#YesAllSociety — because not just Government deserves brilliant leadership

Great digital leaders aren’t just changemakers – they have to live the values of the change themselves

Jason Caplin
Sep 10, 2016 · 4 min read

Let’s put this to bed once and for all: Digital leaders aren’t here to fix IT.

When a board hires a ‘digital leader’, they’re not saying: we want a new IT department. Well, they might think they want a new IT department. But not deep down. Deep down, they’re really saying: We want someone to come and ask really hard questions. Foment change. Breed excitement and instability. (OK, they also want to ask why is their IT so pants.)

And when a board gets it really really right, deep down they’re really saying: Yes, all that, and we want them to have the confidence to deliver the change that’s needed too.

In Britain, the people who have been getting it really really right recently have been… senior civil servants. Whitehall wonks. The top brass. Who knew.

But in the past few months, it feel like the balance has shifted. For some reason the wonks have had a wobble. From being the brilliant leaders who hired other leaders to lead where they couldn’t, they’ve moved across to the safe space of asking their leaders not to lead, and in the process put a bit of a kibosh on all that is good and right about delivering change where no 100-page business case exists and not all the already-unbelievable milestones are committed.

It is not time for the government digital revolution to retreat. Far from it. Kevin is here to make that happen. I am still ever so proudly #OfTheGovernment.

But this feels like a great opportunity to cast our rebellious brilliance wider. To take the change that we have led in Government, and paint those design principles and service standards across the landscape of social service, of health and care and education and security, that pumping heart of British infrastructure which is social enterprise and public sector and charity. Society is crying out for you to come and help lead it through the same change.

One of those is Barnardo’s — delivering £250m of services to Britain’s most vulnerable on behalf of government around the country. Yes, I’m really chuffed to be joining as their first chief digital officer, and yes, I’m brazenly hiring a digital army.

But before you DM me with your CV (please), I need to take a moment to call something out.

If you agree, I invite you to share your thoughts, pledges (and if helpful, experiences) with #YesAllSociety so that when you commit to your next digital leadership role, people will know you are out not just to do a great job, but be the great leader that all of society requires of all of us.

#YesAllSociety — because society deserves good leaders

This shift in government balance hasn’t come as a series of statements. Rather, it has come as a series of rather confrontational meetings. They are probably entirely unconnected from each other. But the way in which they have been conducted — and the impact they have had on the people involved — has appalled me.

When we talk about digital leaders in government, we mean people who were hired to solve some of the biggest, most entrenched challenges. People like Emma and Norm and Janet and Tom and Kit and Mike who chose to start by asking hard questions, and who understood that the right answers might make them unpopular with many around them — even the people that hired them to do that very job.

That courage is currently coming at a massive price. There are too many stories right now about how digital leaders — the very people who have been drafted in to ask really hard questions across Government — have been bullied into defeat. Often, that has come at the hands of the very people (or their successors) who hired them to ask those questions. Maybe they just didn’t like the honesty of the answers.

That’s not acceptable. Grow a thick skin, yes. Listen to and take on board robust feedback, yes. But it’s never appropriate to bully other leaders. Especially when they are being braver than you.

I’ve heard too many stories from my digital leader peers of being shouted and sworn at in meetings; of being subjected to personal attacks; of the ugliest forms of sexism; of spineless threats and baseless grievances brought by people who have a massive responsibility to do the right thing, but who have suddenly experienced some insecurity and instead resorted to tactics that should have been left behind in the playground.

When we take the digital revolution to all society, we must not take this attitude with. If we, the senior leaders of the present and the future, are brave enough to be, recruit, and empower the next catalysts of change, let us not forget that the change starts with us.

One more thing

Government’s not done yet, and I’m not done with Government either. Watch this space for something that might make some of you smile later in the year.

One more more thing

Kevin. You’re brilliant, I’m looking forward to everything you do, and you are a brilliant figurehead and a role model, and I know you are the right person to take this on. I hope you realise all of this is inspired by #transformingtogether, and I’m looking forward to talking to you about how we can formally build partnerships within the public sector.

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