180 days: local government digital

It’s been almost six months since I joined an emerging digital team in local government. The challenge from the beginning was enticing; to help deliver services so good that people chose to use them. Digital by choice.

I can’t recall who, but somebody said the only real purpose of blogging is that it helps to organise your own ideas. So here are a few of the things I’ve learned, observed and thought about so far.

It’s not complicated it’s just hard

As Russell pointed out[1], most of the time you don’t really need innovative solutions or grand strategies. You just need to do the hard work to make things simple. I think that’s especially true of local government where it feels like legacy structures, systems and processes are being propped up and bandaged together by some really great, knowledgeable and passionate people dedicated to public service. If the team is the unit of delivery, then let’s be thoughtful, fix the foundations and get out of the way.

So far I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me something along the lines of “oh, that’s the council for you” or “that’s just the way things have always been” and my favourite “[On integration] it’s too messy and complicated”.

But actually, as with most large, storied public institutions — if you were given the mandate to recreate them in the present day you wouldn’t do so in the form that they now exist. But that’s the greatest part of the challenge; working within those constraints. Add to that the ever-increasingly uncertain political landscape and cuts delivered to the heart of public service funding, and things start to get really interesting.

It’s not complicated, it’s just hard. In a world of chasing innovation, disruption and the new american ideal of becoming the next unicorn startup — the hardest task for our institutions of old is in fixing the basics.

What does ‘digital’ even mean?

I saw Rachael[2] (now CEO Doteveryone)[3] speak at a public service conference and one of the things that stuck with me was her really solid definition of public service: A good public service is a **public system** that does work for citizens. It reminded me that whilst a lot of people in local government understand and embrace technology, the internet and ‘digital’ in general, there are equally if not more that haven’t been exposed to digital in the right way — so I think it’s really important to be able to define just what that might mean for them as public servants. Handily, Tom Loosemore[4] and the team over at the Coop came through with a great statement[5] that does just that:

“Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

I love this because front and centre it does away with the notion that you can just stick a digital front-end on to an existing thing and call it a day. You need to apply the culture and processes to truly embrace the technology and transform services.

Dan Sheldon[6] adds some more meat to this when he says that “We need to make sure we’re actually making things better, rather than just making things digital. These two things are not the same.”. I’m more than tempted to get this blown up and stuck on a wall somewhere.

The LocalGovDigital scene is alive and well

I’m not sure why, but I’m always pleasantly surprised with how these little digital microcosms exist within pretty much every non digital-native industry. Local Government might possibly have one of the best I’ve uncovered yet. There’s a thriving community spread (albeit thinly) across the council landscape, touching all forms of authority from unitary to two-tier.

LocalGovDigital [7], as it’s collectively known, is amongst many other things building on the leg work done by the Government Digital Service, in an effort to increase the standard of services delivered outside of central government with a newly forged set of service standards [8].

As good a starting point these may be, the real challenge as ever is going to be in creating the organisational room for them to be applied. It can’t be a luxury, nice to have or fringe activity. It must become central to, and underpin the operations of the entire authority. Digital should and must surely be a core competency in the game of service between councils and citizens.

How to face the challenges

Build momentum

I’ve started to think of local government authorities as politically charged conglomerates. By that, I mean these are highly complex structures made up of loosely coupled departments that are bound to the ebbs and flows of the micro and macro political landscapes. In practice, this means that for any meaningful change — digital or other — to occur, the biggest challenge is in building a big enough swing of collective momentum.

I think that has to start from the ground up, so long as the appetite exists from the top down.

Prioritise

With the complex nature of services (internally at least) all attempting to deliver against varying aims, I think you need to be able to identify and frame the right problems to solve and then ruthlessly prioritise them according to impact on the service users. Without that, trying to be all things to all people will probably mean we’ll never meet the needs of a population, just a few segments/demographics.

Make it up as you go

Paul Downey[9] brilliantly articulates the difference between agile and waterfall methods by saying “Agile: make it up as you go along. Waterfall: make it up before you start, live with the consequences”.

From what I can tell, agile and council would’ve been an oxymoron in the past — but public funding cuts and savings targets mean that an agile model of delivery based on transparency and adaptation makes perfect sense. Gone are the days where you can afford to be tied in to proprietary tech contracts. We need to be smarter at buying and better at building, though most importantly — know when to go down either route.

The right decisions

Jeff Bezos’ latest words of wisdom to Amazon shareholders[10] explored the idea of differentiating between two types of decisions. Type 1 decisions are “consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation…Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups”. Too often, we seem to apply the same frameworks and processes for approval — change boards, three-tier sign offs and three different types of risk matrices — regardless of whether they are type 1 or 2 decisions. Ultimately this reduces the pace and rate of change and results in missed opportunities for progress. Innovation is not born out out of a committee.

Are we being ambitious enough?

I don’t think so. In fact, I know we aren’t — I see and hear it everyday. In just a few months, I’ve sat through countless meetings where it would seem the aim of the game is accountability avoidance at all costs. Defending departmental boundaries far outweighs protecting our service users.

Janet Hughes argues that being bold is really what it takes to get difficult and meaningful things done[11]. It means staking your own credibility, capital or even safety or security on an action because you believe it’s right and true.

Everything public service delivery should be.