What I think about Local Government and Digital

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Mush of this post was written before today’s Budget announcement which contains a really interesting snippet:

Budget 2015 - Digital ambition extends beyond central to consider local services

I’ll make some comments about this snippet towards the end of this post but want to carry on with my post as originally intended.

In my previous post about Local Government in general I shared my thoughts and journey through local government.

In this post I want to share my thinking about Digital in Local Government. Probably for some a long overdue post but I must admit my views and thinking have not been consistent over the last few years so

To briefly recap this is what i said in my last post around the vision:-

We must demand and create¬†world-class local public services and we simply can not compromise on this….

I believe…

We need demand led local public services that are responsive to the needs of citizens and are based on what people need and how best those needs can be met.

We need open by default and digital by design local public services that are transparent, inclusive and accessible 

We need dynamic local democratic processes that respond to the needs and value the views of local people.

Firstly I want to make the point that Digital means different things to different people and that is in my opinion one of the fundamental barriers to wide-spread collaboration across the sector at the moment, although it should be the biggest opportunity to get people together as well!

There have been many discussions online and in person, some helpful, some not so helpful about what local government should do about Digital and it is reassuring that so many people actually care about the sector to express their points of view. The thing is no one is right or wrong as each person brings a different perspective and a different solution to the table – all of which most likely have a place somewhere.

I don’t claim to know what the answer is, nor do I claim to represent the views of the many practitioners who perhaps want different things. But what I can do is share what I think the problem is, where I think we as a sector need help.

The landscape of digital in local government ranges from aspects of the traditional IT domain to Web/Public Information to skills development and connectivity. It is all these things and much more.

As a practitioner in local government right now working to push digital innovation through my council, the approach I’m having to take is to set very high standards around the areas we have direct control which is the public website and the public information. We are in a process of change here and are currently moving our site to a new platform.

We now control content more than we ever did. We have an evolving approach around how we develop content Рunderstanding what the demand is for a particular service and then mapping this to user needs and looking at how we can reposition the content to meet needs whilst also providing additional content/messages which signpost local community and voluntary services and we do this because that is where people look first.

What we found out is that a good proportion of people don’t look at google first, people ask friends, neighbours, people they know who may have experienced similar situations. Only if they don’t find out any information do they resort to google or think of us as a council – we are seen as almost a last resort.

The problem is that the way we have set up the system of local government so that once people contact us we collectively tend to want to pull them into our systems and processes and manage them as cases, contacts or customers and then we often think about how we can exploit that contact and provide sight of all of their interactions with us in a single view. Who does that really benefit, and who does this really empower…it feels like we still hold the power in this model and that feels wrong. This doesn’t in my opinion treat people as people it treats them like assets which can be exploited.

We need to shift away from this centralised model to one which is personalised, empowering and designed around the lives of people. We need to design and build services which can be pulled when needed / required and or that respond dynamically to people’s lives and transitions that they experience.

We need to design our services to fit into the workflows of everyday people and not around the processes of policy and government only then we will deliver truly radical change.

Digital is not really a set of solutions, it is the symbolic behaviours that go with all that the internet represents.

I do believe we (Local Government) need to share aspects of what we currently recognise as IT infrastructure and we also need to consider how we can provide a consistent but not uniform public interface to the whole of the sector, not just local government but the multiple organisations that deliver local services.

That may mean that we consider and properly review whether a single platform for publishing would actually help make that better or make things worse…I think whilst cost is a driver, we can not make cost the priority focus for making these choices as we either want to deliver world-class local public services which we believe and know will reduce costs or we reduce costs and make the best of what we can…I’d rather start with world-class public services.

Coming back to the snippet from the budget – here are my top 7 things I demand as a Digital Practitioner in Local Government.

  1. Appoint a Chief Digital Officer for Local Public Services, who would have a responsibility to pull together the vision and map out the support required for each area and provide system leadership and direction. This might be a single person or a collection of people given a single mandate and the authority to make it happen.
  2. Adopt a relentless and uncompromising demand led redesign approach to ensure users are at the centre of what we do.
  3. Develop, support and enable a skills development programme ASAP which addresses the fundamental skills gap in local councils and local areas to actually make the changes on the ground happen and sustain them. This might be matched with a framework of approved suppliers who can be used to support who work to a consistent set of standards and approaches.
  4. Demand open approaches, open systems, open practice. We can no longer tolerate design and development in isolation within councils and across councils. Opening ourselves up and sharing the problems
  5. Reward and incentivise collaborative action РWe need to be uncompromising in our approaches to collaboration and demand this is designed into funding, rewards and any inspections. It has to be the the rule not the exception
  6. We can no longer tolerate digital ignorance in strategic positions across the local government landscape. If strategy and policy is disconnected from the opportunities we will continue to fail
  7. Fix strategy and policy so that local services are designed around the lives of people and not around the boundaries of organisations

What I recognise is that we all need help, we all need to feel we are not doing this in isolation. We need help to agree an ambitious vision for how local public services can be delivered and then we will need help in relentlessly focusing on delivery against that vision Рespecially when it gets hard, really hard.  That is what I think about Local Government and Digital.

 

What I think about local government (local public services)

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I often find friday afternoons and evenings a very reflective period so I started capturing some thoughts on what I think about local government, the result is this post and it ended up being a very therapeutic process writing this post…

I’ve written many blog posts on here about my thoughts on how to change local government, improve public services, the gamification of local community action and a whole range of things in between.

But it has come to my attention that I have never once posted about what I think about local government. This is partly a story of my time in local government and why I still work in it and will be a longer piece than normal and I make no apologies for that.

In 1996 I started my NVQ level 2 in business administration and joined Devon County Council as an Administrative Assistant in the then Personnel Department. This was 2 years before Local Government reorganisation changed Plymouth and Torbay Councils into Unitary authorities. It was also the time I learnt a huge amount about what Local Government did.

When i told my friends I was working at the ‘Council’ they all said…”well done you’ve got a job for life there mate”…we’ll come back to this later.

When I started the council employed from memory around 25,000 people, which¬†included schools and today we employ about 20% of that and the direction of travel is that we are likely to employ around even less. I won’t get into the details of how those reductions happened or will happen as I want to focus on what I think about Local Government generally.

What I learnt in those early days was that Local Government was and still is at the very heart of communities, providing services for the most vulnerable in society and taking care of those who needed it.

I was too young and lacked interest at the time to really find out how we did all of that and what would happen if we thought differently, but that didn’t take long.

After a few years I got very bored working as an admin person and asked to be considered for some internal secondment type arrangements and shadowing as I wanted to experience the breadth of the council. The first two areas I explored were Sustainable Development and Youth Participation…These two areas over a period of about 3 months gave me a huge insight into community development, community resilience, engagement and involvement, democracy and open space events or what we call unconferences now.

I quickly became very interested in the sustainable development agenda and somehow managed to secure a secondment to work with in the team and started to get involved in a range of activities including mapping local community projects which were part of the councils local agenda 21 plan.

I gained a huge amount of experience in this role around community development and working with community groups on how they felt services generally should be designed to meet local needs. The agenda 21 work in Devon came under a heading of ‘A Better Devon, A Better World’ and that has stuck with me for some time as I believe that we have a collective responsibility to improve the quality of life for everyone. It also showed me that when you start with needs, you engage people who have those needs, creative solutions emerge. But back then this was what “a¬†hippy or¬†environmentalist would do” so wasn’t a core part of policy development and in my view wasn’t as mainstream as it should have been. I even had dreadlocks back then (believe it or not) at this point in my career so fitted right in :)…Things have changed now of course, my hair is shorter, sustainability is no longer on the edges of policy and focusing on user needs is the preferred course of action. It doesn’t make it any easier of course.

After a few years I moved into the Economic Development team working as a project lead on a 2 county IT infrastructure project as we removed the council owned tourist information centres. This was my first real experience of the transformative nature of IT and digital-ish infrastructure as it required connecting local centres with technology and connectivity as well as kiosks for self service…this was back in 2001-2002 a year or so before the eGovernment agenda started to release huge amounts of money around IT infrastructure. We won’t go into too much detail into how well that transformed the institutions of local government, but lets just say, when you start from a position of technology, involve lots of people who know lots more about technology, you get something that inevitably resembles technology. But at no point from my experiences did anyone actually ask what the need was, where the demand is coming from and how we can shift that demand onto more efficient methods of delivery…

This was the time I joined the IT/Comms/Digital space and spent the following 13 years to now working in and around websites, social media, digital comms etc and fighting for a higher purpose but failing in so many ways. I was on the edges much like all previous activities, we weren’t mainstream, we were a distraction from what people thought was real service delivery.

We come to today and I am Digital Communications Lead and am connected into a wide and vast online network and chair a group of peers as we collectively navigate out way through the changes and transformations locally.

The council no longer provides all services, it has a mixed economy, one which sees the council as commissioner, service provider, commercial operator¬†etc…it is a very different place to be. The significant shift is that at its heart we are actually starting to really listen to local people…we are held to account more.

The focus on commercialisation is clearly a political view and I’ve always said I didn’t want to get into political viewpoints but my view on this is this: If your primary purpose is commercialisation of council services, the focus on user/citizen/resident will not be at the forefront of the strategy. I’m aware this approach has been successful in places, but I’d question the strategic purpose and value and whether or not we are actually suffocating the market and reducing the opportunity for local economic growth.

When looking at a platform based model of government (something which GDS advocate and one which I think makes perfect sense), we may find that particular components of the platform need government intervention to allow the market to develop and grow, but our approach should only be short-term and it should be based on having a clear exit strategy based on market maturity.

So how does this all shape what I think about local government?

I know that local government and more recently the local public services arena is full of people who care passionately about the people they serve. They want to do their best to solve problems and provide them with assurances and protect them from harm. All worthwhile and noble things, but society is changing. You could argue it has been constantly changing so why focus on the change so much now.
The obvious things like financial crisis and devolution and shifting power structures are all fundamentally changing the way services can and should be designed and delivered but a more rapid disruptive force is changing the way we think about services, government, society as whole…digital in its broadest sense is that disruptive force.

Digital is different, Mike Bracken recently spoke and said:

Digital is the technological enabler of this century. And, in any sector you care to name, it’s been the lifeblood of organisations that have embraced it, and a death sentence for those that haven’t. If you take away one thing today, please make it this: government is not immune to the seismic changes that digital technology has brought to bear.

I’m surprised it has taken this long to disrupt government at all levels if I’m honest, but then I think about the institution itself of local and central government and the structures and policies which up to recently have to a point protected it and created some level of immunity from the changes.

There are a number of barriers we need to remove, some are big and some are tricky but none are insurmountable –¬†sometimes we have to stop pandering to old cultures and snap people out of it…it is scary and the uncertainty this causes can cause stress, negativity and resistance, but the combination of multiple cultures that are¬†counter productive to radical and transformational change being successful needs to stop and needs to stop now. We need to tackle the conditions which validate these views and support people.

We must demand and create¬†world-class local public services and we simply can not compromise on this…we owe to our citizens, residents, friends, neighbours, family and ourselves to create and push for that – after all EVERYONE¬†uses local public services…sometimes we all have to let go of something in order for the future to appear – it isn’t easy and no one¬†should make excuses anymore – in fact I can’t think of any excuse which is acceptable.

This is our collective responsibility – Local Government is not a job for life. Local Government is a job to improve people’s lives,¬†based on a clear understanding of what people actually need. If you can’t see that…get out of the way of those who do, the future can’t wait any longer.

I think (in fact I believe)

We need demand led local public services that are responsive to the needs of citizens and are based on what people need and how best those needs can be met.

We need open by default and digital by design local public services that are transparent, inclusive and accessible 

We need dynamic local democratic processes that respond to the needs and value the views of local people.

No one is immune from the change and I don’t want people to think, its alright for you Carl, you don’t need to change – well you are wrong – I need to let go of things, I need to accept a new view, I need to change how I work, I need to focus more on demand led services, I need to understand users more, I need to stop thinking the work of the council happens at my desk and accept that every single day, services are delivered across the county by passionate people who just need help breaking down the systems that stop them doing a better job. I need to disrupt myself and I need help doing that from a range of people. The difference is perhaps I’ve accepted that and am doing something about it.

I think that local government is an amazing place to work and at this point in time in my life I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. If I want to change the system, I have to do from the inside whether in Devon or somewhere else.

In another post I want to share what I think specifically about Local Government and Digital.

Reflections on my second coaching / mentoring session

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A couple of weeks ago I posted about my first coaching/mentoring session with Phil Norrey (my Chief Executive) and it has had such a positive impact on my thinking, approach and behaviours already.

This week I had my first session with Mike Bracken (Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office) who kindly agreed to support me and help me over the coming months.

First and foremost I want to thank Mike for agreeing to do this and for taking time out to speak to me and help me professionally and personally it means a great deal and I believe it will provide the necessary challenge and encouragement along with my sessions with Phil to help me develop as a practitioner and a leader.

Like before the detail of the conversation will stay private but I will use this space to reflect on themes and specific challenges to help me work through them.

One of the interesting things in speaking to Mike was reflecting and talking about the work we are doing here in Devon (not just me, but the wider transformation that is also being driven hard by Sara Cretney and many others) and it isn’t until you try to capture everything that you realise how much is happening and how much things have significantly changed.

It was refreshing to get Mikes perspective and observations on the challenges we have faced and what we want to do moving forward and also reassuring that the direction of travel is a good one.

One thing I will share is the ‘killer question’ moment, I find that evercoaching¬†/ mentoring session has that killer question which makes you stop and really think, I mean really think what is the answer here. In this instance it was such a simple question and I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to answer or provide what I thought would have been an adequate response. The question was ‘What can you point at that¬†tells me what you think?’ ¬†For me, I’ve never really thought about my blog in those terms, although more recently I did want to start writing with purpose¬†and clarify my thinking, I’ve historically just thrown random ideas into this blog and whilst I have found that helped me¬†there isn’t the final picture of what my thinking is for others to easily pull apart and access…

I’ve got a range of themes to reflect and ponder from the initial conversation and it isn’t until you start to reflect on different aspects of the conversation you realise how much you get from this process. The key themes for me from this conversation are:

  • Focusing on Local
  • Sharing your thoughts does not mean people know what you think
  • What people perceive you do is different to what¬†you think you do yourself
  • Using the ‘language of old’ to change the future
  • Grassroots movements VS¬†formal structures
  • We all have to let go of something to allow the future we want to see come to fruition
  • My story and my councils story are two different things and should remain that way, but I’m part of my councils story

An additional theme¬†and more urgent action¬†which I need to resolve as well is what role if any am I going to play in any of the change locally and or further afield…This wasn’t explicitly touched on in the conversation but in starting to reflect on the other areas plus the conversation I had with Phil, it is becoming an important question for me to answer.

I have already created some actions for myself from speaking to Mike and feel very positive about the experience and process and I am already looking forward to the next session.

The launch of UnMentoring

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UnMentoring-mainSo my blog post reflecting on the Steering group meeting gave a very very brief overview of what we are intending to create around an UnMentoring offer.

So what is UnMentoring?

So in the true spirit of adapting something that exists already¬†we have essentially reworked¬†Nesta’s Randomised Coffee Trials. It will start during¬†March 2015.¬†UnMentoring (Randomised Coffee Trials¬†in disguise).

To sign up and find out how it works check out the LocalGovDigital site for details

 

Reflections from We’re not in Westminster – Local Democracy for everyone

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notwestminster
Remember this date : Saturday 7th February 2015, because on Saturday in Huddersfield a special event We’re not in Westminster – Local Democracy for Everyone took place that created the space, time, inspiration and curation to bring together an amazing group of people to discuss and suggest small and big changes to how local democracy works.

Thanks to all the people involved from sponsors, organisers, participants and most importantly the attendees who gave up a Saturday to talk about local democracy – YES they really did…

The format of the day was well structured and professional – the hard work and planning by those behind the scenes really paid off on the day. The discussions and planning around the sessions beforehand allowed them all to have a clear active and action based focus, so all participants were engaged in trying to work through problems and suggest solutions…this approach I think worked perfectly for an event which has a specific focus and required more curation and facilitation than say an event like localgovcamp.
The mix of the day with sessions and lightning talks helped maintain the broader context and purpose around why we’re all there…
So in what appears to be a standard way of reflection on these types of events here are my  reflections and highlights.
  • People will travel to things they care about. Huddersfield for the majority of people is not on any mainline so did take some time travelling to, in my example it was a 6 hour train journey with 3 changes so it was a real commitment to make that journey and many people made the journey to the event which is why it was and is a success. My hat goes off to everyone who made the effort to attend, participate and give their views, ideas and energy.
  • Sharing values and visions doesn’t always mean you’ll share the same opinions and this is a very healthy place to be and we should ensure that we bring in as many different voices into these discussions as possible.
  • Curating events in the manner that was applied to this event is perfect when you want to have a specific focus on a topic and want to deliver value and outputs as it focuses the energies on that which is perfect.
  • It takes more than just money from sponsors to make an event fly, but without them you only have an idea and energy. No one should under estimate the huge amount of effort required to get these things off the ground and huge respect to the team at Kirklees Council in making it happen.
  • A highlight for me was when a couple of councillors from Kirklees in Tim Davies session on 20 ways to work with open data said they would like to see how Open Data could help them deal with a local issue around people feeding pigeons…they found some options and ideas from the group work and I really hope they share their learning and outputs as it will be with small stories like this that things like open data can really start to show some value to the non believers.
  • Another highlight was the clear diversity of people in the rooms – councillors, academics, people off the street, council employees and those passionate around democracy. The quality of discussions I witnessed really showed through because of this.

There are some great insights on the hashtag #notwestminster which i highly recommend checking out – John Popham created a storify if you want to check that out