RSA South West Futures – 7th July – Are you going?

The goodly folk of The South West RSA Fellowship Team have been busy recently pulling together a series of important events for the south west.

Inspired by the recent Northern Futures initiative, the aim is to kick start a new style of conversation about the future of the South West’s economy by asking people to get involved in formulating radical new growth strategies for the region.

Lead partners include University of Exeter and Devon County Council, RSA SW and Knowledge Hub, supported by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly and Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEPs. Other key partners include Made Open, Current Works Ltd, and COSMIC.

The invite is open to anyone from local authorities, businesses, social enterprises, academics and students in identifying key challenges for the region and collaborating to solve them, to drive open policy making, open innovation using creative problem solving tools and design thinking methods.

The South West Futures Open Ideas Day is a pilot project. There is an online call for ideas, seeking to generate topics to explore on July 7th, and develop solutions that can be shared at a follow-up event with key partners in September.

As a pilot prototype, if it is successful then it could lead to an even bigger project in 2016.

On July 7th, parallel events are being held in the following locations:

Exeter (University of Exeter Business School)

Honiton (East Devon Business Centre)

Penryn (Made Open, Jubilee Warehouse)

Places are very limited but FREE, there is space for around 20-30 people at each event.

The events will be good fun and challenging and they are particularly seeking participation from people who are passionate about making positive change and are willing to collaborate across sectors and boundaries.



Networked decision makers

I make no apologies that probably the majority of my future posts will be linked to explaining and exploring in more detail the Digital Framework for Local Public Services.

So this post is focusing on some of the middle area of the picture…in particular the box around leadership and decision-making. This part of the journey is critical not just in a wider context of leadership and decision-making but in ensuring that we have open and transparent local decision-making as well as a clear accountability in terms of local representation.

Digital Climate for Local Public Services Framework v2

To recap I previously explained this area in this way:

Leadership/Decision Making
We require strong visible leadership to enable transformation and strong decisions that ensure that we all contribute to creating a climate for growth and wellbeing. The leadership can also come from anywhere not just local public service providers
Capacity Building / Networks and Networks of Networks
Stimulating local action and identifying and connecting with networks and networks of networks to generate and create new opportunities and markets.
These connections can and will come from anywhere, this is not solely down to the council or local authority – this is about people and places.

Now all this is easy to write and even easier to say, but the practical implications of this are slightly more complicated and require a shift in thinking about what we should expect of our future leaders and decision makers and how we help those people become networked and connected.

Now the great thing about the internet is that you can always find and connect to people who are in a far better position to dig deeper into the thinking and that is exactly what Catherine Howe has done in relation to the Networked Councillors project. It came out of two things:

  • If we are going to have more networked and digital citizens we are going to need politicians with the right skills – we will need networked councillors but we have not yet really explored what that means

  • Just showing people how to use twitter doesn’t solve the problem

I’m really pleased that Catherine has shared this work as I personally think it validates the wider framework and also adds a layer of detail which I was obviously lacking (on purpose of course)

The report on the website is well worth a read and is easy to digest.

I want to pick out another quote form the report which to me helps to proactively link this to the wider framework and the language of the framework which is:

The qualities that the Networked Councillor should embody are found in the way in which Next Generation Users are approaching and using technology. We suggest that the following qualities, which can already be evidenced online, will be inherent:

  • Open by default: This is open not just in terms of information but also in terms of thinking and decision-making

  • Digitally native: Networked Councillors will be native in or comfortable with the online space, not in terms of age but in terms of the individual adopting the behaviours and social norms of the digital culture

  • Co–productive: Co-production is a way of describing the relationship between Citizen and State which brings with it an expectation that everyone in the conversation has power to act and the potential to be active in the outcome as well as the decision-making process

  • Networked: A Networked Councillor will be able to be effective via networked as well as hierarchical power as a leader

This is obviously one part of a wider complex environment and although this report is focused on councillors specifically it also applies itself to future leaders and decisions makers whether a local councillor or not….however for me this is a fantastic start to the discussion and conversation.

Socialising Councillor Locality Budgets

This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but I’m not aware nor can I seem to find any examples of, councillor budgets being proactively published but also socialised in that people can request or suggest ideas locally for consideration and social voting.  I can find information on how much money has been allocated by councils but not exactly what the money has been spent on and more importantly what social value or social return on investment has been achieved.

I guess on a basic level you would just connect the process to the Simpl product or something similar which allows people to suggest ideas, request resources etc.

This area seems like a great opportunity and starting point as these budgets are not about funding services but are about contributing to local projects…

In Devon certain principles have been agreed by the Council to guide the use of locality budgets and to ensure financial probity, value for money and accountability, which are;

  • The project or activity not being able to be easily funded from another source (the principle of “investor of last resort”).
  • Consistency with the council’s current policies.
  • Evidence of value for money (perhaps measured in part by match-funding leverage secured).
  • Appropriate levels of auditing and accounting are in place
  • The extent to which the investment encourages or triggers partnership working
  • Enabling a wide range of organisations to be able to apply for funds
The current publicity for the funds and the projects is guided by our policy which is currently:

Following every County Committee meeting, the Council’s press office will issue a list of grants which have been made and bring this to the attention of local media. Local groups and Councillors are of course free to seek their own publicity.

For me and I’m speaking in a personal capacity here, this is a wasted opportunity…simply stating we will issue a “press release” and local media are welcome to take these up is an easy way out….This is public money and councillors should be pro-actively seeking to promote the projects and impact they have had with their budgets…after all these are the kinds of things on the ground which could actually help people get re-elected, simple things like new swings in a park, flood lights at a skate park…these are local issues that I’d like to see addressed in my community.
I’d be interested to hear from any council or anyone who has actually socialised or pro-actively published the budget available, spending so far and what is remaining, as well as the impact of that money.


The “local government” website

I haven’t blogged for a while now and that isn’t because I don’t have anything to say, in fact the opposite. I have so many things in my head it’s about knowing what to get down first really. So apologies for the long post…I won’t take offence if you don’t read on… 🙂

My new role is very interesting and also very busy, which also contributes to the lack of posts, but this is something I want to resolve as I think it is an important part of my role to sharing thinking and seek feedback on how we can approach certain areas of our work.

An immediate priority for my team is the Corporate Website and Intranet, they are in pretty bad shape and need a good tidy up in terms of data, documents, content etc as well as a complete reboot from the bottom up in terms of technology and infrastructure. One example of how bad the public website has got is that we identified 44,000 pdf documents which make up around 80% of the total size of the website…personally I feel this can be traced back to when we worked on eGovernment and it was deemed acceptable to “bung” up pdf’s as an alternative to actually providing a meaningful and useful service…some even called it  an “acceptable cheat” to meeting the BV157 indicator…but that is history and we are where we are…so my team and some colleagues have started work on reducing that size, by understanding what each pdf is, whether it needs to be published at all (is it current) or whether it needs to be moved to our records management system.

The key principle we are applying is our content management system should not be the place for these documents, so as long as they aren’t in there we are making progress… The ideal scenario of course, as I’m sure some of you are thinking “no documents on the website, that is mad, how will you do that?” is that we use the appropriate technology for the job, so documents reside in a document management system and are presented to the website via an integration or web service in some way… This really is simple stuff, but it never happened when we first moved to a Content Management system about 10 years ago…

Anyway we are making progress, albeit slowly but we have had to overcome some very simple but significant issues around ownership and access which has resulted recently (last week in fact) in a very good and consistent understanding around the role of my team in and around the web.

The bigger challenge of course is working out and agreeing what we believe the purpose and business strategy should be for a local government website.

Now for some this may seem a pretty simple question and one which I really shouldn’t be spending much time on, but it really is the most fundamental thing a local council should do before developing, building or even investing in a new website and the technology that it runs on…

I believe this question isn’t as simple as it used to be since the consultation on Open Public Services White Paper. Now the interesting thing with this is  – and some of it I agree with in principle but in practice, I’m not sure how that would play out – is that it actually means that local government would essentially disappear…we would have no obligation or responsibility to deliver any service at all… Now when you think about that, for a moment….it is actually quite dramatic change and one which local councils have not yet articulated or perhaps understood… many are seeing the decentralisation as a positive thing which will reinforce their position but I’m not sure the paper actually has the same outcome in mind as current local government colleagues think.

So when you consider a local government website in that situation what is it? A yellow pages of local services really…not an all-encompassing site with service transactions and top tasks or whatever the latest fad is for the local government homepage…it is simply a searchable directory of services which clearly and I think this is the critical part in local accountability shows who is responsible and who to complain to when something goes wrong…

It is almost like Amazon, except we won’t have anything of our own in it to sell…

That is of course quite an extreme view and not a logical conclusion but it is certainly one potential outcome which fundamentally changes the purpose of a local government website…my questions is are we adaptable enough to change as quickly as we need to?… Currently we are nowhere near that level of agility and adaptability…but we are heading in that direction.

Coming back to Amazon model (the current model), I actually believe this is more likely the representation of how local government website will and should work. For example you go online, search the website for a product/service and you get a range of options (choice in Coalition Government terms) from a variety of suppliers (diversity in Coalition Government terms).  You as the consumer of that service get to choice which option or provider you wish to purchase from and it clearly states whether or not this will be fullfilled by Amazon or by someone in their marketplace (Accountability in Coalition Government terms).

So when it comes to writing a web strategy, we also need to consider the “marketplace” and how that impacts on the development of a website and its infrastructure and core technology…We would actually become an integration hub instead of a primary service provider… That changes the proposition of a council website and any investment plan considerably.

Another angle which has recently been floating in my mind is the role of a local authority website as an economic development tool…not entirely by itself but more the data and information being freely available for other to commercially benefit from.  I like the approach being built on beta gov, which allows a user to download the data used to make and create that page…

To go back a bit for context – when I first started in local government web around 8 years ago, my ambition was that the councils website was the best, had the best functionality, best little widgets, best information, the best of everything…just like all other web managers I’m sure…However now and I’m not sure if this is age related or simply #lazyweb taking over my thinking or the episode of The Simpson’s where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner offering the new slogan “Can’t Someone Else Do It?”.

But why should local councils develop their website alone…why can’t we open the whole thing up and allow local developers, businesses etc and develop on top of our platform as well as using the data to build things that are meaningful for people… Well we can, there isn’t really anything stopping us other than the infrastructure and technology as well as the data….so just a few minor things to resolve then…

I know that no matter how hard you try as a web manager in local government, you’ll never consistently develop anything that is really that good (no disrespect to fellow web managers/developers out there, who do build some great individual things). But the challenge is making all this stuff a priority in a council balanced against resources who are looking at maintain an Adult Social care system or developing a small widget to search bus timetables…i know which one the organisation would want done first…

AlphaGov are doing some great things but we can’t compete with that level of investment or resources, so I’m hoping what they build, learn and develop will be reusable to the whole public sector community…not as one big thing but in small modules/widgets etc that can add value locally.

So I come back to a web strategy and the purpose of a local authority website…it doesn’t really seem straight forward, but it certainly is an interesting area to work right now.






Customer Service and Engagement – are they aligned?

I’ve read two kind of related blog posts this week and they got me thinking about the current culture in Local Government and the approach by many councils on customer service  and engagement.

From what I hear from other councils, progress is being made on rationalising services and centralising common functions to enable cost reduction and in the harsh reality we face redundancies. Now I’m not suggesting this is the wrong approach but I do wonder what the intended outcomes are for all of these councils.

I’m going to acknowledge up front that the scale of public sector cuts and the speed in which these are happening are also causing me a slight concern, not because I think they are wrong but because of the potential for decision makers to make knee jerk reactions to situations without really thinking or considering the longer term outcomes that the local government sector in particular has a role in.

Lets get to the blog posts, the first post Via CapGemini:  What can we learn from small businesses about social media and customer engagement? made me think about the skills and approaches required to do customer service effectively. This then made me think that is “good” customer service really something that the public sector ought to think about right now in the context of huge cost reduction and job redundancies…It took me a few minutes, to argue with myself and accept that Customer Service is essential and a fundamental aspect of delivering and contributing to cost reductions in the medium to long-term. I don’t believe we have a short-term approach available in this area. My view is that if you haven’t started a customer service programme of any kind then it is likely to be about 2 years before you start seeing any return on investment.

Coming back to the issue of rationalising and centralising functions etc…This can and does work, but I think it needs to be approached in a way that de-couples the layers of those functions so that only the relevant parts and the appropriate processes are actually rationalised and centralised.

For me Customer Service is not a process that can really be centralised or rationalised, it need to be main-streamed and embedded in the core culture of an organisation in order to really support success  – in local gov terms this really means cost reductions – and the following extract from the blog post sort of highlights my thinking.

There’s a counter that many people from our offices get their lunch from that also draws in a long line of people from the local area. Like most business districts the block is crammed with competition, all essentially selling the same product at the same price. And yet this little spot, tucked away on a side street, is always consistently busier than the competition. So what’s driving people to make the extra effort to reach this small corner of the city to buy highly commoditised products; sandwiches and coffee?

The business is run by just two people, one front of house and one in the kitchen. For the front of house they apply three key principles to engaging with customers;

  1. Know who I am; know my name and what I like / don’t like.
  2. Respond appropriately; consider my current mood. Am I looking for a quick purchase, do I have time to explore new products, do I have time to engage in a more lengthy conversation.
  3. Make me feel valued; make me feel like a valued customer and reward me for my loyalty (but make this sincere by building it over time so I feel like I’ve earned it).

SO the scale of operation is very different from local government – But let me explain my thinking….Local Government is being pushed to become even more local and connect with people and to ensure service users and wider citizens are involved in service design and decision-making, but how can this level of connection and relationship exist or even emerge unless we start to build relationships in new ways and understand what people really need.

The 3 principles are very relevant to Local Government Channel Management Strategies:

1) Know who I am – This is supported through approaches to Customer Relationship Management but also and probably increasingly through local engagement activities whether online or offline…We have already created relationships in many different contexts, but have perhaps not connected up the relevant information.

2) Respond appropriately – Ensure that the channel is able to meet a variety of user scenarios…quick reporting of a problem, to a slightly more complex application process…Whatever the channel it needs to respond, signpost and direct people through an appropriate and efficient process to meet their request.

3) Make me feel valued – I simply see this as acknowledging someone in a community has something to say and contribute to the design of services, we need to reach out to these people (offline and online) and ensure that their views are recognised and valued alongside others.

The second post again from the CapGemini blog : Are you willing to crowdsource your customer support to a p2p community? got me thinking about how customer service agendas need to be more aligned with our underlying democracy and engagement agendas.

When I read about engagement strategies, approaches and frameworks I always read about connecting with existing communities to ensure a long-lasting connection and relationship or if one doesn’t exist work on nurturing a community over time.

Now I am more than happy with this and it makes so much sense  – however have we in local government or central government connected this engagement agenda and the focus on connecting with existing communities with the customer service agenda and in some ways the Big Society agenda.

The following extract might help explain my thinking a bit more:

The advantages of integrating customer support communities into your customer service strategy include:

  • Increased credibility: Studies show that 44% of consumers trust people that are just like them (Edelman Trust Barometer 2010), and 74% of consumer purchasing decisions are affected by key influencers on social networking sites. Gartner shows that customers value advice of other customers more than that of a company’s employees. Real customers providing a service to other customers improves the credibility of information.
  • Expert Knowledge: Users with a strong interest in the product often have profound product knowledge and can provide detailed answers to even complicated issues. Especially with highly technical products these experts are closer to other customers than contact center employees because they face the same challenges in using the product. Dell’s IdeaStormcommunity, for example, addresses its customer’s expert knowledge and creative power by providing a platform for new ideas and suggestions around its products.
  • Lower cost to serve: Enabling customers to help other customers can also reduce the volume of direct customer contacts, thus reducing contact center resources. The transfer of customer service to online communities ensures 24/7 support which would create high cost to service when provided by conventional channels. Linksys by Cisco Systems for example stopped its email support one year after its community launched. Since then peer-to-peer support has replaced a large number of customer contacts (Forrester May 2010).

When I first read this part of the blog post, I wasn’t sure whether they were really talking about customer service or engagement or both and I’d missed the connection between them?

Anyway, I had started to think that the 3 main areas are also linked to the cost reduction agenda and whilst I am not advocating we make even more people redundant, one could argue that in time if our engagement strategies are successful, then we could look to create “community based” helpdesk and service support groups from within the community itself and support the over-arching customer service agenda.

After all this thinking I asked myself – are Customer Service and Engagement Agendas aligned and should they be to maximise the opportunities to government and communities?

This is merely a collection of thoughts at the moment and it likely to be some way off into the future before the levels of maturity around engagement reach a stage where government can have meaningful conversations about taking over some support and assisted self-service functions.

Sometimes I wonder whether I think too much 🙂