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Strategy is strategy

If you’re doing digital in local government, it would appear that if you’re not writing your digital strategy then you’re reviewing it, and if you’re not doing that, then you are busy thinking about writing or reviewing it.

As part of the survey into Web Management practices in the 2015 Better Connected Report, SOCITM found that 83% of councils have or are developing a digital strategy, but if your digital strategy is a subsection of your ICT strategy, then it’s very slightly worse than having no digital strategy at all.

If you are embarking on digital strategy, then you could do a lot worse than starting with Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy – really, it’s better than anything I am about to say – so go read it.

Complex Strategies

It’s easy to fall into the trap of producing an overly complex digital strategy, not least because you will have already seen a stack of other ‘strategic’ documents in the organisation before you start, and they will be loooonnnnggg.

In and of itself, a long and complex digital strategy isn’t wrong. It will probably cover all the areas, and offer an in-depth analysis of what needs to be done. Just don’t expect anyone other than your direct management to read it.

A strategy sitting on the network, gathering virtual dust, is nothing more than a shocking waste of everyone’s time. The people who need to understand your digital strategy are not the senior management, but the people doing the work.

Across your organisation, the project managers, content editors, developers and the people actually delivering services need to know what the strategy is about. They are never going to get that from your 25 page strategy document, because they just won’t read it.

Simple Strategies

Knowing this, the temptation is to go super simple, and deliver the one line strategy. This can also bring problems:

“Strategy is delivery” is a great one liner, and for the current phase of the Government Digital service it’s correct, but don’t be fooled into thinking that is the strategy for GDS. This is the governments digital strategy and if you were to print it (not that we ever would in this bright new digital future) it is 26 pages long. However, many outside of GDS have been quick to latch onto this strategic soundbite and interpret it as doing things = strategy.

Someone in the public sector recently declared “Our strategy is the excellent execution of our goals”. It’s a wonderful attempt at bureaucratic speak for the GDS strategy, but it means nothing. “Our strategy is to do the things we want to do well” – I’ve yet to meet the business whose strategy is to try to do those things badly.

People latch onto the one line strategy because it’s easy to remember, and that is good, but you can take it too far; outside of it’s digital context it’s very hard to see just what “strategy is delivery” means – to a manager in your social care service this is going to be very different, and to the workers of the post room, it will mean something quite different again.

What is strategy for?

So, what do you actually write a strategy for? Apart from “to please senior management” and “get some money for my projects”, I mean. The actual business reasons for strategy are to get everyone in the organisation heading in the same direction, and in reality, that means making sure that every single decision that is made is part of getting to the same thing.

In most large organisations, decisions are being made all the time – hundreds, or thousands, a day. Strategy exists to influence those decisions, so that everything your organisation is doing, is heading in the same direction. 

When producing your strategy you should consider the people making the day to day decisions. Your goal for your strategy should be to get it  understood and into the minds of as many decision makers in your organisation as possible.

User Centred Strategic development

It would seem that most digital strategies, at their core, talk about user-centred services. So, if we are all about understanding user needs, maybe we should start with understanding the needs of the people who use our strategic documents?

  • Senior Management: need to understand direction, and be assured that we have analysed the situation and planned for the way to get to where we want to be.
  • Direct team: the people doing the bulk of the work need to understand just what is being asked of them and why. Understanding the “why” is critical in devolving strategy down – if you don’t communicate the why effectively to this team, stop paying them all the money, because, evidently, you are not expecting them to make any decisions.  
  • The wider organisation: the people who deliver actual services to actual people. They are autonomous decision makers in the organisation, but they are busy, so they are not going to spend too much time looking at or thinking about your strategy. They are not technical, so don’t care much for how many flubber-widgets you are buying, but they do care about how digital services are affecting their work, and how they can help them to do things better.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of customers for your strategy, but the reality is that you can’t serve all these people with one thing. Your strategy isn’t so much a document, as it’s a guiding principle that gets you from here to where you want to be. It doesn’t get you there by producing a list of things to do – that’s your plan. The strategy informs your actions, and a well implemented and understood strategy is one that people use to guide their decisions, long after the documents are written.