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.

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