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.

 

What I think about local government (local public services)

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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.

How about some principles…

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I’ve been wondering for a while now what actually needs to start happening or what would need to happen in order for communities and local government to start addressing the predicted financial meltdown.

I guess I’ve been looking for a checklist or some kind of “how to guide” that I could look at to help me and others I speak to outside of work better understand how we can start to move forward.  As a parent governor at my local school I’ve been intrigued by the early years foundation stage principles (PDF warning) and how the approach taken there is a lesson which can and should be reused and adapted to help guide us moving forward – perhaps this is too simplistic, but for me it has helped.

So I’ve decided to do just that and create a set of principles which could be applied to organisations or even communities themselves – I’d very much welcome comments as I’m sure I’ve missed things.

People and communities are unique

  • Design “with” not “for” people and communities
  • Design for Inclusion and accessibility
  • Enable independence
  • Foster health and wellbeing

Positive relationships and networks

  • Respect diversity of opinions
  • Connect people and connect networks
  • Co-operate and collaborate
  • Open by default

Enabling communities and environments

  • Evidence based research and decision-making
  • Support everyone to achieve
  • Think Local and Global
  • Digital infrastructure for smart communities/cities

Learning and development

  • Learn, discover and explore though experience
  • Create space for reflective practice
  • Foster creative and divergent thinking
  • Enable sustained learning

5 Paradigm Shifts for #localgov

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Most people know I think a lot – I was recently thinking about culture and mediocrity within local government and the wider public sector and have considered the following:

1. Culture
Number 1 on any list in my humble opinion – the culture of local government generally is one that often assumes that external changes and challenges will often pass by and that a slower pace of change is sometimes considered as the most appropriate way forward. But that is no longer a valid assumption

The Old Paradigm: “Head down and it will all go away.”

The New Paradigm: “Embrace the new direction and provide leadership.”

2. Mindset

You often get people who simply turn up and literally sit in meetings and contribute nothing…I’ve always been a fan of the rule of two feet, if it isn’t working for you leave.

Old Paradigm: “Just put your body in the room.”

New Paradigm: “Show up with a creative, open mindset.”

3. Group Wisdom

Obvious perhaps, but just because someone has been promoted to the top of the organisations, it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean they know more than anyone else…In my personal opinion most senior people are actually more politically aware than intellectually aware.

Old Paradigm: “All wisdom exists at the top.”

New Paradigm: “Listen and make space for various voices.”

4. Environment

I’ve only really recently appreciated this one, most people are forced into cultures that require them to sit in rows, in quiet offices, without any real social interaction even when the rooms are open plan. I understand that the sector is rationalising property assets and encouraging hot-desking and the like but we really should think about what we are trying to do…

Old Paradigm: “Do what is normal.”

New Paradigm: “Approach space creatively to serve the purpose.”

5. Vision

For me this could have also been called purpose…why do we do the things we do…A recent session at Open Space South West creatively called “reducing isolation and helping those who give a shit”

Old Paradigm: “Work to get paid.”

New Paradigm: “Make your work about something bigger.”

That is enough for me for now…

The Future of Local Government Part 3 – A Critical and Trusted Friend

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I’ve blogged previously on the subject of the future of local government but some posts were very scattered and half-baked, like most of the posts I write :) however I have written two previous posts which I’d like to associate this one with:

Part 1 – Future of Local Government

Part 2 – Future of Local Government – social enterprise council

In Devon there is a group of people from across the council who are coming together to talk about, challenge and discuss what the future landscape is for local government – It all kicked off back in June/July…

It is a bit like having a constant Open Space South West event but without the awesomeness of the external challenge and great food! That doesn’t mean that my colleagues aren’t awesome because they are…everyone has been on a journey and the issues and challenges that the groups have been discussing have been a struggle to get to grips with, but the important thing is – we are starting to make sense of some of this stuff now and there are some very good outputs and the level of thinking has increased dramatically.

We have six groups altogether – People, Systems, Customers, Commissioning, Spend and I’m in a group which is looking at Demand.

The group was initially charged with looking at 3 overarching questions but these were a guide and we were given freedom to explore all the issues providing we could come back together later this month to report our learning.

The questions were:

  • How can we move away from the current approach of ‘rationing’ provision to influencing and managing demand?
  • How can we better understand demand drivers so that we can deal differently with demand e.g. community resilience, building up skills??
  • How can we change behaviour so that expectations are better managed and others can make a bigger contribution?

To say that it was all good would be a lie, the conversations were challenging at the very beginning and it took the group some time to find its own rhythm and for the members of the group to find a consensus and for us all to break out of our current thinking modes.

For me the fundamental action that is required moving forward is a shift in the relationship between the state/public services and citizens. We also need to acknowledge that we need to have better and more aligned relationships with private and voluntary sector…

There is a little bit or irony about some of the conclusions I’ve personally come to in that when the county council faced the issue of local government reorganisation and the possible threat of not existing – we started to really articulate our core value and purpose in levels that I hadn’t seen before or unfortunately since – until now that is…the challenge and issue is that we clearly haven’t created a learning culture otherwise the conversations we have had would have developed the thinking of a few years ago, but in fact we have almost hit the same point but from a different angle…which is also OK…at least it reaffirms the previous thinking…

Anyway let me share some of the thinking about Demand, well the key starting point for us as a group was what demand isn’t.

We considered the issue of managing demand to definitely not be about:

  • Tightening or changing eligibility criteria so that fewer people are able to access a service who have legitimate needs to do so.
  • Altering, changing or restricting access or opening hours of services to reduce costs and pressures on budgets
  • Stop investing in or delivering non-statutory services – just because something is non-statutory doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable service. Most preventative services are non-statutory and are key to reducing demand on statutory services over time.
  • Passing on costs to partners – no more to add to this one…

It is important to recognise that these approaches simply take what we currently provide and either reduce the numbers of people accessing them, stop them completely or pass on costs elsewhere. None of this supports communities and individuals to meet their needs, the very people that we are here to help.

We also acknowledged and spoke about the differences between “needs”, “demand” and “wants”.

  • Need happens
  • Demand is manageable
  • Want is a perceived need

Whilst everyone has needs, demands only happen when those needs are within the current remit of the council or public service provider

One of the challenging conversation was about how to manage demand and what options and strategies we could adopt now and in the future to either reduce or increase demand depending on the service.

The following is not a comprehensive list of what we discussed but are some of the more fundamental ones as we saw them here.

Pre-empt and Prevent

This requires us to plan strategically – we aren’t talking about the next 3-5 years but we must look at the next 30-40 years especially when it comes to social care…the example we used was what are we doing to-day with our 30-40 year old population which will reduce demand on our social care services when they hot there 70’s or 80’s?

Outcomes

A lot is mentioned about outcomes but rarely do we actually refer to the outcomes we are trying to solve…still so much of the conversation across all of local government (my perception anyway) is that we are service and target driven.

If we are really clear to the outcomes we want to see we can plan better and be more holistic and strategic in how we design services, so that poorly designed services don’t generate additional demand on other services – an example I used is school transport. Now as a parent and a school governor it was something which struck a chord with me.

Parents and families have a choice what school they can send their children to and this in itself isn’t a problem and is a good choice, however when a family chooses a school which then subsequently requires school transport the council is expected to cover the costs. One option might be to say as part of the choice for your school if your preferred option falls outside of your public transport network then the council is not expected to fund your transport. This could then perhaps spark a service which looks like the carsharedevon scheme but for parents and families to resolve school transport issues.

Capacity Building

It is an obvious thing to say but we really need to work across all sectors or society and build capacity into communities and individuals so that we can actually realise the change.

Some of this will be through facilitating connections between networks and networks of networks so that solutions can be solved locally without the need for the council or public service body to get involved.

Cultural and Societal Change

We need to shift and transform our dialogue to one which facilitates connections with others first before suggesting that the council could or is able to provide a service.

This is where I consider the role of a council shifting to a trusted and critical friend as opposed to the traditional parent child relationship which exists now.

A critical and trusted friend, in my personal opinion would offer good advice and challenge me to act for myself and support me when times are good and prepare me for when things could go bad. What they certainly wouldn’t do is to do all those things for me and make me less independent. This is a major shift in the relationship and when you throw in the democratic relationship into this mix we can see the scale of the challenge ahead – it is kind of exciting when you think about.

In my personal view, if I were to sit here and write that Devon County Council will exist in 8-10 years time, I would be very naive – however what I do know is that a public service body of some kind will exist, which will have a particular set of responsibilities for example:

  • needs assessment
  • agree outcomes
  • vision
  • influence
  • coordinating funding
  • commissioning
  • evaluation and review

So for me the future for local government is that we must accept that it won’t look like it does today, second that we must work across all providers to come together around shared outcomes and lastly we must transform and shift the relationships between citizens, public services and the wider ecosystem we sit within.

There is an interesting article in the Guardian today about behaviour change which outlines 6 goals for a local authority and this very much echoes the conversations we have been having in the demand group and in wider conversations as well.

I shall leave you with this as it very much reflects the thinking we are doing here – the article states:

1. Set a medium-term vision for place in partnership with other organisations in the public, business and third sectors, and through informed and honest dialogue with local people.

2. Based on this vision, adopt strategic objectives for the local authority itself.

3. Review all current expenditure and actions against the strategic options. Be willing to do different things in different ways, funded in new ways to secure the desired result. Set clear outcomes targets; stop doing some things while starting other new activities to meet new and contemporary needs. Where possible, switch resources into prevention.

4. Develop place-shaping and community leadership. Look to influence and bring into play all the available resources in the area, not just the council’s own coffers.

5. Ensure that local people, the voluntary and community sector, businesses, suppliers, contractors and staff are engaged in decision-making.

6. Adopt behaviours and processes that enable the authority to collaborate, partner and share with and where appropriate cede power to others – other local public sector agencies, the VCS, neighbourhoods and citizens.