What I think about Local Government and Digital

Updated July 2015: after feedback and comments

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 – understanding 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(s) 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 – In light of discussions around the sector and a fear that we end up rewarding old structures and models I believe that GDS should be central to this recruitment process as they have a proven track record in Government of recruiting and building leadership qualities. 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 and co-production action – We need to be uncompromising in our approaches to collaboration and co-production and demand this is designed into funding, rewards and any inspections. It has to be the the rule not the exception – no compromises
  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 – especially when it gets hard, really hard.  That is what I think about Local Government and Digital.



13 thoughts on “What I think about Local Government and Digital

  1. It’s nice concept and very eye catching – as it has with you – but will it be followed through? Your point about being open and cooperative, is a good one, but doesn’t really reflect the reality. I don’t believe local government has been in the business of keeping secrets from each other, certainly not when it comes to finding solutions to realtime problems. However, when it comes to IT solutions, lower tier councils especially, have been left to figure it out, with central government showing little interest in helping to make solutions affordable, letalone cross authority.
    Put another way, we are left at the mercy of smooth talking, extremely convincing IT consultants and software companies, who seem to actively encourage the deployment of bespoke solutions that only they can support, ‘because every council’s needs are different’ – yet nothing could be further from the truth. The problem with this approach, is that a council that has been paper based, will always start from a position of trying to replicate what they know, as opposed to what they need and this of course plays right into the hands of those who would gain from providing a bespoke solution.
    If government is genuinely committed to helping cash strapped councils to go digital, they will not front load every proposal with their standard excuse for under resourcing new burdens ‘increased efficiencies are expected to be achieved’.
    I’m looking forward to being proved wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Sorry, previous comment got posted through vagaries of touch screen scrolling. Surely data sharing is the backbone of what public services need to do, if only to avoid duplication, fraud, lost interventions, etc, etc? Comparing local government to the commercial sector, doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fundamental differences between the two.

    1. I think I may have misunderstood what your comment is relating to and what you see an issue with. I don’t refer to commercial sector nor do i reference information sharing?
      I do however refer to the public information, advice and guidance offer that all councils need to ensure is in place. And how we need to work better at ensuring local information networks (voluntary and community sector) need to be part of that provision more than they currently are and how they need to be empowered to ensure that information is up to date and accurate so that members of the public can have access to the correct information.

      I have intentionally avoided data sharing and information security?

      Have I misunderstood what your comments/questions relate to?

      1. Carl, Ive probably misinterpreted your comment,
        “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….”

        My experience of this lack of connectivity between departments of the council, is a good deal of duplication in response. This especially the case, when you don’t know that a taxpayer has contacted the council several times previously, but through other depts, all with same goal; to continue a dispute with a neighbour. I accept that this is probably a relatively low level issue in the bigger picture. However, treating every contact with a taxpayer – I hate the terms, client and customer – as a unique event, can lead to a lot of wasted effort.

      2. I don’t disagree but I don’t think we should manage that contact…it should be the end user who sees that connection not us…we shouldn’t manage the relationship, the end user should. They should be in control of the relationship and decide whether it is appropriate for us to see the whole picture.

      3. Carl, I’m not sure if this link will work, but I wondered if you had read this article by Brett Husbands is CEO of Firmstep?
        It appears, on the face of it, to be diametrically opposed to everything you are saying about letting the individual set their level of contact and how much of their personal data is ‘pooled’.
        (I don’t agree with the use of the term customer, when referring to taxpayers accessing council services).


      4. The link works and it is indeed an example of an opposite approach – it isn’t a coincidence that it is written by someone who has a stake in seeing that approach pushed forward.

        The similarity is in the aspiration for personalised services, the difference is in the approach and underlying architecture.

        My view is one of putting people in control of their own information and increasing independence and resilience. If information is power, digital information is distributed power. We need to move away from a centralistic model to one of a local/personalised model.

        While “person-centered approaches” have been directed by professionals / councils / service providers towards people.

        Collaborative services or participatory services or even “person-centric services” shifts the perspective from the person outwards.

        This difference is where the architectural approach focuses on personalised data models and storage as opposed to creating centralised systems which are managed by authorities who have less direct delivery responsibility.

        I believe truly empowering people and shifting the relationship dynamic in their favour will increase the overall resiliance of people and inevitably our communities.

        The only variation is where some people need and require advocates to help them, we would collectively as a society need to understand and accept a model which validated those people to ensure vulnerable people are not exploited.

        Many suppliers might disagree with me, but that is fine. Why would some suppliers agree with an approach which does not support or align with their business model.

        My reason for writing the post is that I wanted to share what I think and believe, if others agree we should stand up to ensure the aspiration is achievable instead of watching the opportunity disappear.

      5. Thanks for the confirmation Carl. I understand the ideas put forward by this writer, but now I need to gain some understanding of what your model would look like, as I’m currently unable to translate the Amazon app roach

  3. Sorry touch screen error. .. Translate the Amazon approach where the customer has choice, into the local government need to provide access to services and information.

  4. Great post – but for collaboration read coproduction. We need to work with V&C orgs on building a new/better city/town information resource that helps folk have the best quality of life as residents – thus achieving Care Act goals and meeting LAs prevention agendas. I’d hoped the SCL would have shown leadership as part of their universal offer on information – thus truly demonstrating their commitment to reestablishing Libraries as a primary information provider/source. We did try to entice them a while ago – but failed – and the latest detail on the Unified Digital Platform for libraries would seem to only provide an events listing unlikely to be linked in with all the community activity taking place. Meanwhile it seems Open Objects successful product creeps across the country – costing us all! Perhaps health’s late recognition of the need for social prescribing (trying again with information prescriptions?) will recognise the need for a national product we can use without the overheads and so citizens get a unified structure and presentation regardless of which bit of the country they live in.

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