Last week, the LOTI team spent a lot of time thinking about purpose.
Our purpose, to be exact, and how we find — and actively create — meaning in our work.
After months of Covid, daily headlines bringing shocking images to our screens and growing protests occurring near and far, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and wonder what meaningful dent you can make in the world.
Perhaps one small thing that each of us can do — and LOTI will take more time over— is to reflect on what it’s within our sphere of influence to do, control or shape. That should be a continual process. But as a starting point, I’d like to take a moment to more clearly focus on the “why” of our recent work; setting out what we’re currently doing, and why we’re doing it.
Trouble-shooting through transition
When it comes to Covid, the public narrative may be that we’re shifting from “crisis” to “recovery”, but boroughs still face many urgent challenges. Our borough CIOs are being looked to by their colleagues to rapidly come up with answers to problems that needed answering yesterday. Their to-do list is onerous. LOTI can help them by taking some of those urgent issues off their plate so they can focus on bigger organisational challenges.
To that end, last week we held a number of sessions to identify specific pain points that have a direct bearing on helping boroughs adapt to the changing environment created by Covid. Ideally, these “quick wins” should be things where one borough has developed something useful that can be shared with others; where we can commission some expert advice to solve a problem once on behalf of all members; or where adding a LOTI ‘stamp of approval’ can remove internal barriers to adopting better ways of working.
Specific areas where boroughs requested support included:
- Building on LOTI’s guide to holding online council meetings, what online tools and processes can enable elected members to vote securely without having to conduct time-consuming roll-calls?
- What digital tools and approaches can boroughs use to give local residents a greater voice in local decisions? (We’ve provided an overview of six digital democracy techniques in our recent guide and will build this out further.)
- How can we encourage more consistency in which online collaboration tools (e.g. Google Meet) boroughs permit their staff to use? (The unnecessary blocking of some tools is causing headaches for cross-organisational collaboration.)
- How can we resolve issues with the Department for Education’s (DfE) Devices for Children scheme?
Responding to boroughs’ concerns on the last of these points, Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer, arranged a call with CIOs last Friday. The DfE scheme — which aims to get laptops to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people so they can engage in online learning — is clearly very well-intentioned, but has some shortcomings in its design. For example:
- It appears to take a ‘corporate device’ approach — i.e. councils have to register the devices to their domain. Many councils simply do not have the people to do this, nor has funding been provided.
- DfE are proposing to manage the devices for six months, with an assumption that schools or councils will take on that role afterwards. That would entail providing new software licenses and/or technical support for all the laptops, a significant and unfunded new burden. This risks leaving children with unsupported devices down the line when need may still be high.
- The devices are being provided with 4G internet dongles that offer 3GB of data per month for only six months, a data allowance which boroughs widely regard as insufficient.
In terms of suggestions for the scheme’s improvement, boroughs made the following recommendations:
- Ownership of the devices should be passed to individuals. (Let local authorities distribute them, but not own or license them.)
- Device licences and connectivity should be provisioned for 3 years (the typical lifespan of a device).
- A clear support model needs to be created so that young people and schools have a point of contact in case something goes wrong with the devices. This needs to be inclusive (e.g. available in different languages)
- A 4G dongle should be provided for every device with a larger data allowance.
- More devices are needed to meet the level of demand.
LOTI, the GLA and London Councils will be working on raising these issues constructively with DfE this week.
From transition to transformation
While the kind of quick responses outlined above will continue to be necessary for some time, Covid has revealed huge existing challenges for London— and created some new ones. Issues of vulnerability, exclusion and communities not feeling heard are demanding to be addressed.
These cannot be addressed with quick wins alone.
That’s why LOTI has been working with boroughs to identify issues that deserve a more rigorous design thinking methodology, involving multi-disciplinary teams and a genuine process of discovery, prototyping and iteration.
In workshops held last week, it was clear that the biggest issues facing boroughs and their communities are tackling vulnerability and promoting inclusion.
Councils continue to wrestle with how they understand and identify who is vulnerable (and how the nature of that vulnerability evolves). And once specific groups have been identified, what help can be made available to them.
This topic presents some serious questions.
How do we define vulnerability? How can we understand the macro picture (groups/cohorts) as well as details about specific individuals? How can we rapidly spot changes in vulnerability if there’s a second wave? Where can data help reveal these things (in which case, which data?), and where is more engagement with residents the best approach?
How do we best understand the lived experience of individuals well enough to know what would help them in their specific context? What are their current and future needs? Who is best placed to address them both now and longer-term?
We believe it’s right for LOTI to focus real time, energy and resources here because these are all questions where the thoughtful use of digital, data and innovation could play a huge, positive role. Through the LOTI community, we can help boroughs bring more diverse voices into conversations about understanding problems and creating new solutions. And we can derisk the process of innovating and accelerate the learning journey by sharing the cost, time and lessons of piloting new approaches between boroughs. But most of all, we want to do this because the issues really matter and because we’re in a position to act.
This week we’ll be following up with LOTI boroughs to flesh out the details and identify who would like to be involved.
Don’t forget the plumbing
Covid has also highlighted that boroughs need a core set of capabilities that help them adapt to whatever challenges come next.
Without having people with the right skills, using the right tools and having access to the right information, boroughs can’t respond effectively and sustainably to changing needs.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a crisis is further evidence of the need to fix our plumbing.
So what’s the LOTI community doing?
The right skills: Boroughs are continuing with their efforts to recruit and develop digital apprentices to boost their talent pool. As previous weeknotes have recorded, LOTI now has a thriving community of digital apprentices working across London local government who are taking part in skills development days to boost their career prospects and the value they can offer to the councils they work in. We’ve also re-established a London Data Analysts Network to share ideas and lessons between boroughs.
The right tech: In July, we’ll be launching a new version of City Tools, which will turn our initial prototype database and dashboard of the technologies that power London boroughs’ public services and back-office functions into a much more dynamic and searchable platform. We’re complementing this data by getting boroughs access to expert advice on how to innovate on their procurement processes to work with a broader range of suppliers. More details to follow soon.
Data Collaboration. On a data front, we’re pushing forward with 8 specific steps to dismantle data sharing barriers.
Among these is the development of some common wording for councils to use in future technology tenders to ensure suppliers provide them with access to their data, preferably via API. We welcome comments to that draft.
Last week we also had a very productive session with the Information Governance Group for London (IGfL — the network on London’s Information Governance Leads). IfGL were keen to support our recommendation to adopt the Information Sharing Gateway as their default tool for creating Information Sharing Agreements. (A note to any London boroughs reading this: the tool is free for your organisations — please use it!) They were similarly supportive of adopting the new digital Data Privacy Impact Assessment tool we’ve been working on with Greater Manchester, Norfolk County Council and other partners via CC2i.
Meanwhile, we’re working with colleagues at the GLA to ensure boroughs can use the London DataStore as their default data collaboration platform. Why? Well, if all 33 London boroughs need to share data with their 32 peers, it requires establishing 528 data sharing relationships. Using the London DataStore would require 33 connections instead. Our recent experience of trying to sharing Free School Meals data between boroughs (see Genta Hajri’s recent blog) has confirmed for us that the borough-to-borough approach simply does not work.
Again, there are good reasons to do this as a LOTI community. None of these fixing the plumbing initiatives will make the desired impact unless they’re done at scale. Many aspects, such as data collaboration, require the adoption of common approaches that have to be designed and delivered together.
Fixing them will help boroughs focus their time on the issues that really matter to their communities rather than overcoming unnecessary hurdles.
This week, our attention is focused on:
- Working with boroughs and partners to plan immediate next steps on our Covid recovery activities, including an all-member workshop this Friday.
- Entering the final testing phase of the new City Tools platform.
- Delivering on the quick wins boroughs have requested.
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