Deja Vu All Over Again

I am personally inspired by the folk who are driving forward the LG “”Digital”” agenda in multiple ways, through events, blogs, tireless work and at significant personal cost in terms of time, and, um … cost.

From several local gov camps and similar, and much tweetage there seem to be a whole set of recurring themes around getting this stuff to break through into action. Again.

There is an emerging realisation that something higher-order than good work in one or more authority is needed. And various attempts to create organisational forms that will take things to the next level. Again.

All of this dialogue, though eerily familiar, is actually incrementally useful in trying to put our fingers on the question of why this isn’t yet breaking through the way we’d like.

I don’t know the answer to that, but here are some thought pebbles to set spinning across the pond of “”digital”” discontent.

  1. Maybe it is breaking through but we’re just not seeing it! Maybe what’s coming through is the result of the sheer grind of compromise and risk aversion that is almost inevitable in organisations which are (think about this) – local monopoly providers of essential services which are publicly funded, which are democratically accountable, and politically rationed in a hostile scrutiny (small or big s) environment.  Tough context!  Those things are like the weather – we can’t change them, we have to wear appropriate clothing. So maybe the progress we are seeing is brilliant, maybe it’s as good as it gets, maybe it’s going to take a shed load longer than we think, and maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up so much. Maybe. I think it’s worth considering.
  1. Councils are different and becoming more different all the time. Localism rocks! But it works against standardisation, and it means that partnerships for eg joint development need to be chosen with care. The innovation need, capacity, capability, leadership of councils varies considerably, even if in other respects they seem pretty similar, or are conveniently close. In some of the recent tweetage I pointed people at slides 6-13 of this. I think we need to have language for understanding the differences between authorities and their contexts. I think we also need to accept that the best thing might be to give up on 95% of councils and work with the smaller number who want to innovate, and currently have the capacity and capability to do so. Let’s beam a small group “coalition of the willing” down onto this new planet, and hope that our council isn’t the one wearing the red shirt. (Note to self, do I need to explain Trekkie references to this audience …)
  1. Controversial one this. Perhaps we need to think about going where we can do most good. This might mean taking a super-honest look at one’s current authority and acknowledging that you could do more good somewhere else, somewhere that’s playing with a better hand of cards. Or somewhere that demonstrably gives an actual stuff. That might not be practical for some people given family circumstances or bonds of loyalty. But it’s a thought. What if we could get all the localgovcamp people working for the same council! Well actually it would be an unmitigated disaster but you get the underlying point, I hope. To add extra controversy to this point I will take my life in my hands and say that a lot of people I talk to decided to stop working for a council but stay passionately involved in local government by stepping out as freelancers, establishing or working for companies, and found they could do more good that way (despite enduring the ever so funny jokes about the dark side, and not getting invited to things any more – or asked to pay – but let’s not go there).
  1. Do we care about it enough to get our hands dirty to make change happen? I did some sessions at PS Launchpad about this sort of stuff for example this and this. One of the reported reasons why corporate services professionals in local government (eg IT, HR, Finance) often don’t want to get promoted to Corporate Director roles is that they will no longer be able to represent the interests of their tribe – they may have to make decisions which compromise the purity of the vision. I’d love to see some of the LG “”digital”” folk say “right, I need to get to be a chief executive ASAP, then I can sort it”. That wouldn’t actually work as a strategy but the people trying it would learn so much in the process. Many years ago I was a manager of analytics consultancy types in a discipline called operational research and I wrote this paper called “wearing your clients’ shoes” – anyone fancy working with me to update it for “”digital”” in local government?

(Note: In this blog I have put “”digital”” in double quotes to signify that I am loosely referring to people and concepts which are currently aligning themselves with the word “digital” but which in my mind have very little to do with technology (either digital or analogue) and which therefore risks massively confusing means with ends, but happens to be the only flipping label we have currently.)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting thoughts here. I guess that one of the problems with the question of breakthrough is that it is relatively easy to see that someone has created a tool, whether that be an approach or an App of some description. However it seems to me that very often this will be a layer of public engagement or an alternative to an existing service, rather than a direct way of achieving an outcome that we are missing which bypasses current forms and at a potentially meaningful scale.

    I recently read “The Frugal Innovator” by Charles Leadbeater ( and was struck by the various examples of completely new forms of public service which have been started on a shoestring. Perhaps it is actually easier when starting from a blank sheet of paper, rather than having to find a way of including an innovation in some form of transformation programme with all the attendant problems of risk aversion and change control.

    Also, how many of the ‘digital’ alternatives could go to the heart of the system, could be applied at scale, would have more than a de minimis effect, could be introduced in a commissioned service and would win the commitment of top teams? It seems to me that these five potential blocks to innovation need to be examined carefully, both by innovators and public sector leaders, to see how new thinking can be de-risked and tested out in a safe environment. Unless that happens I fear we will continually be faced with extremely interesting but peripheral ideas with potential at a time when we most need to take a step into the unknown. But perhaps I am missing something!


    1. jonathanflowers says:

      Thanks Daniel. To give an example from an industry I used to know a lot about, when (then) Midland Bank set up First DIrect they did so deliberately as a brand new arms-length operation, recognising that it would cannibalise their existing customers, but worth it because it allowed them to set up fundamentally new customer service operations. We have probably now forgotten how revolutionary was the idea of a 24 hour high quality telephone bank. Another example: Direct Line revolutionised the insurance industry (the changes went much deeper than just being on the phone – ask me about it sometime you want to be bored!), and was formed by industry experts stepping outside the existing companies altogether. Transformational change from within is extraordinarily difficult. So what we can we do for local public services?

      For a little while I thought IP&E in Shropshire might have had a chance to do it. I think that in a modest way my current employer can do it in alliance with councils – provided we both go into it with that mindset, but whatever we come up with there won’t be scaleable to more than a handful of councils a year. Would a significant restructure of local government give us the “start from scratch” chance? The pace and nature of change that I see is consistent with a dramatic change of local government over a generation – 15-20 years say – but doesn’t seem to be paced fast enough for the cliff-edge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s