What I think about Local Government and Digital

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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.

 

WTF! > Straight in at number 48 in The #LGC100

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IMG_0610.JPGThis evening saw the LGC100 list announced and I am very proud and also nicely surprised to be included and in particularly in making the top 50.

This is a huge nod to the achievements and recognition of the work of the people around me at the council as much as it is for me. This is also a huge nod to the group of volunteers who work in and around LocalGov Digital.

The LGC 100 list looks ahead to who the panel of judges believe will exercise most influence in 2015. According to the LGC website the judges were instructed to consider who will have the greatest influence, rather than who they would like to see holding power. Phew as I’m unlikely to be anywhere near the top 100,000 if it were about power :)

The bio about me was nice and I didn’t even have anything to do with it, it said:

In an environment where more and more councils aim to bring about “channel shift” in order to give the public better access to services and cut staffing costs, his work could be significant over the next few years.

One judge said: “Carl is a driving force behind the digital reinvention of local government. He is also an active online social media promoter of local government.”

To say I’m proud is an understatement, it is a great achievement and I only hope I can live up to the expectation and promise over the next 12 months. I certainly have clear aspirations to do exactly that. :)

Looking back to look forward

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Triggered by a range of experiences recently I thought I would reflect on my learning journey. So over the last few weeks I’ve been dipping in and out of my blog posts from the last 5 years and thinking about how things have or haven’t changed or even if some of the things that I thought would happen are happening.

About 3 years ago I started sharing my thinking around the future of local government from a range of perspectives: what it might look like, how it might operate, how we might address the challenges we are facing now and also how we might help shape services…

This post “The future of local government” from June 2010 seems to reflect and hint at the situation I find myself in now – I wrote:

So we could get to a situation (I am making some big assumptions here but after all I’m only sharing some thinking)  –  I don’t believe it will be that long before we see it – where the only aspect of local government which is truly local is the actual service delivery and decision making. The organisation behind it all could well be a mix of local, regional, national and cloud based services all supporting an individual worker (who may not actually be employed by the council) to deliver a service to someone in a community.

To me this will mean that local government is purely going to be a conceptual layer – with greater transparency and openness, radical approaches to service delivery and support services, this will all mean that the only aspect of local we really need to focus on will be the People in the Community. In my view this will be a great outcome, albeit very painful and a political hot potato in some areas. But this approach in my opinion  would drive out the inefficiencies in local government and offer greater local involvement in service design and creation.

The following week I posted a second post titled – “The future of local government – social enterprise council”  – I wrote:

I do agree that there is a huge assumption that the general public would be willing to take over services, but i do think that currently we don’t engage people well enough to activate any desire they may have.

To foster and encourage this kind of active involvement requires a major shift in how people see public services, it requires everyday people to start thinking less about “public” services and more about “community” services and how they can get involved directly through volunteering or indirectly by sharing their views on what’s important to them.

These two posts resonate with me right now and reflect a lot of the topics and conversations I have with people

I’ve also previously blogged about the World of GovCraft where reframing some of the conversations and providing connections for people to engage would help trigger a set of responses and actions. I previously wrote:

So let me try to answer these questions now in the light of this post, I’m not saying that the responses are enough but there is something we can build on and develop further to really engage with people.

Urgent Optimism – The budget cuts in the public sector will mean that some services will no longer be offered or developed – if people (you or I) see these services as important and we want them to continue we will have to start getting involved or risk losing it altogether. The reality of the financial situation will mean that the threat is more real than ever.

Social Fabric – The government has made a big play during the election campaign and since about the Big Society, this is an attempt to unify people to a common agenda and common purpose which previously didn’t really exist in my view.  I do think however we need to go a lot further and start talking and acting more local.  

Blissful Productivity – Social tools are be used albeit sparingly to help mobilise people to get involved and contribute to solving the real world problems we are facing. The government have announced that they want citizens to contribute ideas to how we can save money and which services we should consider reducing funding on.

I think we need to connect the digitally mobile and engaged with the offline folk who traditional get involved to create richer conversations and deeper discussions about how we can shape local services.

Epic Meaning – The mission we have created is to reunite society, reconnect people locally and to provide services which meet the needs of local people. This mission can no longer be just the responsibility of a single local authority.

I think in so many ways the councils Tough Choices programme is starting to address these areas…ok it isn’t in the spirit of a game – as suggested in world of govcraft – but what it does is start to provide a level of urgency, it surfaces connections to existing social fabric, it suggests connections to tools and existing productivity and of course the epic meaning around why we need to come together to collaborate around new models of achieving outcomes.

The real question which remains unanswered is : will it work?

The beauty of blogging and sharing thinking and observation is that we can revisit this post in a couple of months or years and reflect on whether we started to trigger social change and achieve better outcomes.

#localgovdigital – Content Standards in Beta

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LocalGov Digital logo

[This post has also been published on the Web Managers Group Blog]

Last week LocalGov Digital launched its Digital Content Standard, a carefully crafted first draft – or beta version – and a free resource for local government web and content managers. It supports the group’s overarching principle of encouraging the sector to be open by default and digital by design.

This standard is intended to evolve and adapt to continually meet the needs of the sector as well as raising the aspirations around digital content and services generally.

The standard was a collaborative effort led by LocalGov Digital Steering Group members and has been compiled using a selection of existing guides from the UK and from across the world.

The document has been created in such a way that we hope it can simply be adopted by local councils without too much trouble. In Devon we have adopted them although we recognise that we are likely to need a supplement to allow the local variations and subtle style differences which we have established here.

From a personal point of view the whole document is hugely valuable but you can make sizeable gains from simply getting your existing content authors to consider the following golden rule.

Is the information you’re presenting to the public necessary, readable, original, easy to find and well-presented?

In a checklist:

  • Is the content answering a question that our customers are asking?
  • Is your content easy-to-read and understandable to a layperson?
  • Is the content original?
  • Can the content be found using search words that make sense to the customer?
  • Are graphics and pictures appropriate and do they add something to the page?

I’m sure that there will be many ways we could improve the standards and we would encourage people to comment, contribute and be part of the wider LocalGov Digital network to help raise standards in web and digital across the public sector.

For more information about the Digital Content Standard see this post. You can also download the Digital Content Standard PDF file.

For the latest and to talk with the group follow us on Twitter @localgovdigital, join the KHub group or connect via our G+ Community.

The capabilities for digital local public services – participation

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Continuing the development of my thinking around the Framework for Digital Local Public Services and following quickly on from my previous posts about Connectivity, Education, Hardware and Software. This post focuses on participation and some of the opportunities to think differently around this area.

The framework outlines and considers participation as the following:

Participation: Access to and participation with local data and intelligence to help shape decisions in communities.

But I also think this it is about how people participate generally in their communities to help make it better, the data and intelligence should be helping to identify the issues that need solving but are people actually doing things locally!

The challenge here is to provide opportunities for people and places to connect to the underlying data and intelligence about the people and places and at a time and in a form which is usable and meaningful for those consuming it. Nothing too hard then :)

In the commissioning cycle it is absolutely fundamental to ensure that you have evidence and data which helps you understand needs today and those that are likely to be predicted over a period of time, so that preventative measures can be put in place and therefore reduce future demand on services. We are essentially suggesting that the commissioning and the intelligence behind this is opened up to those people in a community who maybe better positioned to actually understand what could be achieved locally.

The underlying issue for me is that the opportunity and practicality of everyday people (like my mum) to engage in intelligence and data about their community is limited and even if you know where and how, it is hard to make sense of it in a wider context.

It needs to be linked with stories as well as raw data so that there are opportunities to understand the impact of what it is saying other than simply looking at perhaps numbers, graphs or charts.

It seems to me that public libraries or community hubs would make logical places where this data could be accessed and made sense of along with people who can help interpret it without bias – they also make logical places where networks and networks of networks can come together physically or virtually through directories.  It makes sense for community hubs to provide access points as they should really be promoting and acting on community needs anyway…maybe i’m over thinking this aspect of it…of course the access point should be the internet but I’m thinking that if say my mum, wanted to gain more understanding she could get that from the hub or library and then be in a position to share her story about what it means for others…

In terms of whether people are participating locally, some of what I want to say here I’ve written before in the following posts:

But to summarise those posts in this context I would have to say the following.

As this series of posts outlines the key capabilities required when collectively delivered create opportunities for a new climate of growth and well-being to emerge, however that climate won’t emerge unless we ensure that people are actively participating in society.

Reflecting back on World of GovCraft where video Game designer Jane McGonigal speaks about harnessing the power of gamers who have super powers as they are actively participating in games and solving problems…

With these new capabilities how do we ensure and create opportunities for individuals, communities, networks, organisations etc to actually harness the possible and potential capacity that Jane eludes to…this very much links across to the Education post as well about opportunities to solve problems.

To recap she suggested that gamers have 4 super powers:

Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation – a desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
Social Fabric – We like people better when we play games with people – it requires trust that people will play by the same rules, value the same goal – this enables us to create stronger social relationships as a result
Blissful productivity – an average World of Warcraft gamer plays 22 hours a week: We are optimised as humans to work hard and if we could channel that productivity into solving real world problems what could we achieve?
Epic meaning – attached to an awe-inspiring mission.

All this creates Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals – People who are individually capable of changing the world – but currently only online /virtual worlds….

….So some observations:

If people have “Urgent Optimism” then what are we doing to tap into that to help solve and tackle obstacles?

if people have a “Social Fabric” what are we doing to build trust with them and do we play by the same rules and share the same goals?

If people have “Blissful Productivity” then what are we doing to mobilise and optimise the people around us in our communities to work hard at solving real world problems

If people can be inspired around “Epic Meaning” what meaning are we providing in our engagement and participation offering?

We should recognise that games are powerful in more ways than we can imagine, we need to think hard and fast about how we can develop the right kinds of games to engage people and to involve people in shaping their future and solving common problems

Expanding on those observations I had before, we need to move to a situation where organisations, communities and individuals can develop relationships and levels of trust to connect them to the networks and “networks of networks” within our local communities and to connect those communities with each other but to also connect them with the problems and narrative around local public services to make it easier for them to interact digitally and create transformational change.

The basic idea

  • We need to change the way we think about data and our connections to it and how we can help each other make sense of it through stories.
  • We need to identify networks and networks of networks and then connect them.
  • We need to create content and share stories which provoke conversations that will lead to bigger transformational actions.