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.

 

What I think about local government (local public services)

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

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.

Early experiences – On being Coached / Mentored

I wrote just before Christmas that I was actively seeking coaches and mentors who can help me develop and improve my productivity and impact.

I’ve previously had informal coaching/mentoring relationships with a range of people and still value those links and I don’t think people should be limited to just one as I believe that we all constantly need support and advice and we are always developing mentoring and coaching relationships without realising and without ever formalising them.

For example the following people have probably had the most significant impact on my career over the last 5 years due to their informal mentoring and coaching relationships over the last few years and in some cases much longer;

Andrea Siodmok – the first time I met Andrea I was inspired, her outlook and her experience in Design disrupted my thinking and broke me out of a world which I felt comfortable in and it is her influence, advice and support which has helped me to find a balance in how I look at the way I work. The approaches I take and the constant opportunity of working with people on the ground. She never stops making me think and inspiring me to consider new perspectives on problems.
Dave Briggs – I’ve always valued my conversations and interactions with Dave and would very much consider Dave a friend. I find every conversation engaging and memorable and not always for their coaching value :). Dave has provided a huge amount of advice, challenge and support whether he knows it or not which has helped me at critical times and he deserves a huge amount of recognition for his work and influence on a wider number of people in the sector.
Martin Howitt – for someone who had to put up with my constant questioning for a two year period when we actually worked in the same team and opposite each other in the same office, Martin provided some of the most valuable support and guidance at a time I felt out of my depth, lost and full of self doubt. Martin should know he is a valued friend and I always look forward to our informal conversations over coffee.
Catherine Howe – one of the most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever worked for and with and Catherine has always been supportive of me and I am personally grateful for her encouragement, challenge and honesty. She is one of the people I hope I could see more but fear that my brain would explode if I did 🙂
Sara Cretney – I’ve only really started to get to know Sara over the last 18-24 months and in that time she has provided some of the most timely and fundamentally honest coaching I’ve received. I have to thank her for providing a balanced viewpoint and reflections which stopped me at times resigning from the council. Looking back and looking ahead, I’m hugely grateful to her for that support and she is very much a kindred spirit and some of the best work and progress I’ve made in the last 18 months is also down to her support, advice and influence.

So last week I had one of my first coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive (Phil Norrey) and found the experience hugely valuable for a variety of reasons which I aim to explore in this post. I’d like to thank Phil here for agreeing to be my coach/mentor and I hope I can offer some value back to him during the process.

Before I continue with reflections from Phil, I have also now set the date with my second coach/mentor for 11th February so will be able to share reflections and details after then. This year is going to be a significant year in many ways.

So reflecting on my first coaching session with Phil. Firstly it was VERY productive and HUGELY helpful to me in thinking differently about my role, my professional development and the opportunities ahead. It was also initially strange having a very personal conversation with someone whom previously I’d only had professional based conversations, but those feelings disappeared pretty quickly once we get stuck into conversations.

One of the reasons I asked the Phil to coach/mentor me was because I believe it will be valuable to me to be challenged by a strategic leader who does not fully grasp the digital agenda and that is ok, I don’t expect him to understand it all, however he is clearly aware of its potential, opportunity and its transformational capabilities. The key aspect for me was to be challenged around relevance, strategic alignment and reframing the story the needs to be told around digital locally…whether we like it or not the county of Devon is not the same as a major city and presents very different challenges around digital and whilst it is fine for me to believe in a digitally enabled future, unless I fully understand the strategic picture in Devon I’ll never be able to exert the right kind of influence to see a digital Devon emerge.

One of the conversations we covered was around my career so far in the council (I started in 1996) and how I have got to where I am today and the very organic nature to the way I’ve moved around the council and how in nearly every single job I’ve had, how I always seek out opportunities and activities outside of any formal Job description I was assigned to do…I realised that I’ve never had a job description in my time at the council which completely satisfied my curiosity and my skills…which is why I’m very grateful to my current line manager who allows me to discover and explore new things whilst also focusing on my core activities.

The question Phil asked me in response to this was simply but yet, no one had ever actually asked me and it really made me think – he asked “are you happy with the organic nature of your career so far?”

That question really made me consider what it is that is important to me and what it is I really want to do…the answer to this was after some reflection simple. It is fundamentally important to me that any job I do or if I were to apply for something, that it allows for and encourages personal and professional discovery, or to put it more simply, that I actually have inbuilt 20% time but with a broad purpose and for me this has since I started working for the council in 1996 about improving public services. The consistent them in my time at the council has been around and how technology, people and democratic participation / accountability can help reshape what this can and could be…

One of the benefits of taking to Phil was that we could simply talk and have a conversation around such a wide variety of things, I shared my thinking and vision for digital in Devon and asked him questions about the internal and external political landscape, we spoke about the future of Devon and pondered some random opportunities looking forward to 2050. One of the most reassuring things about the process was how similar (to a degree) our thinking was….ok my thinking is at a very different level at the moment as I’m working in an operational context and not the high level strategic context Phil and the rest of the corporate leadership consider and deal with all the time.

I always had a lot of time for those people who become chief executives of local authorities and always thought that it would never be a role I would envisage myself doing…I have even more respect for those people who have to deal with huge amounts of complexity on a daily basis and who, at least those I have met, maintain an engaging personality…I appreciate My reference points are those who I meet at conferences, meet online and those are clearly making a different statement because of how they behave, but it demonstrates and reassures me that it is something that perhaps one day I would want to do…but not for a long time yet 🙂

Phil and I agreed to meet every 6 weeks which I am grateful for and am looking forward to the personal development journey.

Tomorrow, Later today or on Friday 23rd (depending when you read this) I start my first session coaching Sarah Lay from Nottinghamshire County Council. Sarah is a friend, someone who I have a huge amount of respect for, we have been on a journey together and she has provided support and guidance to me over the years and I just hope I can help her through coaching achieve what she sets out to achieve.

Seeking mentors and coaches

 

In my last post I referred to a set of self-limiting belief and said that I had already taken steps to try to resolve that, well those steps were actively seeking our Mentors and Coaches who can help me develop and discover how I can be more effective.

I personally believe that having a mentor and people who can coach you is invaluable in the current climate as it allows you to stay focused on what matters as well as continuing your personal development journey. I also believe that these skills are critical for all public sector workers as we often don’t give ourselves enough reflection time to improve what we do and what happens around us.

Coaching, mentoring and self-reflection are key areas outlined in the Change Academy prototype, I also believe that it is a commitment not just to developing yourself, but to developing the people around you and is why I’ve recently agreed to coach and mentor a colleague outside of my council as I personally believe it is important. We are perhaps fortunate here in Devon as we have an internal coaching network, so I’m encouraging my team through appraisals to consider the benefits of coaching as this provides a really good introduction supported by qualified coaches internally and to also seek out some external mentors to help them meet their personal development targets and improve their performance.

For those who aren’t sure of the difference between the two i’ve included a basic table below which broadly outlines the difference – this is not comprehensive 🙂

coaching-mentoring

I’ve also recently agreed with two very senior and influential people in the sector to be my mentor/coaches – I’m very excited about this. I’m not prepared to share who yet as I’ve not had a practical conversation about those aspects yet. My first conversation starts next Wednesday and I’m in the progress of arranging a suitable time with the other. I’m very excited to be able to have this opportunity and would recommend to you all, to seek out a mentor and coach from outside of your council, someone who inspires you, shows and demonstrates skills and behaviours you want to learn and ask them if they can support you on your journey – if you don’t ask you won’t know 🙂

I also believe this simple step of supporting the development of each other across the sector can start (in a small way) break down some barriers around collaboration as I do believe one barrier is a lack of understanding and this can start to break that down.

So what are you waiting for?