Tag Archives: localgov

What’s wrong with business cases

@daverog: Business cases are corporate sci-fi

Dave Rogers’ tweet was spot on, and found a better way of saying what I’ve felt for a long time: business cases are not a good way to make decisions. They give us false certainty and almost invariably mislead some or all of an organisation’s leadership.

Business cases are lies. Not wilful lies usually, but they end up with the same results: misleading, misinforming and hiding reality.

Why would I feel so strongly about what is a pretty standard part of modern organisational life? Because I think it’s symptomatic of the challenge we face in moving to Internet-age public services. It’s easy for folk to nod along with the importance of ‘being digital and agile’ but then insisting on a ‘layer of programme management and finance oversight’ you know, “just to make sure it delivers”. This kills the good stuff and pulls us back to the wrong, lumpy ways of doing things.

Take a business case for a software implementation project. Probably what will have happened was requirements were collected, some market engagement done with potential suppliers and then estimation on what the work requires in terms of time and people. A return on investment will have been calculated to justify the costs involved. If everything looks reasonable, leaders will read through it, perhaps asking for some contingency funds or reassurance from managers. Then the document gets approved and people run off to do stuff. Almost certainly work doesn’t proceed as expected: Requirements change, a supplier experiences delays, costs rise.

If costs are within the total envelope no leaders are bothered with this. Programme managers juggle the finances internally. If spend goes above the envelope, then a scary moment as permission is sought to spend more. But usually we experience a few questions and the green light to carry on from our leaders. How so? Because the hole has already been dug, we need to finish it, the costs have been sunk. Let’s press on.

The ability to observe, orient, decide and act continuously is not the norm when business cases live among us. Let’s unpack our example:

  1. The Requirements – The idea that we can capture all our requirements and then share them with suppliers to get answers is fantastical, and wrong. Usually the requirements are widely varying in detail and realism, furthermore they utterly fail to recognise that customising commercial software is poison. For years big vendors thought charging for customisations was a profitable wheeze for clients stupid enough to request this. But even they realised this was money they didn’t like as the cost of maintaining all these forked and patched version of their products was just too painful to bear. Customising commercial software almost never ever makes sense. Even more importantly the requirements tend to be a deeply imperfect snapshot at a moment in time. By the time any code is likely to be in use the world will have moved on.
  2. The Cost – Software should not be a capital expenditure. It is a continuously changing, living thing that needs constant care and maintenance. The idea that a fixed price can “get us there” is fundamentally wrong. It takes us away from the power of funding teams, not projects. Business case methods massively favour capital expenditure, one-off type thinking. Yet for the complexity public servants are normally grappling with this is rarely the right approach. We need long term, patient funding for the wicked issues we seek to tackle. And also of course cost estimates for such business cases then to be wildly wrong.
  3. The Time – Building a bridge or a school? Then a fixed timeline (with padding for slippage) makes sense. Trying to change complex systems issues like integrating health and social care? Then a fixed time business case is the wrong tool for the job.

I understand that the ‘certainty’ and ‘process’ surrounding business cases can be comforting for colleagues. But we’re fooling ourselves, we need to be courageous and hold the uncertainty as we explore the problems we face in open, collaborative ways.

Shifting away from business case culture takes time and effort – it’s a big cultural shift, as well as one that will take away a prized method some will have spent their careers on mastering. But shift this we must, otherwise we will look back in 2030 and see more wreckage of failed programmes led astray by false certainty and sunk hole mentalities. We can do this.

Using agriculture and the ooda loop to help stakeholders understand Internet-era public services

Last week I was very privileged to deliver a keynote to the annual SOCITM President’s conference. The last time I did so was in 2013, I’m hopefully a bit wiser since then. Also I was delighted to see the conference’s attendance grow both in numbers and diversity since my last visit.

This blog isn’t the presentation I gave last week, nor a transcript of it. It’s the distillation and iteration of those ideas.

How can we bring stakeholders with us into the Internet era for public services?

People in an old office sitting at mechanical calculator machines
Computing in days gone past. The ‘computers’ were the people.

I’ve been a council leader, I’ve run a digital agency and I’ve been a senior council officer. In all cases I’ve seen the huge difficulties good people and important work can face when struggling with stakeholders who “just don’t get it”.

For those of us impatient for change, it’s something we have often wrestled with. In many ways it’s an age old issue that goes to the heart of organisational renewal. But, and I know this is (justifiable) exceptionalism, I do think the Internet era we are now in brings a new flavour to this challenge. The conversations we need to have aren’t “out with the old, in with the new” and it would be wrong if they were. What I think we often experience is a fundamental disconnect over what the Internet era means and why it changes things.

An important public service announcement:

We break for a reminder that this isn’t a breathless Wired article where “just add tech” techno-utopias will be entertained. Sadly I think that too often when there is fear or misunderstanding of the Internet era people can revert to simplistic “just be more like Amazon” talk, sprinkling tech as they go. That’s one of the reasons I try to avoid using the term digital without being sure I’m with people who all agree we mean something like Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital. Too often ‘digital’ becomes a hand waving phrase to avoid precision about what we are actually talking about.

Let’s also be clear that “not getting it” doesn’t mean people are bad, it means we’ve got work to do. Now some will be stubborn, lacking curiosity and hard to budge. But in my experience most aren’t. We don’t need 100% understanding from all stakeholders. We just need enough to swing the pendulum.

The end of the heroic leadership paradigm

Superheroes flying with a big red cross over them
No heroic leaders please (superhero movies are fine though)

I didn’t know what it was called until I saw Barbara Kellerman speak at Harvard, but now I can proudly declare that I’m a passionate student of collaborative leadership. That is to say that the heroic model of a super-CEO type leader is not one I subscribe to and I don’t think is sustainable in our modern world.

In public services I think that means breaking down the Victorian, militaristic hierarchies in our organisations. It also means helping our leaders to recognise that a mechanistic mental model of how to bring about change is deeply flawed. There may be some levers to pull on, but they aren’t connected to anything at the other end, so won’t achieve the desired outcomes. Quite simply, just because someone has a position high up a hierarchy, Prime Minister even, doesn’t mean the outcomes they desire will happen on their say-so.

Moustachioed man at old fashioned exercise machine with a big lever
“Minister, you may think this lever reforms public services, but it isn’t connected to anything”

Rather I think an agricultural model of thinking and leading is more appropriate. We can’t make a seed germinate. We can’t know what’s going on inside a seed without destroying it. But we know the conditions it needs to give it the best chance of successfully germinating and growing: Fertile soil, water, warmth, sunshine and so on. Creating the conditions for success, in the knowledge that we can’t control for everything is vital to the mind shift we need to achieve. This means nurturing teams, valuing staff happiness and engagement are all even more vital.

Gardener planing a new seedling

How does this help me with stakeholders?

It does. Because there are lots of excellent people, associations, companies and agencies supporting leaders on such journeys to collaboration and systems thinking without explicitly talking about technology. I think that can be an incredibly helpful trojan horse to shifting the thinking.

Secondly, this mindset really can be shifted by a small group of people. It needs resilience and some supporters at or near the top, but this journey  doesn’t require your whole organisation to agree or understand before the tide will start to turn with positive outcomes. The Margaret Mead quote hits the spot on this:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
“Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

So what?

I took the time to set out some of my underlying assumptions about styles of leadership and thinking because they’re important. Launching into why the Internet era is different without first being clear on the necessary common ground is, in my experience, risking a high chance of early failure.

We urgently need stakeholders to think about, decide on and support work in different ways. We need them to fund teams, not projects. We need patient supportive leaders to allow the hard work of discovery, user research and service design to actually bear fruit. We need to bin business cases: They give false comfort with lies about how much will be saved or earned in 4 years if we spend X now. As public servants we need to focus on the wicked problems which, by their very nature, can never offer certainty on costs nor returns in a fixed timescale.

Cover of the book "Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war" by Robert Coram

So I turn to US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the Korean War and considered one of the top strategists in modern US military history, who still has academic conferences held in his honour. In the 1950s Boyd developed the concept of the OODA loop. This describes a loop beginning with Observe, then Orient, then Decide, then Act before returning to Observe and so on.

Diagram of the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

He originated this thinking with reference to aerial dogfights. He suggested that the winner in a dogfight was the pilot who could get ‘inside’ the enemy’s OODA loop – in other words do each of the steps faster than their opponent. The simplicity of the idea, and it’s easy application to much in modern life, has given it a life well beyond aerial combat tactics.

Public sector bodies have their own OODA loops as expressed through their formal and informal decision-making. Too often they are top-down, deterministic and slow. How often have we heard the tragic “I know what the problem is, just find me solutions” guaranteeing that the speaker has no idea of what the problem really is.

In my view we desperately need to change the public sector to have rapid OODA loops which are driven by a focus on outcomes, using analytics and rapid iteration.

And this is exactly what the Internet-era enables. It makes the OODA loops much smaller. Thanks to the low costs and connectivity of modern tools we can build and iterate products and services more quickly than ever before. Whereas a trial service might once have taken 2 years to get the first meaningful feedback to know if it was worth pursuing, we can now achieve the same in weeks.

Diagram showing large OODA lop with four small OODA loops inside it.

Not only does this offer us more speed and flexibility, it also reduces our costs and risks. How so?

Usually business cases are built for multi-year programmes of work. The inflexibility of the governance and the resources means it’s only worth mobilising such decisions for big programmes. Yet too often it’s impossible to know if they will really work as intended, so the costs get baked in. So we end up with big price tags, or bigger than absolutely necessary, because of governance and lag. Little and often minimal viable services are a much cheaper and faster way of figuring out what works.

Graph with one line showing 5% a year gains on £100 for 5 years and the other showing a single 25% growth for the final year of 5.

With an agile, iterative approach which funds a team and not a project we can stop or course correct at any time. There’s no shame in it and so we can avoid years of spend if something isn’t working out, we just move onto something else. But if it is working, by going out with the minimal viable service we can gain benefits much earlier. I liken it to the compounding of interest. Would you rather get 5% a year for 5 years or 25% once at the end of 5 years? The right answer is 5% a year as not only is that spreading your risk – you get some return now regardless of what happens in the future – but also you get more overall as you earn interest on the interest.

Example: Monzo

Monzo promotional image showing app on an iPhone and their distinctive coral coloured debit card
The Monzo app and card

Interest rates are good link to an example I like to use at the moment: Monzo Bank. Other banks are available, but thanks to their culture of being really open about how they work, it’s easy to use Monzo as an example. As an online-only challenger bank lots of people think they’re a tech company, but they’re not. They say it repeatedly themselves: technology is an enabler – a means to an end – not their purpose.

They launched with a real minimum viable product, a pre-paid debit card issued by another financial institution which gave a current account-like experience with their beta app. It was a long way from a real bank account service. Still this helped them to build up a client base, and insight, which they used to start building a real current account and other features as they went on. They also genuinely co-produce their services through their community which should be the norm for public services. If a bank, a trendy new one I know, can do it then so can we.

Screenshot of the Monzo online community forum
The Monzo community, explore it in full at community.monzo.com

Making it real

Maybe the agricultural metaphor and the OODA loop are useful for working with your stakeholders? Please let me know.

I’ve considered and tried many, many ways to attempt explaining why things are different in the Internet era, and why public service leaders need to do things differently as a result. Based on years of working in this sector this is my latest, best effort. Your feedback is very welcome as I know there’s so much more room for improvement.

In my experience there are some key values and capabilities needed to go on this journey, and make it last in public services. They are worthy of several blog posts more of discussion, but I’m just going to put them out there for now. They shouldn’t be outrageous, I hope!

Culture and values:

  • Curiosity
  • Openness
  • Trust
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • ‘Safe uncertainty’ aka risk appetite

Capabilities:

  • Service Design
  • User Research
  • Technology
  • Data Science & Analytics
  • Citizen Engagement
  • Communications
  • Organisational Design

Finally it’s really worth remembering why we need to do this. It’s because we’re not making enough of a difference to the citizens who depend on us, those who have nowhere else to go. Yes there’s austerity, but we still have huge resources and our outcomes need to be much better. Just shunting transactions ‘online’ is a start, not the end goal. This is about resolving the wicked issues and making a difference for those who have nowhere else to turn.

Image credits

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!

One Year On: Life after politics

In May 2015 I stood down from Brighton & Hove City Council. It had long been my plan to take a break from the council by this point. It was the end of my second term on the council, marking 8 years as a councillor and around 12 years active in local politics.

While I miss working with many of the wonderful people I got to meet working in local politics, I don’t regret my choice. I was ready for a change.

So what I have been doing for the last year? For starters I’ve been able to spend much more time with my family and finally watched all episodes of House of Cards!

In terms of work:

  • I have continued my work with the Local Government Association on supporting councillors and officers to do more thinking and doing around the power of digital for local government and local democracy. This also led to fruitful collaborations with the Department for Communities & Local Government, GeoPlace, TechUK, ADASS and the Leadership Centre. Sadly however in all cases serious permanent funding for local government digital transformation is still all too scarce. I fear sector-wide approach to local government digital transformation remains out of touch at the moment.
  • I worked on the incredible NHS Citizen programme with the Democratic Society and their partners. As a programme for NHS England aiming to enhance patient participation this was a hugely ambitious and worthy cause. We made some progress but I know vast potential remains to be tapped.
  • I also supported the wonderful team DemSoc on some of their other projects, my favourite being the online participatory budgeting work they have been doing for the Scottish Government and councils.

These have all been fantastic, engaging projects to work on. I can’t do them justice in a few bullets, check out the links for more info. Thank you to everyone who invited me to work with them over the last year.

Meanwhile serendipity has been hard at work. Back in February 2015 I was contacted through a mutual friend by the CEO of Crunch. This CEO, Darren Fell, wanted help with planning policy which was putting his fast-growing company’s office space at risk. He thought the Leader of the Council might be able to help.

Unfortunately there was little I could do since the Government had changed the rules around converting offices to residential at a national level. We had tried to seek an exemption for all the key office sites in the city but the Government had only granted a tiny sliver of what we had asked.

Still Darren and I kept talking long after I had explained this, and discovered we had much in common: A passion for how digital tools can transform business and services, common experience in running our own companies and a passion for improving public policy to benefit small and single-person companies.

We kept in touch and come May ’15 we began to collaborate on a campaign to raise awareness in Westminster of the impact the planned rise in dividend taxes would have on lower earning business owners. I blogged extensively about this over on the Crunch blog. This campaigning, combined with all the advice and guides Crunch already provided, was recently launched under the name Chorus. Chorus is a unique new business association exclusively for micro-businesses that is completely free to join.

As time went on I got more and more involved in the business of what Crunch does – which is making things as easy as possible for all types of micro-business whether they are freelancers, sole traders, contractors or small companies. So much so that at the start of this month I changed from being an occasional consultant to a full-time member of the Crunch team as Head of Policy & Public Affairs.

Crunch is a fantastic local company filled with passionate people all working to make a difference. I’m extremely lucky to be part of the Crunchie gang (insert KitKat chocolate-related jokes  here) and can’t wait to show you what we’re working on next. Watch this space!

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year. How about you?

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.

Some end of term reflections for Local Government Chronicle

LGC asked for some reflections at the end of my term a a council leader. Here’s what I wrote for them:

There are only a couple of weeks left until I step down as both Brighton & Hove City Council’s leader and as a councillor. While, after eight years, I will lose that ‘Cllr’ title I will continue to have a passion for the sector and all that it delivers for citizens. LGC have asked for my reflections having led the UK’s first Green council, albeit a minority administration.

I’m writing this just hours before we launch our end of term report. In that report we show that our administration has delivered on over 85% of the 195 manifesto pledges we made in 2011. Brighton’s economy is booming with a famously vibrant creative digital cluster, we are a top UK seaside destination, a place where people want to come live and work. Our ambition and delivery for Brighton & Hove has been recognised in many ways including as the world’s first One Planet City, the 2014 CIVITAS European City of the Year for Sustainable Transport and part of the UK’s first new UN Biosphere Reserve in over 40 years.

These and our other achievements have only been possible through collaboration. If there ever was an age of heroic leadership, then that time has gone. Collaboration and co-operation are now the only forms of leadership that can deliver the outcomes our citizens deserve. Locally this has meant intense cross-party working and collaboration with partners in all sectors as well as our neighbouring authorities in the Greater Brighton city region that we have founded.

Nationally the learning and co-operation that has developed through the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities have been invaluable. The collective voice, and thinking, we have been able to present to government and other bodies like the Local Government Association has helped move forward the devolution debate whilst also providing mutual support to the challenges each of our areas face.

We are indisputably now in a multi-party age, and I think that’s a good and healthy thing. In some ways I’d argue that we are just catching up with the rest of Europe who have long had to deal with more parties sharing power at local and national levels. This new reality not only requires new ways of organising TV leaders’ debates, but also puts a clear expectation on political leaders. They will have to be far more collaborative with their erstwhile opponents, and civil servants will need to do more to facilitate and support this type of joint working.

Perhaps as the only Green council leader, being a little freer from the traditional political tribes, I have had an advantage in working with anyone from any party. But I do also think local government has already developed more collaborative leadership capacity than we always get or give ourselves credit for: I see cross-party cabinets and committees delivering positive change in areas right across the country.

Here in Brighton & Hove we made an early change to the committee system in 2012, and we haven’t regretted it for a moment. It wasn’t a move backwards, it was a positive choice to a new way of working which involves all members of all parties far more whilst also being open and understandable to citizens. It has been a particular strength in our new Health & Wellbeing Board arrangements which I chaired, providing system leadership with health partners and all parties were represented as major decisions were being taken.

Finally, as someone with a background in technology, I have worked hard to try and support the local government sector in advancing its transformation for the digital age. It hasn’t always been smooth or easy as legacy systems, skills shortages and capacity restraints are real challenges for all of us. But the potential digital provides us to improve services for citizens, to rethink how we work and reduce costs must be pursued aggressively. Again I strongly believe collective action and collaboration are key to overcoming some of those barriers we face. Even after 10th May I will continue to actively support this stream of work and remain a lifelong champion for the power of local government to improve people’s lives. I know hard times are ahead for councils, but I can’t help feeling optimistic that the passion, creativity and collaboration I’ve seen will get us through the trials and tribulations. Thank you for a fantastic eight years. I’m just off to find somewhere to put down my party political hat.

Is past performance a guide to the future? The Brighton & Hove Green council’s end of term report

I happened to hear a bit of BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday. Presenter Martha Kearney was trying to explore the issue of manifesto promises: Does legislating on them help (as per the Conservative’s announcement on taxation yesterday), how often are they broken and do people actually trust the promises made. In service of this topic she interviewed Labour’s Rachel Reeves and the Conservative’s Michael Gove, both senior national parliamentarians for their respective parties. Rachel Reeves spent most of her interview mentioning reams of the promises Labour are making in their 2015 manifesto, while avoiding the questions on her party’s past performance. Meanwhile Michael Gove kept wanting to rehearse in detail his party’s past achievements while avoiding Kearney’s exhortations to expand on the promises they were making for the future.

It seemed a rather odd and unsatisfying set of encounters for a rather key point central to electioneering: the manifesto pledge. Apparently we are seeing huge pledge inflation, more pledges are being made and manifestos are getting fatter than ever. But what value are pledges when future circumstances are likely to change? And can we make any judgements for their future governing based on parties’ past performance? Mr Gove justified his desire to rehearse his party’s record in government on this very basis, that because (in his view) they had delivered on previous promises their future ones could be trusted. Then why legislate your tax pledge was Ms Kearney’s rebuttal.

I don’t think manifesto pledges can be the only part of electioneering, one should also be considering for example the personal values and judgement of future representatives. But past performance, where available, is also a useful metric if not a guarantee of future progress.

So in the spirit of openness I published the Green minority administration’s record last week. On election four years ago we almost immediately began tracking the 195 pledges we’d made in our 2011 manifesto. By our own judgement we are on course to deliver over 85% of those pledges. I think that’s pretty a good result for a minority administration running a council for the first time in our party’s history during a period of unprecedented austerity cuts to our budgets. But I might be biased!

What’s interesting is how few administrations locally or nationally produce such end of term reports, nor do independent bodies provide such analysis either. If we are seeing ever more pledges being made, then that does give ever more opportunity for such progress reporting to be done. Perhaps something for FactCheck, IFS and others to consider for 2020?

You can download the full PDF Brighton & Hove end of term report here.

Thoughts on devolution, governance, accountability & heroic mayors

Map of the Greater Brighton City Region
Map of the Greater Brighton City Region

I’ve been really pleased to see talk of widespread devolution across the UK gain so much interest in recent months. While, as the Centre for Cities are ably proving, the party manifestos are woefully short of the true fiscal devolution city regions like Greater Brighton actually need, at least many more people are having the debate. The big news south of the Scottish border has been Osborne’s big deal with Greater Manchester: A genuine shift of power to the city level, including health and social care, for the price of a directly elected ‘metro mayor’. We are also seeing significant change elsewhere, some pushed by local powers such as the new Bristol-Cardiff-Newport ‘Great Western Cities’ initiative, and others imposed from Whitehall such as in Birmingham.

However another key factor for this devolution journey isn’t been given quite enough attention: Will the governance, accountability and involvement structures be sufficient?

I have some thoughts on this because, as Brighton & Hove City Council’s Leader, I chair the Greater Brighton Economic Board for our city region. Champions of the mayoral system may argue that I lack legitimacy and mandate – most citizens in the region will never have voted for me, only the few thousand in my own ward will have had that chance.

Essentially the direct-elected mayor model espoused by the UK so far is the American one: a presidential model. Yet I don’t see many pro-mayor groups campaigning for the British Prime Minister being ditched for a directly-elected President! But shouldn’t they be arguing that David Cameron was only elected by the residents of his constituency, and so on…?!

Of course in reality it’s not quite that simple. Cameron was chosen by his party membership as a leader and then won majority support in Parliament to govern. Similarly locally I was elected by my local party, elected by the whole council as their leader and backed by the city region board to be their chair. Lots of mandates, but few directly from the voters. Perhaps some think local government is so dramatically different that the parliamentary model only works at national levels – but given that the whole model emerges from the city government of Athens, such criticism bears little scrutiny.

If ones believes in direct mandates for presidents and mayors then the question must be, does a direct mandate alone make a difference and at what price? The UK experience of directly elected mayors has been very mixed, and often resulted in stalemate when councillors sought to frustrate a mayor’s plans because they came from opposing parties. This is not dissimilar to the logjam the US government regularly finds between presidents and Congress. This is because the UK model used so far has the mayor elected directly and quite separately from council elections. Hence quite often the two bodies do not politically align and so regularly use their ‘democratic mandates’ to oppose the other.

There are other local electoral models which can help to prevent this: As I understand it the Danish model uses a party list with the top candidate on each list being effectively the party’s proposal for Mayor. The council seats are then allocated proportionately to the votes cast. The largest party will win the mayoralty and have the largest base of support in the council, though of course may still need a coalition to wield a majority. This is where sharing out the Deputy Mayor portfolios (who chair key committees) becomes useful in building support.

In Brighton & Hove we have innovated almost annually with our governance structures. We had committee systems, early adoption of a formal scrutiny system, a shadow cabinet in anticipation of a directly elected mayor (the referendum was lost), an executive cabinet system imposed by statute and now a new streamlined committee system. Having worked in both opposition and administration through executive cabinet and committee system I have had lots of experiences to consider which will inform the next few paragraphs.

I should make clear that I am not a structuralist – great outcomes may be provided in any halfway decent structure. Mayor George Ferguson is delivering well in Bristol and here in Brighton our record of achievement through committees is equally strong.

However, different structures will have tendencies for and against values which I hold to be important in delivering public services: Openness, accountability, scrutiny and learning. The risk with the directly elected mayor model, and the executive cabinet system, is that too much is down to the approach taken by a very small number of people. An open, creative, humble mayor could foster wonderful things, but equally they might be arrogant and autocratic leading to little scrutiny and learning (and the same goes for the ‘Strong Leaders’ the cabinet system demands).

It is interesting to note the positive anecdotal feedback councillors are reporting in those authorities who have moved to a committee system after the Localism Act re-introduced this option. APSE’s research on the cabinet system also highlights how disempowered many councillors feel by centralising decisions amongst only 8 or 9 people.

The retort from some will be a witticism about how bad ‘design by committee’ is. Yet aren’t juries justice by committee? Haven’t we welcomed the enhanced status of Select Committee in our Parliament? How many of those who champion Mayors and Cabinets would support the same model in Westminster? 95% of national decisions in the hands of one person or a cabinet of 8-9? Very few. Most would support aims to open up Parliament to involve more people, not fewer. So why would local government deserve any less than a similarly open and inclusive approach? It doesn’t.

So where does this leave us in the devolution debate, especially in relation to city regions? First and foremost the structures need to be right for the place — there is no ‘one solution to fit them all and in its neatness rule them’ (with apologies to Tolkien). But I believe there are principles which need to be considered:

  • Does the planned structure encourage collaboration? Or could it risk stand-offs between bodies who can each independently claim a democratic mandate?
  • Is openness, scrutiny and accountability baked in? Rather than having to add those as afterthoughts, make them integral. Digital channels must be tapped to build inclusion and involvement.
  • How are existing elected representatives going to be included? They need to be part of the journey otherwise you risk trouble brewing.

It’s too early to say what future structures will develop for Greater Brighton. I’m open to ideas, and the decisions will be for my successors. I do quite like the Danish model but that would require a long overdue shift to proportional representation here which seems unlikely in the near future.

My final thought is: Beware those suggesting structural approaches which reinforce the model of heroic leaders. If there was ever truly a time when heroic leaders were the right people for the job, that time certainly isn’t now.

(While drafting this post I spotted Simon Cooke’s blog on a similar theme in relation to West Yorkshire’s devolution journey, definitely worth a read)

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.

Some thoughts on 2014

Much has happened in 2014 to put Brighton & Hove on the map. After working with our neighbouring areas – including councils, universities and businesses – we won ‘City Deal’ status from government, bringing millions of pound of investment to our Greater Brighton region. This includes government funds to upgrade the facilities for technology and digital businesses at New England House.

 

Signing the Greater Brighton City Deal at Wired Sussex's FuseBox in New England House
Signing the Greater Brighton City Deal at Wired Sussex’s FuseBox in New England House

 

We’ve worked very closely with the Coast 2 Capital Local Enterprise Partnership and Wired Sussex to win a number of big investments from government and Europe. Particularly close to my heart was winning a Digital Catapult Centre for Brighton.

In the summer we were also named the third best city in the country for small and medium sized businesses to grow, and we had record visitor numbers of 10m people coming to the city. We hope to keep growing that number having started work on building the iconic i360 observation tower and begun the process of building a new world-class conference centre as part of the ‘Brighton Waterfront’ project.

Digging the first sod for the i360. Once we got out of the way they opened up a vast hole below for moving a sewer tunnel and laying foundations.
Digging the first sod for the i360. Once we got out of the way they opened up a vast hole below for moving a sewer tunnel and laying foundations.

 

We won the City of the Year Award in Europe, for our work on sustainable travel. Figures this year showed that the number of people killed and injured on our city streets had fallen – meaning our work to improve travel safety is paying off.

This year we also opened two new libraries at Woodingdean and Mile Oak, creating new community hubs for residents to access books and the Internet at a time when most other councils are closing them. We also pioneered, with Sussex Police and Rise, drop-in domestic violence surgeries in council customer service centres.

 

Selfie outside one of our new libraries.

 

I started chairing the Health & Wellbeing Board this year, which was significantly reformed to bring together health and council colleagues together on an equal footing for the first time.

2014 has not been without its challenges, but 2015 brings opportunities to address them. Council officers are working on redesigning the refuse and recycling department to give residents an improved service. Work is also due to begin on a permanent travellers’ site, which will help reduce the unauthorised encampments that have disrupted residents and businesses for many years.

//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/9zLnVohMjns?rel=0

The council is consulting on what is going to be its toughest budget yet, now that our government funding has been cut by some 40%. The debate comes to a head in February when councillors will be agreeing the budget and deciding how best to fund and provide services for residents for the year ahead. After years of dwindling funds for local services, this time mounting government cuts are going to hurt. Combined with the general and local elections in May, it’s certain that 2015 will be an extraordinary year for our city. My best wishes to you all for the New Year.