October's Local Digital campaign debate discussed whether there was a user need for a local government digital academy to hone the skills needed to develop user-centric digital public services.
Bringing together local and central government digital practitioners, the lively debate explored part of the campaign's Local Digital South West festival in Bristol. The discussion explored the remit and structure of a proposed central, standardised learning resource for digital skills.
The digital academy model is not new in central Government. The Department for Work and Pensions for example already provides training to its staff in this way (watch our video coverage of this) through courses and inter-departmental placements.
In local government, however, skills for digital transformation are patchy. But according to Max Wide, Strategic Director of Business Change at Bristol City Council, speaking against the motion, a centralised resource would "kill innovation" and prevent flexibility.
"At Bristol we're trying to make a platform rather than a 'vending machine'. We want citizens to be able to say what they like and don't like - but you need an organisation that can listen and do something different as a result. I don't think we should be saying there is one way".
He argued that a digital academy could shut out local talented people from other organisations who impart skills to councils. "There's a mass of specialist expertise that exists outside councils. We need to connect to it and be open to invite them in, rather than say 'this is the local government way of doing things'".
Dave Briggs, Digital Capability Manager at Department of Health, also speaking against the motion, said that the digital academy idea went against the popular agile ethos behind digital transformation. "One big academy is anti digital - get it wrong, and it won't work".
He pointed out that groups across the country have already created hubs for learning and sharing, for example, LocalGovDigital. "People have already invested a great deal of time, energy and emotion in building networks to share good stuff".
As a former organiser of the free, annual unconference Govcamp, ("it's not organised centrally or by government, it's just a bunch of people who thought it would be good to do. Do you know what? It works"), Briggs advocated a less formal approach to learning; an approach that steered away from traditional classes or elearning modules.
He highlighted the importance of learning in the context of one's own organisation, which could be lost in an academy setting. "The way things work in local government is dependent on structure, personalities and culture. You need local context", he said.
If everyone working in public sector digital transformation was completely open with their approach, he argued, we wouldn't need a single learning centre.
Sarah Prag, Digital Consultant with Bristol City Council, speaking for the motion, said that incentives to learn would be effective - a lesson she learned at her previous role at Government Digital Service.
'Graduates' of a proposed academy could be awarded with the equivalent of a mortar board on completion, as long as it made participants proud. Whatever form digital education takes, Prag's view is that local government peers should be sharing more. "Imagine if you could tap into all of those brains around the country", she said.
"We need innovative ways to expose people who work in local authorities to colleagues in other local authorities and people in communities. No matter how many blogs you read or elearning modules you watch, there's no substitute for contact with someone who's done something for real".
Her idea for a digitally-savvy workforce is not to create a behemoth learning organisation, but to offer local government something based along the lines of the internet itself: "small pieces loosely joined".
She highlighted that staff at smaller or less digitally-savvy councils could benefit greatly from a centralised academy. "I don't think people should have to work this out for themselves. It will take a very long time and we would have run out of money by the time we get there", she said. "It depresses me that we'd all be making same mistakes".
Julian Bowrey, who spoke for the motion, agreed. As Deputy Director of Corporate Communications at Department for Communities and Local Government, he suggested there was a nervousness about centralisation that local government has "got to get over", he said.
"Digital capability is a fundamental issue for local government now. Over the last decade we've run down IT skills across the public sector. A lot of people who work in IT now may have the wrong type of digital skills we need. This is something we need to do right now because we don't have the skills. If we don't do this right now we're really going to struggle to deliver the transformation agenda".
Before the debate, the audience voted as follows:
On the fence: 1
After the debate, the audience voted as follows:
On the fence: 0