, you will get people to come with you and the skills you require can be developed on the way.” However, while upskilling an existing team won’t happen overnight, there is no need to place your transformation programme on the treatment table. For many, partnering with external experts in areas you feel you are lacking is a good way to plug any gaps.

With the right leaders in place and a team of well-trained players that are focused on meeting citizen demands, local councils can still thrive in a world moving at rapid pace.

Championing a clear and compelling vison

But it’s not just digital skills that local government needs to win, it’s also crucial to sell the vision and benefits of change to the wider organisation. As one participant pointed out, being able to persuade the senior leaders is the “most important and also most difficult thing.”

However, support and contribution from the senior leadership team is crucial, so it is imperative that the vision is set from the top. As was widely discussed during the roundtable, senior leaders must have a compelling vision that they communicate and stick to, every step of the way otherwise the transformation will fail. If the senior team isn’t passionate about it, then nobody else will be. The same can be said for football, if a manager doesn’t believe a team can win a game and get behind and motivate its players, then the likelihood is, they won’t.

Create a winning team spirit

To support the winning vision, it is important that an organisation’s culture adapts to empower the “doers to work.”  As one delegate proclaimed, leaders need to set the vision but then “get out of the way and allow the agents of change to work.” And while local government has a reputation for being risk averse and cautious of change, middle level managers and the remainder of the ‘doers’ must feel empowered to take risks, innovate and try new tactics for a digital transformation project to succeed.

As was reiterated during the discussion, the corporate DNA of a council needs to be as passionate about transformation as the people being brought into it, whether that be people who have been on the team for the last decade or the last month. It is this passion that will drive success in the future.

Embrace the opportunity

While being forced to reduce overall head-count and letting go some of your longest-serving players is a worry during times when local authority teams need to be focused on driving future success, it doesn’t need to be a seen as crisis. Hull City may have been relegated in 2015, but they used that opportunity to concentrate on using the budget available and re-built a successful and passionate team that has led them back into the Premier League.

Local authority leaders and managers must view the spare spaces on their bench as an opportunity to build a top-notch team with the digital skills to support their strategic objectives. By doing so there’s no reason why your organisation can’t make it through this transfer season and become the champions of local government.

Chris Ginnelly is managing director of Civica Digital Solutions

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