Could London’s Office of Technology and Innovation see 33 boroughs working as one?

SUMMARY:

We spoke to Dominic Campbell, MD and founder of FutureGov, about how the venture could change how London designs, buys and delivers services to citizens.

The London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) wants to “tackle some of the most city-defining challenges we’ve faced in a generation”. No small task, given the scale and disjointed nature of technology delivery across the capital – with 33 boroughs either working in isolation, or with a few selected neighbours.

However, the proposed LOTI, which is being scoped out by FutureGov, Arup and Stance, at the instruction of the GLA, has the potential to bring together some of the best ideas and people working across London, to share, collaborate, re-use, and work together as a collective to create better services for the city’s citizens.

The office is still very much in its infancy, and its partners are still considering what it could mean in practice. In a blog post this week, FutureGov founder and MD, Dominic Campbell, wrote:

We’re starting with a clean slate — there are no pre-conceived ideas. The first phase of work is a collaborative piece that brings together the brightest and most challenging minds from across the boroughs. An open and frank discussion about what LOTI could become.

London is no stranger to innovation. At FutureGov we see the brilliant and brave approaches the boroughs are taking to improve public services for citizens. But we know the capital lacks the collaborative culture and funding capacity to scale change effectively. Our combined experience of working with around 20 of the 33 London boroughs, the GLA, TfL, NHS London and other pan-London organisations illustrates that sharing good practice is still the exception, not the norm.

And this is the aim, to “lift up the best of current practice to share widely and supercharge at a city level on a serious scale”.

What does it mean in practice?

I got the chance to speak to Campbell this week about the scoping out exercise for LOTI and about his expectations for the what the office could be and what it could achieve. And whilst this is initially starting as a modest scoping exercise, FutureGov, Arup and Stance are considering what it could achieve over a five to ten year roadmap. Campbell said:

The way that we are approaching it is that Arup will look at it from a smart cities, IoT perspective, we (FutureGov) are looking at it from the public institutions perspective, and Stance are our deeper technology partner, looking at the different business models of IT operation across London.

If we could get to a place where there is a shared pipeline of both understanding organisational aspirations and strategies, and their priorities for service improvement and change, and then also what is the procurement or build pipeline to make those service changes happen; so that we can bring transparency to the collective roadmaps of those 33 organisations. So then we can say 20 of you are looking at a new financial system over the next two years, how about we just do one procurement?

Over the next few months, FutureGov, Stance and Arup will be talking to the boroughs, along with the London government, to build a picture of challenges facing London at a local and city level. The first step will involve a series of digital and technical maturity assessments for a representative handful of boroughs. These will consider leadership, culture, data, technology foundations, as well as service redesign and innovation.

Campbell believes this will help LOTI to promote the re-use of leading edge technology in some of the more innovative boroughs in London, bringing that knowledge and design to the centre, and then sharing it out to the organisations that need it. However, equally, there is also an opportunity for LOTI to identify clusters of under-performance. For example, if a lot of boroughs are weak on the use of digital for housing allocations, does this give LOTI a window to collectively invest in a new service?

Resistance

However, one of the key challenges will be getting CIOs and boroughs to look beyond their existing relationships with friends and neighbours. Campbell said:

The practical challenge is [overcoming the] smaller partnerships that [that they feel] personally in control of. If you’re a CIO and you’re looking to split some costs on data centres or software purchasing, then it’s a lot easier to turn to your nearest neighbour or your mates in London. Worst case scenario you get one other person involved and you save a good chunk of the costs. It’s that ease of getting things going and getting something put in place, you can see that in the amount of small partnerships that have grown.

This does, however, also have an advantage for LOTI, in that given the relationships that have already been formed, this could potentially reduce the amount of organisations that it has to engage with, as some will already be operating as a collective (Campbell estimates that this brings the number down from 33, to something like 15-20).

Campbell added that the LocalGov digital standards could also play an important role in LOTIs work, as, in his experience, these have forced other councils to understand what digital actually means. In other words, it’s not about placing the same processes and workflows online, it’s a new mindset that promotes service redesign using digital tools. However, if these standards are enforced, that could spell trouble with the outsourcers – which play a highly important role in local government. Campbell explained:

There’s some big challenges, is London going to stand together and tell Capita that it’s council tax collection system doesn’t meet service standards and therefore London isn’t going to use it anymore? Given that so much of local government IT is outsourced, that’s the biggest opportunity and challenge – are we going to be willing to hold those organisations to account? It just takes one council to apply those standards rigorously and then hopefully someone else will follow. We will see who has got guts.

Finally, one other thing that worries Campbell and could require some creative thinking to overcome is actually getting boroughs to invest in digital properly, and not just see it as a cheap alternative for low-hanging fruit. He said:

My worry is that we are trapped in a bit of a cycle, other than some very leading edge councils, there are very few that are putting their money where their mouth is on this stuff. I have seen technology roadmaps in councils recently that are £150 million over five years, and then we are there going we need a few million pounds a year for a digital team – and they think it’s preposterous. My main worry is, can we move it beyond people seeing it as a cheap, free fix?

My take

I’m excited about this. It always struck me as a wasted opportunity that boroughs doing some piecemeal shared services work was being held up as the golden standard for local government tech. London has a real opportunity to work as one, for the benefit of all citizens. This isn’t going to be easy, obviously, particularly given that there are 33 organisations, all with their own cultures, their own needs, and their own people. Change is really bloody hard. But this is a step in the right direction and we will be following it closely.

In his blog post, Campbell called on everyone interested in LOTI to get in touch. If you’re a digital leader in the boroughs, even just a leader with a digital interest, LOTI wants your input. Email FutureGov’s Managing Director Dom (dom@wearefuturegov.com) or LOTI Project Director Adam (adam@wearefuturegov.com) for more information.

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