What would a local government skunk works look like?

So my post about whether local government needs skunk works got quite a reaction both in the comments and on Twitter, so it’s obviously something people are interested in discussing.

How can we move the debate forward?

Let me sketch some ideas on how it might work – feel free to comment, criticise, abuse me in the comments. I’m genuinely making this up as I go along.

1. A local government skunkworks would best operate on a networked basis – a loose central organisation of more localised groups. That way you keep small groups concentrating on local issues but sharing is still possible.

2. Due to the nature of local service delivery and related issues, it would need to be run on open innovation lines, so that people who aren;t local government officers can still get involved, eg other public services, those in the civil sector, universities (thanks Rupert in the comments) and the private sector.

3. Skunkworks operate best with specific projects to work on. Some method of identifying projects would be needed.

4. Is there a need for some kind of ownership by the local council, or at least a body responsible for service delivery? No point having an active skunk works if nothing ever actually happens!

5. Depending on the project, financing is going to be needed at some point. Where would that come from in this model?

6. Involvement of local residents will be vital – they ought to be able to join teams where they have value to add, and be kept up to date with progress and be able to comment (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

7. This isn’t just about IT or the web – it’s about any kind of innovation. Though tech likely to play a role in many innovations (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

8. Skunkworks is probably a terrible name and something friendlier is undoubtably needed (from comments on the Twitters by @anthonyzach and @dominiccampbell).

Have I got anything badly wrong? What have I missed out?

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

19 thoughts on “What would a local government skunk works look like?”

  1. Hi Dave
    Agree with this – it’s a bit like the model we used for the London Datastore particularly point 2 – London Datastore would not exist without the active input of the developer community from the start. Being open has meant we (as in the state sector) have leveraged in lots and lots of innovation that would not have come without this engagement (what can we learn from only talking to each other in government?). I recently suggested to the Local Open Data Panel that CLG consider funding bursaries for “Developers in Residence” in local authorities – like you used to have artists in residence. The reality is that developers are the new creatives/disrupters and they need to help local authorities identify what can be done in the tech/innovation/data sector – also bringing new ways of working/challenge into moribund bureaucracies – more skunkworks needed and soon.

    1. Some great ideas here. Just a very quick comment in response to Emma’s idea about developers in residence. Can I suggest also user experience designers in residence? Developers are fantastic innovators, don’t get me wrong. But I also think there needs to be design input to make sure that tech innovations are both useful and usable. Take a look at the Design Jams wiki for inspiration.

  2. What role for Universities? A cross discipline group of university departments coming together to collaborate with public policy leaders to tackle issues? With the term ‘leaders’ I don’t mean CEOs !!!

    1. Totally a role for Unis – hence the open innovation approach. Will add them into the post to make that clear – thanks!

  3. Couple of thoughts;

    How are local residents involved?
    Is this avowedly wider than just IT projects from the start? (Or not?)
    How does localgov promote and share skunkworks best practise? (Whatever that means, although I have an idea or two.)
    How is the IP shared? (I’m pretty sure open innovation implies open source software is produced, if software is produced at all, but best make it explicit.)

    I too am just making this up… With less experience of gov work that you…

    1. Harry – local residents ought to be able to join the skunkworks team if they want to, and where there are progress reports, to be able to read, comment and query.

      Defo more than IT.

      In terms of promote good practice – I guess this should be done online – maybe through an interactive portal? (joke)

      IP – you would hope that an enlightened attitude would be taken and an open licence used – whether software, or anything else.

      Will update the post with these bits.

      1. I didn’t mean medium, so much as… Oh, I’m not sure.

        But putting learning online so it _can_ be shared doesn’t seem sufficient. I want to tease out how to _make_ it shared. LGID? LGIU? Local Government Leadership? CoP? All of the above?

  4. Devolved innovation… There hasn’t been a time until now were such a thing could work, though it still might be 5-10 years to early. The problem with a skunk or innovation centre/cluster/hub/office, has classically been that the innovation flourishes in the centre, but fails to make its way out to the greater organisation in any meaningful way.

    This is due partially environment and/or communication. Communication is vastly improving with social and not-so-social media but the filtering is still evolving. The environment in which innovation happens transferring itself across locations is being developed really well in some private institutions but has yet to make it into the wild in any meaningful way.

    Encouraging networks to work in the nude, allowing others to see both their successes and failures so they build on them, is the secret sause for me.

    Great post

  5. IP & funding are is a tricky area – I disagree that “Open Innovation” necessarily means open source, it can but not always. Open innovation is more about collaborating and utilising strengths, tools, resources, people & IP from both inside & outside the organisation to deliver the right outcomes.

    I think the very nature of skunkworks means they will be locally focussed so I definitely agree with Points 1 & 2 in the post above.

    Point 3 is interesting, I agree a skunkworks project needs focuss, infact HAS to be focussed on delivering business value and organisational outcomes rather than some silo’d efficicency, BUT that doesnt mean (points 1 & 2) that the projects should be driven from a central source, more that the “local skunks” should feed a central “repository” of activities (Shared Understanding) that people can then re-enact locally, contribute to, comment on or dismiss as appropriate.

    Point 4 re: ownership – I think this goes back to delivering local council value therefore ownership (and likely investment) is there but the value can be shared across council boundaries AND public/private boundaries in the truest sense of Hybrid Orgs and Open Innovation.

    Point 5 – I don’t think we are very close to having a model other than locally financed as being dominant? Because of the nature of “people” I think it may well be an aspiration to have central funding, open IP etc, but ego’s, politics and organisational constraints will prevent this for now, I think we are better focussing our efforts on enabling individual councils to be efficient and deliver positive business outcomes as effectively as possible before we look to transition these more tricky aspects centrally?

    Point 6 – Resident / Citizen involvement – Hadn’t thought of that, but absolutely yes it makes sense and will help drive the “Hybrid Organisation” behaviour into the skunkworks

    Definitely agree with Point 7. I would fear for the sustainability of any public sector skunkworks “movement” that was purely based upon technology. Lets look at innovating services and delivering positive outcomes and drag the technology with us when and if we need to!

    Yes skunkworks is a dirty name, it has too many connotations of servers under desks, covert operations etc. Do we need a single name? Isn’t what we are talking about nothing more than councils working as “Hybrid Organisations” and re-inventing their operations to embrace “open innovation” and “open business models”?

    REALLY looking forward to seeing how this all plays out 🙂

  6. This idea is great and the discussion very exiting!
    Personally I strongly believe in this kind of action having been part of a federal network of Italian regional groups that worked quite well in Italy in the past. The network was called “Regional Competence Centers for e-government and Information Society” (RCC), in Italian CRC. It was a project launched by the Italian Minister of Innovation together with the presidents of the regions in 2004 and lasted until 2008, than it was shut down by national government mainly for political reasons.
    All regions had a group, and a central stuff in Rome ensured a good coordination (I worked there as a policy analyst, data collector, etc.). The groups were composed by civil servants and external consultants or academics with an interdisciplinary approach. They were created to offer technical assistance to local authorities (regions, provinces and municipalities) in implementing local e-government projects co-financed by the national government, but also helped local gov dealing with emerging themes by exchanging practices and developing common pilots project.
    Some groups have survived, for example that of Piemonte Region which is still pretty active. http://www.ruparpiemonte.it/portal/public/rupar/crc/mission
    In my blog you find other info on that network and an old ppt http://www.luigireggi.eu/Innovation-policies/Local_eGovernment_in_Italy.htmlPersonally I strongly believe in this kind of action having been part of a federal network of Italian regional groups that worked quite as you say and was called “Regional Competence Centers for e-government and Information Society” (RCC), in Italian CRC. It was a project launched by the Italian Minister of Innovation together with the presidents of the regions in 2004 and lasted until 2008, than it was shut down mainly for political reasons.
    Every region had a group, and a central stuff in Rome ensured a good coordination (I worked in the central stuff as a policy analyst). The groups were created to offer technical assistance to local authorities (regions, provinces and municipalities) in implementing local e-government projects co-financed by the national government. But also they helped local gov dealing with emerging themes by exchanging practices and developing common pilots project.
    Some groups have survived, for example that of Piemonte Region which is still pretty active. http://www.ruparpiemonte.it/portal/public/rupar/crc/mission
    In my blog you find other info on that network and an old ppt http://www.luigireggi.eu/Innovation-policies/Local_eGovernment_in_Italy.html

  7. We used to have a Hack Sutton Google Group but it dwindled because there were only three real members.

    A good place to start would be a regular meetup in a pub or in a library with wifi. Just get people meeting each other face to face, share ideas and skills, that sort of thing.

    Come the summer I want to see developers out in their town centres sitting with a connected laptop and a big sign saying “talk to me about local websites”.

    1. I love that idea about a network of developers out in shopping centres inviting people to stop by & talk to them about what they don’t like about local websites – we really should get some people & dates organised for the summer…

  8. Thanks for posting this Dave, you’ve set off a lively and productive debate!

    On 1&2 How would a network-based approach look like? Working through strong relationships and existing networks seems to be important, especially with intermediaries that are embedded in the community. Some will be more formalised, such as community action networks or chambers of commerce and others more self organised i.e. local tuttles, meetups, hack groups as Adrian suggests etc.

    Especially relevant may be localised groups who create spaces that make it possible for people to use their time, skills and networks – what Nat Wei calls “philanthrophic capacity” – for the community. Often, we start at the end always trying to scale everything up, but perhaps to preserve that looseness and agility, you could look at existing projects where councils and communities are working together and introduce skunkwork approaches (like the London Datastore).

    These groups will help you involve residents. Work with them to analyse people’s social networks in terms of who they share their knowledge with, learn their skills from and who influences them the most. Maybe that there is a strong cluster of people with tech skills but maybe that its less the specific skills they’ve got but more the places they cluster around which can provide a skunkworks space, or issues they care about like repairing a village hall that you could use skunkworks approaches on. This will help define the mission of the skunkworks.

    Really like Emer’s suggestion about “developers in residence” I think we can broaden this to other creatives and disrupters, what David Barrie calls the “militant optimists”.

    On 3. Agree you need specific projects to test on. Crowdsourcing ideas online and at face to face innovation camps could be a way to build those relationships and projects which have open innovation embedded into them from the start. Using project-based spaces.

    On 4, you do need ownership by the council but also from the beneficiaries of the project (whether it’s local people, staff or groups), so it’s always best to involve them from the start and not do things to them. Often well-intentioned people want to put their skills to good use and develop the solution quickly, while building relationships between the different actors can take time. Start with the people and groups you’ve built strong relationships with, you’ve been bouncing around ideas and explore how skunkworks could help turn those ideas into prototypes.

    On 5. the elephant in the room! In terms of leveraging investment for this, it makes sense to test some innovative forms of investment, like participatory budgeting, community or social impact bonds, or work with alternative local currencies (like Brixton Pound), local exchange trading schemes (LETS), or crowdfunding (like Kickstarter). In the meantime, I imagine a combination of support for skunkworkers to get together (like a venue, PCs, wifi perhaps, etc) could kick it off? Think brokering the connections to people (like venture capitalists) and organisations who can provide finance will be very important, as well developing the capacity for local finance (credit unions, local banks, etc), but’s that a wider debate!

    From my experience involved in groups developing micro-initiatives in the community (in my spare time!), it’s very small levels of support we need – often in kind – like regular access to a venue to invite people to develop these initiatives with us, food and drink to keep people to keep people’s energy levels up and access to be able to shape community projects developed by local institutions.

    A much more developed type of support of skunkworks can be found here http://slidesha.re/dFq6l8 Maybe we could have a Code for America in the UK?

  9. Maybe I’m getting old and cantankerous, but it seems to me
    that we’re at risk of hanging more onto the ‘skunkworks’ peg than
    it’s fair to ask it to carry. To me, skunkworks is about a team
    delivering a tangible technical output quickly and creatively
    because they’ve been relieved, to a great extent, of bureaucracy
    and management. They have a task, and talent, and time, and
    goodwill but very little money, and need to deliver something great
    like StayPrivate.org or Apple’s
    Graphing Calculator
    . I like Ingrid’s example of the
    Oldham Social Media ‘skunkworks’ but for me that’s a great way to
    build a social media group, not a skunkworks. I’m all for sharing
    good examples, byproducts and building connections between teams to
    inspire and inform the wider community. But let’s not ask
    skunkworks to do that right now. Let’s convince a few senior people
    in a few smart authorities that they have good enough developers
    in-house (in places like Lichfield, Lincoln and so on) to set those
    guys free on cracking some really tough problems like saving some
    really serious amounts of money. And then let’s forget about it all
    for a bit, like raking the soil over seed potatoes, and let those
    teams get on with it for a few months without asking too many
    questions. They can share best practice and involve residents and
    talk about it at govcamps later.

  10. Like your thoughts there Steph, makes a lot of sense.

    Trying to do too much outside of the “norms” i.e. developing local solutions, is probably too much of a shift in mind-set for some authorities this early in the movement.

    One general comment that I would like to make is that *most* of the conversation we are having here is focussed directly on the technology and making “stuff”. Should we not be looking less at the technology initially and more at what outcomes local authorities should be delivering, what value they should be adding and how they (service and technology areas) can be more effective AND THEN look at how the innovative use of technology can enable or facilitate the changes and services required?

    I still think *we* are absolutely the right people to drive this innovation, but lets move away from the keyboard and focus for a moment on the front-line & how authorities are operating internally for a while get drawing on those whiteboards and map out what we actually need to deliver…

    Day 1 -Analogue-Skunkworks
    Day 2 – Visualisations & Shared Understanding
    Day 3 – Shift mind-sets
    Day 4 – Hybrid local authorities with open innovation
    Day 5 – Mesh of local authority technology skunkworks
    Day 6 – LocalGovCamp
    Day 7 – Have a rest…

    Just a thought?

  11. I had a couple of conversation that relate to this earlier today.

    Firstly, was with a design lead in one of Birmingham city council’s business transformation programmes. I stated the (unconfirmed) statistic that most 16 to 25 year olds in Birmingham access the internet via their mobiles and suggested we utilise social media as a first response channel.

    “There is a lack of political will and too much bureaucracy to over come”, they said.
    “However about a national framework for local government, driven by a central [skunk works] team?” I replied.
    “I refer you to the answer I gave you some moments ago”, they joked. [Paraphrased response].

    I then offered up the hacker communities, who would love to get involved. I got the same response, but countered with the idea of a local government hackathon, the open source output of which could be fed into the skunk works. Blow me! I got a nod of the head and a favourable response 🙂

    Second chat was with 2 consultants working in the same transformation programmes. Floated the skunk works idea and was told it wouldn’t work. Period. I dug a little deeper and was referred to the NHS electronic records project (my Mum was involved in this, so I knew about it). The meat of the project failure boiled down to poor communication.

    Therefore, to make this work I surmise we’ll need: –

    1) Political will
    2) Bureaucracy busters
    3) buy-in
    4) Dam good communications

    Any takers? I’m up for it 🙂

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