The first signs of autumn and looking ahead


As I’ve been cycling to work this week, I really noticed the colour of the leaves had changed and some trees had such vibrant colours that it warmed my soul on such a chilly morning commute. Its moments like that which you remember…I must take a photo before it changes too much.

I know that I’ve not blogged as regularly as I used to and I’ve been thinking about how I can start to rediscover or rethink my approach, until then, the sporadic nature will continue.

I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections around what has happened since coming back to work from a refreshing summer break.

I wanted to just share some of the activities that have stuck with me the most and things that have happened since returning from summer…it isn’t comprehensive – didn’t have time to pull that list together :)

  • The main change is that one of our organisation change team (Julie) is working with me to better define the digital transformation picture for the county council…that has provided some really helpful support in a range of things.
  • I’ve started Digital Coaching sessions with one of our Cabinet members (Cllr Barry Parsons), which simply formalises an informal catch up session approach we previously had been doing over the early part of the year. We spoke about making the conversations more visible to the organisation and making them more relevant and strategic so that is how it started – simple really. The first conversation started well with some really productive discussion around digital operating models, government as a platform, Buurtzorg and the Simon Wardley Value Chain
  • I’m also working with procurement colleagues to start to engage suppliers around our digital direction and strategy. I’ve been invited to a provider marketplace day in November which will provide an opportunity to share some of our thinking and direction.
  • I’m working with our Social Care colleagues to work-up the details of a strategic Digital session where we can explore what digital means and the opportunity across social care.
  • We had a visit from colleagues at Suffolk County Council to share digital transformation lessons and will be exploring further opportunities for collaboration
  • Mike Bracken came down and spoke to our Corporate Leadership Team and Heads of Service around Digital and the approach of the Government Digital Service around change and transformation. That visit triggered a range of responses internally (all positive) and has unblocked some minor barriers and opened up new conversations which is great.
  •   I had a couple of visits to London for discussions with Local CIO Council, Socitm and other colleagues including some fellow localgovdigital folks (Dave Briggs, Paul Brewer, Ben Cheetham and Phil Rumens) around Place as a Platform. It was a fascinating session and we still have quite a way to go before we really avoid putting technology first in our discussions about Digital…the example from Adur and Worthing by Dave and Paul demonstrated that it is all about rethinking the fundamental operating model of the council.
  • A visit to the treasury with some other colleagues to have discussions and explore the technical architecture of a digital platform approach to Libraries working  – this was something which our Head Libraries (Ciara Eastell) had asked if I could support as she is the current President of SCL (Society of Chief Librarians)
  • I managed to fit in two coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive and Mike Bracken..I’m finding the coaching/mentoring sessions really productive and helpful and they are having such a positive impact on how I see myself and it has improved my confidence and I believe (although others may disagree) my outputs as well.
  • A fascinating and insightful provider perspective day as part of the Far South West Commissioning Academy – This process really highlighted to me the challenges of procurement and commissioning and the impact on relationships and trust in this process. I’d always suspected as much but to hear the details and insights from providers really validated that.
  • Further mind-boggling fun with the Design Council and in particular an awesome master class from Becky Rowe from ESRO – we shared our thoughts and reflections on the design council blog here
  • Following the design council session we (myself, Kevin Gillick and Jo Prince-White) ran a couple of prototype user insight sessions for around 30 colleagues from across the council – it was a fascinating process to rapidly pull the workshop together and the feedback from the participants was great so we plan to run some more plus other workshops as we continue our learning through the programme.
  • Outside of work – this week I was Elected Chair of Governors at my local primary school. I’m really proud to have this role and it is an exciting time for the school, we recently had a OFSTED inspection and were graded a solid Good and the report outlines some outstanding aspects which we are very proud of as a school. I now look forward to continuing to work with the other governors and the school and most importantly the children to improve outcomes.  I’ve been fascinated by the work of primary schools in particular for a while now and the work they do is such a great insight into how organisations can approach change as well as. In the last few years I’ve witnessed more design thinking in a primary school than in the wider public sector. I suspect the autonomy and relentless focus on children’s outcomes is a great place to start. In a recent conversation with the Head Teacher she outlined an approach to a piece of work around well-being with staff and every step matched the Design Councils principles of “Human centred” > “Being Visual” > “Iterative and collaborative”. It really is fascinating to see this in a different context. OR maybe my connection to design thinking is helping me see the wonder in everyday decision making of good and outstanding leaders.

The one thing I feel I’ve done very little of though is broader LocalGov Digital stuff, However my thinking around this is that unless you have a focus on local delivery and change you can’t effectively engage on a broader level as you end up disconnecting on both levels.  This is all part of the system leadership challenges we all face.  But my aim over the next few weeks and months is to properly re-engage with colleagues in that space as I missed LocalGovCamp which I was gutted about.

But I’m even more passionate and committed to providing support and leadership where I can to help Devon and the whole sector transform.

I’ve said it before in my last post but it is worth repeating here….

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


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)


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…


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


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…