People come and go all the time but

Standard

I was surprised as many were to the resignation of a group of people at GDS (Mike, Tom, Leisa, Russell, Ben and others) – I provided a comment here on Mike’s departure and then went on holiday to sunny Cornwall.

The great thing about disconnecting yourself is that you give yourself the space and time to really reflect.

I thought a lot about what I can and can’t do in Devon, my role and what that actually means to me, my impact or lack of impact, whether or not I’m pushing hard enough or too hard, whether I’m too tolerant of some behaviours and not tolerant enough of others. Basically an all round reflection – probably triggered by my previous post. I’m content and happy with what conclusions I made and I’m clearer about what I need to be doing and what I need to be saying and showing.

I also thought a bit about why when things get really hard, I mean really, really, really hard – some people just give up…I’ve done it before and I now know my reasons why I did it at certain points in my life and I have promised myself that I won’t do that again.

I didn’t intend to reflect on what the departure of those people would mean and will mean to Digital Transformation but as you surf the waves of Cornwall your mind tends to bounce from here to there and I started to think about the implications and lessons for local government.

I then read this post on Tom’s blog and in particular this bit resonated with me:

The first government to reinvent its institutions such that their role and values are native to the Internet era will find that it can transform both the efficiency and empathy of public services, whilst creating new digital infrastructure offering the private sector a global competitive advantage. And that’s even before we get onto the potential positive impact on trust, data security and democracy

and then I read this interview with Mike on why he left Government – the whole interview is very interesting but for some reason this particular bit stuck with me.

It’s the wrong mentality to ask: how big is my department? We should be focused on the user need as that always results in reduced cost and better services. We need to say, as public administrators, that we need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that.”

So bringing together my reflections from my time in the sea in Cornwall and reflecting on recent posts I want to say the following…

  • Will the fact that these people (Mike, Tom, Ben etc) are leaving GDS change the direction of digital transformation across public services. I’d like to say no of course not – why would a few people leaving a job make such a difference – its worth stating that many people have started and left at GDS and of course even more have come and gone from local government before now without anyone going into meltdown about the future of digital transformation or local services. but unfortunately many people believe it will… Personally I won’t accept it and I don’t want to let that happen
  • The internet as a culture, as a business model, as an enabler is still so far from being fully understood in public services – it isn’t an evolutionary process into the internet – it has to be and must be a radical shift into the internet.
  • Mandates and support are critical if you really want to affect change – but in the absence of those mandates and support can we give ourselves the mandate and how can we quickly build momentum to show something different?
  • It’s time to step up and be loud and continually demand a the fundamental shift that is required to improve services OR we allow the status quo to continue and we know where that ends up…do we really want to see that!!
  • People will always come and go, it’s the lessons and inspiration they bring that truly matters – but how do we maintain momentum without clear figureheads to help drive and push things forward. Where are the local government leaders who are capable of doing this and how can we collectively mobilise them?
  • We need leadership to guide us to a completely new future – one which we need faith in, not to guide us through variations on the past.
  • I hope we haven’t spent the last 5-7 years telling a great story about digital to only step back and let the opportunity pass us by to radically reform services because it is hard and or because we ALL allow decision makers to be driven by the wrong motivations.
  • If we really want to see change, a range of people (I include myself in that) will have to let go, swallow some pride and start to really collaborate and DO things NOW and SHOW something is CHANGING.  If we don’t the dominant financial narrative will continue (its important of course but its the context not the purpose)
  • The primary purpose of public services is to improve people’s lives not to effectively manage the money, that is an enabler much like digital is, information is, data is and of course the people in and around the system are enablers.

 

 

 

What I think about Local Government and Digital

Standard

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.

 

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.

That Local GDS conversation again…

Standard

Just about 2 years ago I wrote this post on the GDS blog titled “Does local government need a local government digital service” the answer I gave then as I would give now is “YES” but just like then I outlined the challenges in actually making that a reality and instead focused on some areas where progress could be made.

The last few days has seen us revisit this topic with Richard Copley and Simon Wakeman’s blog posts. Both outlining and clearly stating the benefits such a move could offer the sector but also both state that it is likely to be an aspiration only.

This is fundamentally why I got involved in #LocalGov Digital to start to make something happen regardless of the barriers that stop something more formal happening. The reality is that LocalGov Digital is now starting to create value and make a difference, although not just around the web estate which I originally referred to. It is also why I created the framework and ensured the focus was on people and places and not on local government itself

I’d like to revisit some of the suggested things referred to in my post of 2 years ago and provide some commentary around progress made…clearly more needs to happen but we haven’t stood still since I wrote that post.

The following is extracts from the original post with comments.

Leadership and Vision
There is no strong visible leadership for the local government web estate and the value it creates for users. Many local government web folk provide leadership and certainly inspire me for what they are doing…but its sporadic and doesn’t have the level of influence require to effect a change on a wider scale.
There is a balance to be had between external people and “experts” and practitioner understanding that should be explored..It would be wrong in my opinion to create a completely separate organisation to provide this with no links into local government or central government.

What progress has been made around this, well I could suggest that winning the recent Guardian Public Service Award is a step in the right direction as that is clearly related to the work I’ve been involved in with others around LocalGov digital. But I could equally state that if you look at the people involved in the group they are all excellent leaders who all provide focus and momentum so we have definitely made progress and we continue to make progress…

Skills development (UI/UX/simplicity/agile)
There is clearly a huge skills gap in the local government web community that needs to be addressed…some councils may simply choose to “commission” the web from an external provider and rely on private sector skills.

What progress has been made around this, well the Really Useful Days are continuing to add huge value on the ground and the huge amount of reusable content and learning that has been gathered is a real asset that needs to be unlocked further to ensure we can extend the reach. This is one of the areas of work LocalGov Digital has identified and we are proactively working with LocalDirectGov team to run joint sessions throughout this year as well as looking at how we can run our own events with the help of others.

Connecting
This is an obvious one and there are a range of options already in place here for example the recent UKGovCamps
But there is no continuation of the conversation through online networks other than twitter and on individual blogs. To have a bigger impact, something around co-ordinating this would need to be explored.

The continuing number and variety of camps, jams and the like have made learning and connecting far easier but yet the ongoing community management still let’s us all down. LocalGov Digital will be looking at how it can support and promote more events and look at how the community management and more importantly the ongoing collaboration can continue. The group have already made some great efforts in promoting hangouts, online forums etc as well promoting the revised Knowledge Hub (but we know that needs some work)

Standards / toolkits / frameworks
…the real issue is not whether we share the same technology but what standards we set for technologies in order to facilitate a better web experience.

One of the key pieces of work LocalGov Digital have done here is the content standards, the next piece of work we have already started is looking at how we can work with code for Europe and others to enable better sharing of code and encourage code to be shared more widely.

Setting the bar high
I think GDS has already delivered on this, but hasn’t been explicit or forthcoming in broadening its influence into local government and maybe rightly so…
But we do need to maintain a high standard, why should we accept anything less than a really good online experience…the balance is in doing this in an affordable and sustainable way in small local authorities.

I don’t think anyone in local government has achieved this, the standards have been clearly set by the good folk at GDS and pretty much all local gov web folk recognise that and if they don’t then it’s maybe because they haven’t seen or really understood what they have done…it isn’t just about good design, and user needs, it is about changing attitudes, behaviours and challenging the status quo. This is what has raised the bar and made it more acceptable for local gov folk like myself to stand up and challenge.

Greater engagement and collaboration between Local and Central.
Direct engagement with local government practitioners needs to go beyond the localdirectgov database and into skills, sharing and learning. Raising the profile within local government circles as to the value added and the efficiencies achieved of gov.uk – this might be an easy step to take and in some ways this already happens but is informal and sporadic at best…no fault of anyone here…just the way it is right now.
There is also a lot of learning and experience from us local government folk which can and should be shared back into GDS. After all, there are many levels of government and we all have a stake in making it a better place. Whilst GDS do have a strong mandate and have clearly attracted a huge amount of talent, there is in my humble opinion a huge amount of talent in local government which could do with some support , direction and engagement.

I’m not sure we have cracked this yet…but one of the things I’d like to do this year as part of the LocalGov Digital is to have proactive and constructive conversations with GDS about how we can work better together to improve the whole of government top to bottom, from the ground up.

So coming back to the recent conversations, I still think that a Local GDS would be good, it would be effective and it would deliver value, huge value. but i still don’t see how we can get the diverse and individual local councils and local service provider ecosystem to provide an overarching mandate to make this happen.

I firmly believe and it is why I so passionately support LocalGov Digital that good leadership, great collaboration, adding value and most of making a difference will kick start and model for the future. If this results in some ambitious councils coming together and creating a LocalGDS amongst 5-10 councils and the outputs are so good then why wouldn’t others follow in these tough financial times.

This won’t be the last post on the subject as I’ve not really touched on the area of transactions and that is where the real collaboration is and not just across local councils but with social entrepreneurs and communities themselves.

Small thinking often makes a big difference

Standard

It is an old cliché, that you can’t get anywhere without taking a single step and in relation to local government it has been something that has always been at the front of my mind…how do we continually make small steps for a big difference.

Since creating the framework I continually think about how my thinking needs to be challenged using the overarching aim of “open by default – digital by design” as well as the supporting principles.

One area where shifting our thinking away from the “grand plans” and “big visions” to something more simple and essentially smaller would actually present a much better outcome all round is customer relationship management systems…the fact that it is called a system, worries me but that isn’t really where my concern or issue lies. Also it is worth me stating that I do see value in something like a CRM in some areas of public services but we really shouldn’t see it as a panacea across all services just because it suits us or because we are technically able to.

Fellow LocalGovDigital colleague and peer Phil Rumens wrote a very interesting post titled “The Internet of Broken Things”  < this is well worth a read and I suggest you go and visit it and check it out before reading any further really….

…If you did return (thank you) or in fact never left then I’ll continue.

The conversation that Phil and I had, had been along the lines of essentially flipping everything on its head and not trying to create a “system” to manage contacts but in fact adopting an open by default, digital by design approach and see each service request as something that anyone could subscribe to and receive updates – I’ve had conversations with Dave Briggs around similar things where he spoke of local government as one giant bug tracking system, open for all to see – this is essentially that. It was about saying should we care who reports things and stuff – does it matter whether 1 person reports 300 potholes but yet 3000 people subscribe to updates on progress…the important aspect is that a fault is reported and then if we open that up through the web, api’s or via maps etc then anyone could see it and decide on a personal level whether they wished to receive a set of updates.

Phil sums it up nicely by saying:

Rather than raising a new case for every broken thing, it means that people could subscribe to information about specific assets. Rather than 100 reports about the same thing, councils would store 1 report and details of 100 people who have subscribed to receive updates about it.

For me we have focused too much time and money on trying to develop, implement and create solutions to manage customer relationships through complex and simple systems. The focus has been how as a service do you effectively manage a set of requests to provide a response.

However I’d like to suggest that we change that focus and stop trying to push all of our contacts into a single system for us to manage behind firewalls and security layers and start opening up the requests so that everyone can see what actually needs to be done…that way we may find people help each other or subscribe to updates that other people have identified.

The approach in my head is about moving away from a focus on integrating services and applications and instead focusing our efforts on how we integrate data and infrastructure with people and places and how in turn that allows communities to make more effective decisions around the outcomes they want to see and the local public services they require to meet the needs they identify. It is really about how we design ourselves out of the system…

I created a little sketch of this whilst at a meeting convened by NLGN and hosted at O2’s offices in London last week where I was sat next to the wonderful Catherine Howe:

Integration

 

The tension on the right eludes to aspects of local government being an extension of central government delivery and also it highlights again the issues surrounding the PSN and I’m not for a second going to go over any of that here. Others are in a far better position to provide commentary in this space.  However I’m only suggesting it is a tension.

Now one of the additional complexities which I’m yet to square in my head is how local government deals with the multiple roles we play and how these help or hinder communities.

The three broad roles I see are:

  1. Local Government – the collection of services that support local people
  2. Local Council – the accountability, decision-making and transparency
  3. Local Authority – the strategic responsibility surrounding a specific domain (education, highways, transport, planning etc)

The first two are generally the main focus of conversation and also focus within the digital agenda and are the two most facing significant change and challenge, but the third is the more complex area as we have actually designed a level of dependency into the system which creates complex and wicked problems in solving and devolving aspects of the first two. I hope that makes sense…

Coming right back to the beginning…..It is an old cliché, that you can’t get anywhere without taking a single step…I’m thinking about how we can continually make small steps for a big difference in relation to all three of these areas.