Local government organisations must foster new partnerships to create innovative digital solutions to the intractable challenges their citizens face.
That was the conclusion of an expert panel at the New Methods conference, recently held in City Hall, London. The conference examined the role of new approaches, methods and tools in helping shape public policy and the delivery of public services on the ground.
Eddie Copeland, director of the London Office for Technology and Innovation, who convened the panel session, said local government must start thinking about how to use technology to start doing things differently. He said:
There’s now a greater range of technologies and a whole suite of approaches that open new doors.
Copeland suggested that embracing creativity involves a degree of risk, so how should local government make the most of these new technologies? Omid Shiraji, consultant CIO at Camden Council, said it’s important to recognise that introducing emerging technology into local government is far from easy.
Camden is a borough of sharp inequalities; it is home to individuals with significant wealth and others who suffer from severe deprivation. Shiraji’s team is using digital technology to try and tackle issues like rough sleeping, knife crime and homelessness, and is working on number of responses:
That includes the inclusive innovation network – we’re trying to showcase the great innovations that happen in a complex London borough, to share those lessons and to introduce and inject that best practice into the DNA of the organisation in order to generate a new ethos in terms of delivery and thinking. We’re right at the beginning but the purpose is to tackle these massively challenging societal issues.
Molly Strauss, principal policy and programme officer at the Greater London Authority, said her organisation thinks carefully about new models of delivery across infrastructure and planning. Like Shiraji, she said believes cross-organisation collaboration is the key to success:
We need to think across London and how we encourage the private sector to work with the public sector to help us plan for growth. We need to bring data to the model, make the case, and then monitor and explain why embracing these new delivery methods can create benefits for the private sector, as well as for London.
Strauss gave the example of her organisation’s work around London’s underground asset register. The initiative focuses on discovering what elements would be required to create a digital tool that helps utilities firms to know exactly where they’re digging. Strauss said her organisation is completing this work alongside the Cabinet Office and local government bodies in the north east of England. Early results have confirmed that collaborative work creates benefits for all organisations:
We’re trying to figure out the needs and challenges that are involved in bringing digital and data together. We’re finding out that there are savings for the private sector and there’s likely to be big benefits in terms of the public sector, too. We’re doing this work to learn. We’re starting in six local authorities in London and the north east to work out what works, what’s legally important, and then we want to roll out what works across the rest of the country.
Encouraging people to work together
Shiraji said his organisation faced “a perfect storm”, where the societal challenges in Camden were becoming more acute and the executive sponsors in the borough were keen to find new methods of delivery. His team has used senior-level backing to bring assets together and create radical solutions to challenging issues:
We’ve done some great stuff around social care and bringing together assets around a person with complex needs. We’ve built a service model around the individual. So, if you take that model and apply it to housing or waste collection, that’s the spirit we’re looking for – how do we network up and identify the fantastic capability so that we can do things differently. The reality is that if you don’t have sponsorship at an executive level then this stuff doesn’t get done. You must have an appetite to try different things and fail.
Nathan Pierce, programme director of Sharing Cities, said his organisation is investigating how London’s boroughs can start to address the creation of new services through smarter technologies. Like the other panellists, Pierce pointed to the importance of collaboration, suggesting that partnerships in an area like procurement can help local government organisations to be more effective:
London is a big city, but we often don’t purchase things with that collective power and instead buy as individual boroughs. If you can encourage mechanisms where boroughs came come together, and have these conversations, then you start to remove risk. We’re working on smart lampposts and everyone has a specific way of purchasing. But if you buy together, you de-risk the procurement, boost collaboration and reduce prices across the city.
While risk can be a deterrent to change, Strauss said it’s crucial to understand that there is also inherent risk involved in continuing even well-established processes. She, once again, re-asserted that a public/private partnership can help to create novel results:
A combination of public and private sector funding can mean we have more flexibility to make the case that the risk of doing things in a new way is worth taking and can help produce new outcomes. We need to pilot quickly and work with the private sector to help generate public benefit. If we can demonstrate the things that work in small instances, than organisations are more likely to come on board in the long term.
Strauss suggested that putting the citizen at the heart of any these projects is crucial to success, something that was echoed by the other panellists. Shiraji said cities must represent their citizens. While he recognised that the private sector can play a role in change, he said that boroughs like his own are finally recognising that big vendors don’t necessarily have all the right answers and that partnerships between local authorities can produce great results:
Boroughs are talking and working together to break down monolithic behaviours. The big vendors need to change – if they don’t change with the times then they are going to be disrupted out of the market. They need to think about how they plug into the wider agenda. Big tech providers must start thinking about how they deliver back to the local community and the social value that they create.