When I joined Southwark Council in August 2017 as Head of Digital Delivery, the Digital team had only been newly created. We were a group of individuals and strangers to each other. 2 years on, I am proud of how as a team we have come together and what we have achieved, especially in collaboration with partner authorities and organisations, including:
- Co-publishing the Local Digital Declaration, submitting 13 applications with 20+ authorities in the first round of the Local Digital Fund, 12 were invited to second stage, and 2 were funded out of the 16 selected nationally.
- Kicking off the transformation of planning services collaboratively with PlanX and our planning back office discovery.
- Improving connectivity in Southwark’s broadband not-spots and connecting 20,000+ homes with gigabit broadband in 9 months. By 2020, 53,000 homes will have access to gigabit broadband as part of our award winning programme.
- Running the council’s first Digital Futures Month with 60+ events and 500+ attendees.
Here’s what I have learnt from my 2 years with a focus on local government collaboration:
#1 Bidding for external funding with partners and being a lead council is hard work. I haven’t been completely forgiven by the team for applying for Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) first round of funding at the same time as running our Digital Futures Month for 500+ people! We had to find ideas, refine the long list of ideas to 13 solid proposals, find authorities to partner with, get senior management approval from 20+ partner authorities, 1 month to get everything ready and carry on with our day jobs at the same time. Not many people in the team had written bids or applied for funding before and having to do so in a compressed timeframe meant a lot of rewrites and late nights. Useful tips for next time: start and keep a working list of ideas and interested partners to make future funding applications easier; if available, read through past successful bids, review feedback from unsuccessful bids and borrow good techniques; allocate 3x more time than you think is needed and set up sign-off meetings with senior approvers early as it can take a few weeks to get a free slot.
#2 Partners can come from around the UK and it’s ok if we’re different. In our online housing repairs common service pattern discovery, we had Lincoln Council, Gravesham Council, Lewisham Homes and Southwark as partner authorities. We differed in demographics (for example: number of social housing properties ranged from less than 10,000 to 54,000; number of reported repairs differed from 50,000 to 300,000+), we had completely different housing systems and, we hadn’t worked with each other before. We did however had similar problems delivering an online housing repairs service and it was a priority area for all 4 authorities. Our differences turned out to be an advantage when designing the first version of a common service pattern and we will be prototyping and testing the pattern hopefully in the next alpha phase so that it can work for as many different councils as possible. We found reaching out via LocalGovDigital Slack, leveraging our networks and connections, and MHCLG’s match making opportunities helpful at finding the right partners.
#3 Early engagement and joint delivery can remove barriers. One of the factors that helped us remove barriers and find a better way to deliver services was working closely with internal teams, other authorities, organisations and suppliers early and often. This can be easy on paper but a number of things can get in the way. We found early market engagement with suppliers useful in refining requirements and understanding options, not assuming we already know the answer, asking for recommendations from support organisations like TechUK and Connected Places Catapult, and having a corporate strategy can be helpful to prioritise internal resources and accelerate delivery.
I have learnt so much more in my 2 years at Southwark and I am looking forward to using the experience in my new role as MHCLG’s Head of Local Digital Collaboration Unit. I am excited to see how we can support and make local government collaboration easier so that we can #FixThePlumbing. Follow the Local Digital Collaboration Unit activities here.