What I think about local government (local public services)

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard
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

#LocalGovDigital Steering Group on tour in Huddersfield

Standard
On Friday 6th February a small number of the steering group came together at Kirklees Council and we do what we usually do at the steering group – we think, do and share stuff around the workstreams and it was very interesting meeting in many ways.
Sarah Lay has shared her reflections here and I don’t want to repeat everything Sarah has already said but do want to reflect on how far the group has come and how we have adapted and evolved in response to the people in it and those starting to engage.
So the group came together because of people who were passionate about seeing something change and also how as a group of people who originally felt disconnected and isolated how we could better help ourselves and others connect together to do bigger and better things.
Our vision is something we simply won’t compromise on which is to demand something better, to see world class local public services and to see local democratic process redesigned to meet the the immediate and future demands of citizens and communities.  We may not often articulate it like this but what brings us together as a network is that we won’t compromise on the direction, but we will be pragmatic through iterative developments so we can at least start to see a new model emerge from the grassroots.
As Sarah highlighted in her post, some people have expressed concern about the pace by which we as a volunteer group can affect change. I’m not worried about that as at least we are working on the ground to build a movement, a set of simple tools which will start to address some of the barriers people talk about.
We are not a large single organisation with a mandate, but we are a responsive network, full of people who give up their own time on top of sharing what they do in their work time to do something better.
We can’t do this alone, we need more people to work across the network and if you don’t know how, then simply offer some help, through one of the workstreams…as a network we don’t have any money, we currently struggle accessing money but this won’t stop us trying to work with people to release money in creative ways.
The focus of the network is on practical things…there are a few of us who like and focus on the strategy aspects and less tangible things (myself included) but the primary focus of the network is about practical iterative change…
The steering group is not the network, it is simply the group of people who are prepared to extend their focus to a national level and this is not a fixed group, it has changed significantly in the 2 and bit years we have been going but yet we are still pushing, growing stronger and gaining personal and collective confidence with every event, output and celebrated success that we see.
The network has to adapt, evolve, respond to the environment we work in, we originally set out a number of workstreams where some have made no real tangible progress, not because of the people but because I guess upon reflection they were not actually priorities for people…We have changed the way we work to be even less formal, we don’t have minutes of our meetings, our agendas are crowd sourced on trello and anyone could pitch something for us to discuss or come along and join in.
To ensure that we continue the personal and collective growth of the network we want to introduce something which we are calling unmentoring basically this is a simple commitment by people to give up 30 minutes to think, do and share with someone. It is similar to what the NHS are doing in the school of social care radicals in their randomised coffee trials.
Unmentoring – how will it work?
We have to work out a simple mechanism but we essentially ask people to submit some basic details: Name, phone, email and optional googleID/skype and we provide a tool which randomly connect you to someone else and you commit to having a conversation and then sharing some basic outputs, a tweet or a blog post about what you learned. It is an experiment we want to try and we want to test the assumption – connecting people even randomly will help challenge your thinking.  This has been tested offline already in events like localgovcamp, UKGovCamp and any unconference so we know the benefits exist, we want to know whether an online model exists.
As a steering group (those who were there) have committed to putting ourselves in the pot and would want to invite other to join in.
We just need to rapidly prototype the actual process so we can launch it properly
If you are interested let us know and we will keep you posted…