Digital doesn't mean technology
It can be a struggle to understand how well the organisations we work for are moving into the digital age. Civic tech pioneer and digital lead for the UK’s biggest funders, Tom Steinberg, has a coal-face view of a digital world, one where cutting edge technology is a distant distraction, and user-centred design an urgent requirement. Tom became chief digital officer at the Big Lottery Fund (now the The National Lottery Community Fund) in 2016 after a decade as the founder of noted civic tech NGO mySociety, which operates public interest digital services such as FixMyStreet
“One of my favourite early discoveries at the Big Lottery Fund was that there were 10 different ‘Contact Us’ webpages” Tom says, “It’s a silly example of an organisation not getting digital service design, but unpicking the human and organisational processes that lead to sane institutions delivering insane user experiences is one of the great pleasures of my life”.
Last year, he moved to the Big Lottery Fund’s sister organisation, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, also to lead on digital. In both roles he was the first digital leader to sit on the executive teams of those organisations, showing in symbolic terms how digital has been rising up the agendas of CEOs and trustees.
Having now seen how multiple public sector funders think about digital technologies and digital approaches, he has reflections that his previous experience in the NGO sector could not give him.
“Working for a funder is a very privileged position, something I try to remember every day. It’s also a powerful position, and one that enables you to hurt and distract people who are doing vital work for the best possible reasons.”
Tom argues that whilst almost all public and private institutions need to adapt to life in a digital era, funders have a form of double challenge that makes digital transformation twice as tricky.
Reforming for digital
“Most organisations trying to cope with the digital age need to get good at meeting people’s expectations about what services should be like now. That’s a lot of work, and most organisations struggle with the sheer profundity of the change required. People struggle to believe that ‘to make the website good’ they might have to actually restructure a bureaucracy in quite profound ways, plus, upskill, refresh the values, lead and manage differently. It seems incredible that such a small thing as ‘make the website good’ might demand such disruptive change. But it turns out the website of a significant funder isn’t a ‘small thing’. It is ‘the thing’ – by volume it’s most of the customer experience, even for a conversational, human business like funding.
“So funders have to reform to do great digital service design and delivery, just like businesses and public bodies everywhere. And it’s tough. But to add to the challenge, they then have a second major digital challenge, one that most institutions don’t have to worry about.
“Funders also need to make great, impactful grants into a society that is now pervasively digital. In the case of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we have to make grants into a country in which 90 per cent of people spend many hours a day online, and in which digital has upturned the definition of ‘normal’. Doing this is a completely different skill-set from developing a brilliant, high quality online and offline service.
“That means that funding organisations need to develop the kind of digital skills found in a modern consumer-friendly business, like Amazon, but they also need to develop digital investment skills, of the sort found in a technology-focused venture capital business like Index Ventures. Just one of these transformations would be tough, two at the same time is extremely challenging.”
Tom is critical of the overall approach to customer service and service design in the funding universe, and has dedicated a lot of his time to trying to shift attitudes both in his employers and elsewhere.
“Funders don’t generally tend to think of themselves as services with a significant responsibility to ensure that they give their users an experience that is clear, friendly and welcoming. Instead they tend to think of themselves as trusted, responsible adults deploying money to make the biggest difference it can, with customer service very much a secondary thought.
“But any funder who accepts grant applications is actually a kind of service provider, albeit an unusual one. If we’ve learned anything in the last few years of user research and social science more generally, we’ve learned that difficult, confusing services in any walk of life are a barrier to broad participation. Difficult and confusing processes make it more likely that the people who get grant money will be highly educated, relatively wealthy, and well-connected. Now, there might be some funders out there for whom such lucky folks are their key target, but I don’t think that’s a widely shared priority!”
Things, however, are looking up. “In some big funders including those where I’ve been lucky enough to work, the culture around customer service is changing, and changing fast. What’s exciting about working in such a funder now is watching them embrace the user-centred, data and evidence driven wave that’s been transforming services around the world for over a decade now. We’re not necessarily inventing a whole lot of new stuff, but sometimes implementing what already works can make the most massive difference.”
Great grant making
However a funder with great quality digital service design has only solved half its digital challenges.
“Any funding organisation that’s older than 10-15 years was founded in a world that was not pervasively digital. So the funding policies that were set and the staff who were hired were not shaped or chosen to cope with the reality of grant-making in a world that has just undergone a huge change. I know it can be easy to feel that life now isn’t really that different to a couple of decades ago, but if you look at time use studies the shift is enormous. People in Britain went from spending zero minutes a day interacting with online services in the 1990s to many hours a day on average. It’s a shift of behaviour change that’s transformed how people work, how they play, even how they meet and get married.
Every grant a funder makes now has to be aware of digital implications, and every choice needs to be informed by an understanding of how digital has shifted behaviours, opportunities and risks. Perhaps the most tricky thing for funders to adapt to is the idea that a funding application that comes in that contains zero digital terms or concepts is still being made into a digital society, and our colleagues need to be able to see what’s missing, not just what’s present.”
Before leaving the Big Lottery Fund, Tom was responsible for the research, design and initial delivery of its dedicated £15m Digital Fund.
“Of course the major part of the Digital Fund was to help ensure that Britain’s civil society sector has within it great organisations that really know how to use digital approaches and tools to create significant impact. We chose to focus on both pre-existing organisations that needed to learn how to adapt, and brand new organisations that were ‘born digital’ because it seems clear that the UK is going to need both in the decades ahead.
“However, to some extent the Digital Fund was a change programme for that Funder itself. It was an excuse to expose many grant-making colleagues to digital issues and decisions for the first time, and to give a range of people practical experience of making choices about highly digital projects. In the long-run, there doesn’t need to be a permanent digital fund at that funder. What is needed is individual grant-makers who have the skills and knowledge to understand how some digitally enabled projects are vital and worth supporting in the long-run, even though they might not look at all like traditional projects that would traditionally attract grant money.”
The role of digital in the leadership team
Tom sees the current moment in public institutions as a transitional one, a moment between two phases rather than an era in its own right.
“Digital change and transformation in institutions is often being led by people like myself, with job titles like ‘digital transformation lead’ or similar, reporting (as I do) directly to the CEO of whatever organisation we’re considering. However, despite being a recent and positive innovation – putting digital on the top team – this is not a permanent state or a permanent role. Instead it reflects the fact that institutions have to pass through a period when the skills which senior leaders need are changing faster than those leadership teams themselves are turning over.
“Today we expect that all senior leaders can type and use a computer competently. These weren’t skills we expected our top team members to have in the past, but they’re now so unremarkable that they barely merit inclusion on a list of essential skills for leaders. There’s now a set of key digital skills that will soon be held by virtually everyone on a top management team of virtually any organisation of any size. These skills will include an understanding of what digital tools can do and what they can’t do, what sorts of staff you need to employ to make use of them, and what sorts of project management and leadership approaches are required to stop it all blowing up. But it’s going to be a transition period of perhaps ten to 30 years to get most organisations there, so in the meantime we need a range of stopgap interventions. One such intervention is appointing senior digital specialists who sit on senior teams for maybe the next five years but who then eventually disappear and see their roles phased out. It also looks like very intensive coaching and practical skills experience, which only the more open-minded senior leaders will embrace with enthusiasm.”
Ultimately, Tom is optimistic about digital change in public institutions. “I think that the single most important thing that the digital revolution has brought to such organisations is actually not the tech itself, but an epochal mindset change in favour of the public. It used to be that the top aspiration for a public servant was to be a sort of philosopher king, the smartest person in the room. I think the ideal of public servants has really been shifting recently, and increasingly the ideal is now to be the most human, the most responsive, the most willing to admit mistakes and learn from mistakes, all in the pursuit of great services for users. If it takes a bunch of boxes filled with circuits to bring about this very values-based change, I can live with that.”