Why some centralising of local gov digital is needed

An ongoing debate this. Ben Proctor has had his say recently, and it feels fairly sensible.

There are two issues at stake here – one is whether some kind of ‘GDS’ for local government is needed; second is whether we need a website for every council.

These two things are not necessarily bound to one another.

My view is that some centralising is vital for the sector, for two main reasons.

First, financial. It’s nuts that there are hundreds of broadly similar, publicly funded organisations out there paying again and again for broadly the same thing. There has to be savings to be made here with a bit of rationalisation.

Second, and most important for me, quality. The standard of digital services in local government is variable to say the least. Lots of people are doing brilliant work. Lots more people, it would appear, are being prevented from doing even competent work by some circumstance or other.

I think the first thing local government needs to do is to admit that there is a problem. The majority of services delivered within the sector do not provide an adequate level of quality user experience.

In other words, the current system isn’t working.

The problem, as many have pointed out, is that making this happen would be hard. Who has the mandate to get this done? How to get around political issues, particularly local pride, and so on? Big national IT projects? Arrrgggggh!

… and so on.

However, none of the arguments are strong enough to make this not worth trying. If we can save the sector millions of pounds a year, then putting a few noses out of joint will probably be worth it.

Key to success for me will be:

  • Ownership by local government. Lots of models have been discussed. I would look strongly at putting a mutual together, owned by the sector, where councils pool money by investing in the mutual. This should provide a mandate as well as scale to get things done
  • Focusing on achieving realistic things. Follow the GDS model of building prototypes and getting stuff out quickly. Don’t build the single local government domain as the first job.
  • Quality above all else. Everything that comes out of the mutual should be of the highest quality, firstly because it should be the minimum standard anyway but also to demonstrate to the sector what can be achieved
  • Share everything openly. Even those who choose not to be a part of the mutual should still be able to make use of its products and services.

I’m sure there are lots of holes in these – admittedly very sketchy – ideas. However, so much could be achieved so quickly if even just a handful of forward thinking local authorities got together and made this happen.

Accelerators, intrapreneurs and changing organisations for the better

Lucy Watt shares an excellent, honest post on the FutureGov blog about their learning from the PSLaunchpad project.

Having regularly spoken to one of the teams on the launchpad, Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon, I’m aware of the transformative impact the experience had on them, and their attitude to work.

As Martin himself reflects in one of his own blog posts about the Launchpad, there are some pretty big takeaways for local government as a whole from a process like this.

There is undoubtedly a tension between existing Council culture and the sort of thinking and process that accelerators typify. I don’t personally believe that there will be another PS Launchpad that involves local government in the same way. I think we are more likely to see a specifically local government version of it instead and this is something I would strongly advocate and be keen to be involved with in some capacity.

Lots of the conversations I am having with people across government – but particularly in councils – is about how traditionally bureaucratic, process heavy organisations can move quickly: make speedy decisions, get new products and services out faster, learn from feedback and respond in a timely fashion.

Being in a process like an accelerator such as PSLaunchpad provides many of the skills and experiences needed to answer these questions. Being told you have to ship something in two weeks, being advised from feedback that you’ve built the wrong thing and need to pivot quickly, having the authority to make decisions and plot a course accordingly yourself, without lengthy governance processes.

But not everyone can spend weeks out of the office on a programme like this – in fact, it’s probably impractical for many more than a handful in any one organisation.

Perhaps the answer is to run this type of programme internally, to embed it into people’s work. Got a change project on the go? Run it within an internal accelerator. Set some boundaries and some rules, put those working on it in a different room and let them get on with it. Put them in touch with potential mentors who have completed similar projects before, in the same sector and in different sectors.

It doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to cost any money. It’s just a case of trying something different and not doing things the same way they always have been.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #5 – tools

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

There’s a kitbag of tools and approaches that can be used to tackle the problems facing us. Not everyone knows about them and this needs fixing.

I’m not necessarily talking about digital tools either – although there are some of those of course.

It’s more than that – it’s some of the emerging practices and processes, and mindset too. They don’t even cost money, most of these things.

Take the example from Carl Haggerty. At Devon they have a meeting room, decked out with fairly random, non-officey furniture, that can’t be booked out. It’s a room for the curious and the collaborative. You can have meetings in there, but be warned that anyone might turn up and join in. Or you could take your laptop in and get on with your day to day work, only sitting next to people who you don’t normally get to meet.

Like organisations acting responsively to their users. Being agile in the way services and products are delivered. Iterating in response to feedback. Co-designing to improve the way things work.

It’s also about a plurality of tools and systems to be used to help fix problems. I know this is a recurring theme of mine at the moment, but one size fits all solutions are dead.

People and organisations have to be flexible enough to be able to deliver different services in different ways to different groups depending on their needs.

This mindset, these tools and practices need to be rolled out to people in ways that will really help them bring about change. I don’t think training courses or online tooklits will cut it, somehow. We need something new.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #4 – communities

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

Communities always come up a lot, in terms of engagement and also new methods of service delivery.

The trouble is that organisations such as local authorities like scalable, repeatable processes – and communities fit neither of those things.

Communities are messy, unique things. Even ones that sound the same are usually very different, depending on the history, the personalities. In one area, a service that could be delivered by one parish council couldn’t be delivered by another, say. One neighbourhood watch group is likely to be unlike any other.

What’s more – communities, whether formal ones of the type I just mentioned or more informal social groups, are pretty much all facing exactly the same problems that councils are – lacking money, lacking volunteers, facing the sudden need to make dramatic changes to everything they do.

I’m on the board of my local Citizens Advice Bureau and we are facing the fact that our core funding is being reduced, needing to find new sources of income, and needing to help our clients to move towards self service online over face to face interactions, so we can save money and time while still delivering a service. Sound familiar?

So, “community” isn’t a panacea – but it can be part of the solution. It won’t, however, be a simple solution, but one that is based on meeting the needs of the communities you are working with as much as it is those communities meeting yours.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #3 – collaboration is key

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

Mary McKenna brilliantly facilitated an excellent discussion on collaboration – why it is needed, why it hasn’t worked that well up to now, and how that might be fixed.

Some great input came from FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell, who spoke about the some of the challenges trying to implement their Patchwork tool across multiple agencies.

There was also discussion of the limitations of the traditional approach to partnership working – overly bureaucratic, slow to make decisions, agencies working individually to deliver what should be shared objectives, really boring meetings, and so on.

What’s needed is a more agile, responsive and flexible approach to working in partnership to deliver shared outcomes.

This needs to mean organisations sharing people, resources, systems, data and more – and not just tick-box style partnerships.

What’s also vital to to this working are grown up conversations are needed about who can deliver what with the resources they have. This is no time for pride.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #2 – don’t panic

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

Another thread of discussion was around – as it often is – how do we engage more people with process x, or y.

Catherine Howe led a very interesting session on local democracy, and forming a more holistic view of what that actually is (clue: think active citizens; not politics, elections and councils). My takeaway was that we shouldn’t panic when something we do doesn’t seem to be important to people any more.

Things change, people move on, stuff dies. Something else replaces it.

It’s fine.

Don’t spend too much time and energy trying to prop up a thing that nobody else wants any more – find out what they do want, and build that – whether you’re talking democracy, services, products, whatever.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #1- culture

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

Lot and lots of discussion about culture and culture change. This discussion has been going on since forever, and if we are being frank with ourselves, it isn’t going to change dramatically soon.

So what to do? Don’t lets make the culture change discussion stop us from doing things. Have a go, fix what you can right now.

It could be that by having enough people doing this at the same time the culture will look after itself.

Challenges facing local government

I spent a really enjoyable morning today at Devon County Council, facilitating an internal unconference. It was a senior managers’ get together, a regular event, which normally has a proper agenda and proper presentations.

The idea was to turn things around a bit, giving all those in the room the chance to pick the brains of all the others, share what they know, admit to what they don’t, and hopefully pick up a bit of momentum to get something done.

The whole process went down well, and hopefully the Council will be using open space in the future to run this kind of event.

It was an opportunity for me to listen to the current concerns of those people who are having to deliver services in local government, what they see as being the main challenges, and what some of the solutions may be.

The following poorly-expressed points seemed to me to keep cropping up.

  • speed, agility
  • flexibility and responsiveness
  • nature of community, different (probably self identifying) groups need different approaches, internally and externally
  • complexity of landscape. No one size fits all approach. End of universality.
  • development of culture (I prefer ‘development’ to ‘change’…)
  • Collaboration across the organisation, across organisations, across sectors and geographically. Council an enabler not necessarily deliverer
  • big challenges cannot be solved in one go. Must be broken down

I probably ought to spend a bit of time writing these up into something more coherent. In the mean time, feel free to pick away at them.

How open are council meetings?

DCLG have today announced that residents, bloggers, tweeters, community activists and hyperlocal sites should have the same access and facilities to council meetings as traditional newspaper journalists. This is important because it means Government recognises the valuable contribute the wider community makes to accountability in local government.

It’s a very timely announcement. For a while now I’ve been interested in the openness of council meetings. Namely, whether citizens, media or councillors are permitted to live tweet/blog, record audio of or film public meetings.

I have secured permission to film the meetings of my local council meetings in Lichfield and heard stories of others being forced to leave or even arrested for attempting to do the same.

These are just a few examples of the current state of play so an effort to document which councils allow their meetings to be opened up I created Open Council Meetings, a simple project to track which councils allow tweeting, recording and filming of meetings.

My hope is that the project can help bring together localgov enthusiasts, hyperlocal bloggers and active citizens to monitor the situation and put pressure on councils to open up.