Tag Archives: digital

Essex County Council: One year on

A Chelmsford Sunset

This month marks a year since I joined Essex County Council. I feel so fortunate that Councillors and our CEO Gavin Jones took a chance on me, a recovering politician, to lead the County Council’s new Corporate Development function. Since being appointed I’ve moved the whole family from Brighton to Chelmsford, our third child has arrived into the world and I’ve learnt a fair bit of Essex geography.

So what have I been working on in the past year? Key things:

  • Restructured most of Corporate Development to focus on multi-disciplinary, agile working with professional guilds of practice, whilst delivering 30% savings;
  • Created an internal Service Design team backed by Full Council approving GDS service standards as core to our 4 year strategy;
  • Brought together Digital and Technology Services into a single new department with a dedicated director;
  • Gained agreement on a new strategy and pipeline of commercialisation work;
  • Launched redesigned web content for Adult social care;
  • Championing working in the open with our new blog platform.

It has been so energising to come in to work every day with so many people carrying the burning fire for change. I’m incredibly lucky that so many teams have such a breadth and depth of talent. They’ve kept the show on the road with lots of benefit delivered for the Council despite so much change all around them. But the progress hasn’t been all smooth nor as fast as I would have liked. Some reflections and challenges…

  • Procurement and contract management is still really hard – Yes GDS/CCS frameworks have made it so much easier for some stuff, but that doesn’t fix legacy contracts nor fields of work their frameworks don’t cover. Often the challenges are emblematic of insufficient risk appetite in the sector or excessive focus on reducing costs. These are hard cultural norms to shift.
  • Recruiting permanent staff is really, really hard – Yes, some of our processes and procedures within the council have room for improvement. But it’s also hard to get heard in the noise out there when we don’t have some of the sparkle and treasure others can offer. Standard recruitment campaigns for in-demand fields just don’t cut it.
  • The words ‘digital’ and ‘transformation’ are so overused in localgov that they now mean nothing. Language matters and we need to be very careful about what we say and what it is heard as meaning.
  • Legacy technology is painful. Obvious really, but the bigger and older the council the more of this stuff will be lying around. Bodges which got us through difficulties in the past become burdensome technical debt. Big suppliers with exciting visions, claiming to have done it all before, often become silent in the face of the custom spaghetti code of integrations which need upgrading and unpicking before the shiny new thing can land. Clean breaks are hard to achieve in a land of so many legacy systems and contracts. It’s a work in progress.

What next? Well just because structures have changed doesn’t mean all of our habits, practices and culture have followed suit so we’re doing lots of work around support, learning, coaching and development to ensure the new ways of working really embed.

We’re aiming to get a public beta for a new essex.gov.uk out in the next 12 months too, it’s critical to unlocking a lot of the service design thinking we want to support with colleagues across so many parts of the council.

Finally there’s huge amounts more thinking and work to do on integrating our our financial and business planning more closely. We also need to do more soon re-imagining our technology investment strategy and then re-aligning the teams in light of this. This stretches across fun like social care case management, ERP and more.

So lot’s more challenge and opportunity ahead!

Culture, values and accountability: Are network aggregators like Airbnb and Uber really just a middle-man?

The media is ablaze with analysis with what sites like Airbnb, Uber and others mean for the future of work, our economies and local government mandates over regulated services like hotels and taxis[1. Good recent  posts on this include those by Tim O’ReillyLauren Smiley, Matt Buchanan.].

Lots of businesses are now being pitched as the ‘Uber for x’ or ‘Airbnb for y’. The sort of network aggregation model they offer is becoming a dominant mental model for many discussions on digital transformation at the moment. So I think it’s worth some further consideration because I don’t think this model in practice is quite as clear-cut as some suggest, though it certainly is disruptive.

In essence the thinking goes that network aggregators are simply making the market more efficient. They connect customers with providers more efficiently than ever before. They lower barriers to entry so that underused resources (homes, cars, drivers etc) can access the market to generate revenue whilst meeting consumer demand. Quite simply the thinking I’m seeing expressed is that they (network aggregators) are like the travel agent matching a holiday package with the customer’s budget and desires with underused airplanes and hotels lowering their prices to attract more demand – but now individuals are the providers using their own cars, homes and time.

Airbnb and Uber often say that they just are making connections between buyers and sellers. They argue that the quality of the service, the accuracy of the service listing, the liability etc all lie with the providers who are categorically not employees of the network aggregator. Yet it’s not quite that simple.

First we have the reviews and verifications these aggregators offer their ‘community’ to assure quality. These can go as far as checking the passports and other identity documents of providers. Then we have the controls on pricing they offer plus the overarching branding they lay on top of the providers similar to a hotel chain or limousine firm. We also have the customer service they end up providing. They try to nudge you into resolving problems directly with the providers but if you can’t then they regularly step in to intervene, to offer refunds and smooth things over, desperate to avoid negative stories sticking to their surging brands[2. I have personal experience of network aggregators forking out hundreds of dollars to leave everyone feeling happy with their brand after things have gone wrong].

So network aggregators aren’t merely aggregating supply and demand, they are building brands and owning customer relationships so much so that they will even extend refunds and credits when the provider won’t. Yet because of their very nature and their legally-driven insistence that they don’t employ the providers they have few ways in which to encourage genuinely better behaviour. We see Uber and Airbnb offering programmes trying to encourage and celebrate their best providers but to me they read like weak cultural change programmes with no oomph.

Because ultimately this comes down to culture, values and accountability. (Well what doesn’t?!) Tom Peters rightly said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Successful hotel chains like Accor know this – their brand is a promise that wherever in the world you are you will get a good night’s sleep, a comfortable bed, a certain kind of breakfast and service etc. If anything goes wrong they train and incentivise their staff in ways to not just make it right but to leave the customer feeling better about the brand than before. Good taxi and limo firms keep their drivers trained up on serving customers with disabilities, on major works happening in their patch, they trial new vehicles and tools for improved efficiency, safety and access. They get to know particular clients with certain preferences and needs.

Now any individual provider to a network aggregator can and does do those things, I’m sure. Most likely they will even get good reviews. But how does this scale? What kind of experience can Airbnb and Uber promise me? Nothing really. Offering a special badge or annual $100 voucher to their best providers is light years away from the organisational leadership, accountability and values a good firm in any sector can provide.

So where does this take us? Network aggregators almost certainly open up the opportunities for micro businesses to reach more customers than ever before. And for now the big ‘unicorn’ aggregators are willing to spend time and money to retain customers even after bad experiences. They are even financing some of their providers, as Uber do with car loans. But that won’t be able to continue indefinitely, at some point either after launching onto the stockmarket or with a private owner, profits will need to be made. The result will have to be far greater control over providers and/or retreat from the level of support offered to customers.

Are there lesson we can take from the network aggregators? Most certainly but we must do so with caution – recognising that they are not proven, sustainable businesses yet and that they aren’t quite the light-touch networks they like us to think they are.

If one applies this to public services then I believe ultimate accountability will continue to lie with public bodies, even as delivery becomes ever more distributed, digital and networked. Agile and networked we should be, but the need for accountability, culture and values can’t be magicked away in a puff of network aggregation.

Digital transformation of local public services must go faster

It’s been a very busy few weeks. I was very lucky last night to receive, on behalf of everyone working for the public good in Brighton & Hove, an award from the LGIU. This evening, to my great relief, Brighton & Hove City Councillors set a budget.

This week also saw the release of SOCITM’s annual ranking of council websites and digital channels. I was really delighted to be asked to write the foreword which, combined with report’s finding that progress has been rather slow, delivers a strong call for a new way of speeding up digital transformation. I copy my foreword below while the full report and more is available from SOCITM here.

Local government will be dead by 2020 if something doesn’t change. Even if we weren’t facing greater funding cuts than any other part of government, which we are, then the relentless growth in costs and demand for our services risk finishing us off.

This isn’t because local government people aren’t working incredibly hard, they absolutely are! They are resilient, dedicated, creative and much more. But in the process of coping with all the pressures it becomes harder and harder to step back from the daily grind to rethink services from scratch. Capacity is under immense strain and investment in training staff is an easy budget to cut in the grand scheme of ugly choices politicians face at budget-setting time.

So capacity is limited and, through no fault of their own, digital capabilities in the sector are very limited. Given all that, what has been achieved so far is miraculous – there is some fabulous digital work out there, some brilliant apps, websites and more as evidenced by this report. But it’s not enough. If we continue at this pace of change then the transformation will only be ready long after our sector is dead and buried.

So what to do? Let’s keep celebrating and supporting local diversity and innovation. But if we are to have any hope of getting ahead of the scissors of doom — the relentless curves of demand growth and budget cuts bearing down on us — we also need to turbo-charge digital transformation across the sector.

My proposal is that the sector funds and backs a collective approach to digital transformation. This should be an approach which prevents reinvention of the wheel where possible (how many separate times are councils building ‘My Account’ functionality?!) and which provides collective leadership. A place to support local government, highlight best practice and to host reusable design patterns and code. In other words a Local Government Digital Service by and for local government, not a centralising force which I know many would rightly resist. We need to do this for ourselves, together — now.

The new governance structures devolution is producing, including combined authorities and city regions, should provide new momentum for driving digital transformation. These devolution negotiations give us the space to consider what ‘local’ means. From the perspective of our citizens is one local authority area the right level of ‘local’ for digital service delivery. It will depend, but I don’t think we have got it all right yet by any means.

There are great opportunities ahead to make public services more personalised, more responsive and more efficient than ever. To me the digital mantra of faster, better and cheaper seems possible not just for file sharing and email, but for whole swathes of essential public service delivery. Thank you for all the progress evidenced in this report, lets now build on that to renew local public services and beat those scissors of doom. We’re not dead yet.

The full SOCITM report ‘Better connected 2015’ is here.

Local Government’s challenge: Digital Transformation

I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.

I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.

Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:

As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training.  It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.