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Local government has “no excuse” for not innovating, says SOLACE digital chief

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 20, 2016
Martin Reeves is the chief executive of Coventry Council and is the digital lead for Society Of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE).

We at diginomica spent a fair bit of time towards the end of last year considering the digital challenges facing local government in the UK - largely as a result of a frustrating event I attended, where it was evident to me that many local authorities were not taking the opportunity of digital seriously.

This resulted in discussions around whether or not local government needed a digital service (as has been established within central government) to help drive some technology ambition throughout the UK.

Personally, I’m still split on this and I think there are strong arguments for and strong arguments against. Both of which I’ve spent time assessing. That aside, what continues to remain clear to me, is that old habits are (more often than not) dying hard at a local level.

I’m at Civica’s annual conference in Manchester this week, where I’ve had the chance to sit in on a number of sessions and listen to plenty of people from local government share their views on digital transformation. And once again I’m left feeling underwhelmed.

This is in no way the fault of Civica, everyone at the event is very complimentary about the company as a service provider. It’s rather the fault of the local government attendees who seem to seriously be struggling with this whole ‘digital’ thing.

I’ve heard plenty people moaning about how it’s near impossible. Or to be more accurate, I’ve heard plenty of people moaning about the lack of appetite internally for digital change. That’s a hard thing to fix.

But the highlight of today was getting to speak to Martin Reeves, who is not only the chief executive for Coventry City Council, but is also the digital lead for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE).

Reeves spoke candidly about the digital capabilities (or lack thereof) in local government, but equally provided some hope for how things will progress in the near future. What made the conversation even more pertinent was that this is a chief executive speaking - not a CTO/CDO/CIO. This is someone at the top of the organisation saying ‘digital is important’.

But given his network within SOLACE, where does Reeves see digital on the agenda for most other chief executives? He said:

It’s a mixed bag, which you’d probably expect. I think if you’d have asked me that question a year ago I would have said it fits nowhere near the top of the chief executive’s agenda and probably in the hand of a few.

If you fast forward a year, I think what we are seeing is that even if they wouldn’t necessarily articulate that digital and all of its forms is an integral of how we get through some of these challenges and opportunities in the future - it will be at large in a number of things that they say.

For example, adult social care, demographic challenges and digital to keep people at home longer. But we’ve still got a long way to go.

However, Reeves admits that when a lot of chief executives do talk about digital, they talk about it in terms of their social media following or some outreach that their council is doing on its web portal. He adds that “it’s not very transformational”. Reeves said:

So it’s not just about it being on the agenda, but have we got the capability to enhance what we do through the power of digital? And I think that’s an early game still.

Top level support

I said to Reeves during our conversation that I had seen evidence of some real innovation at a local level and that there are pockets of talented people getting on with it. However, I rarely see local bodies driving change across the organisation and I proposed that this may be because there is little top level support out there. To which Reeves agreed. He said:

If you’re really going to drive systemic change in organisations and places, you do need that top level vision and support. Not just from chief executives, but from other leaders and non-execs.

Why? Because eventually you are going to be hit with a need for prioritisation, focus and resourcing. We have to challenge partners and others to do this at scale, because otherwise it’s just going to become interesting, but peripheral.

But how do we get that top level engagement? How do we bring digital to the forefront of every chief executive of a council’s agenda? Reeves believes that what’s required is an explanation, or some vision, around how digital can impact some of the ‘big ticket’ services that local authorities provide e.g. adult social care and child services. He said:

Guess what? Digital should run at the heart of all those major transformational blocks. Then the solution and the equation about how you fund that and get the return becomes a different one, rather than just funding digital.

But, as I noted previously in a recent article, there is an inherent tension at the moment across the public sector between the need to ‘become more digital’, which requires attracting digital talent, and cutting costs to reach austerity targets. How do you attract that talent when you’ve got to save 20% on your budget?

Also, does Reeves see the need to commercialize the digital services his council may develop? There’s an argument that in order for digital to go ‘national’ (scaling it up), councils are going to have to collaborate and sell on their services to other councils.

But Reeves thinks that all of this is a bit of a false argument, as he believes there is scope to do it all without it costing the earth and that we should worry less about scaling up services. He said:

We must never fetter the fact there are always going to be a lot of very interesting, relatively small scale, but quite impactful locally stuff going on. And sometimes to commercialise it or extrapolate it out isn’t the answer, certainly with digital. Sometimes you have to allow those 1000 flowers just to bloom.

And I think we have been wrong in the past to try and govern it too much. Sometimes you just need to allow those ideas to happen before you make it industrial, otherwise people fear that microscope being on them, questions about whether it can work at scale etc.

Cost is still a big issue, of course it is, but there is no excuse now for places up and down the country to move at a sensible cost to deliver the kind of innovation they want. That’s the truth. Because you are seeing low cost solutions, that are very flexible and they can be very local. There is no excuse there now.

Reeves also had some thoughts on the in-house versus outsourcing versus use of the private sector discussions that have been taken place of late. He said:

The issue then about whether government can find a model of delivery for the future that’s done in-house/outsourcing/hybrid - I’m completely neutral and the sector should be neutral. Because sometimes the market is the best commercially to deliver at the best cost and the best value, with the best expertise.

We need to challenge ourselves about the capability and capacity of digital within our organisations, about whether we are building workforces for the future that have the right kind of vision, leadership and technical expertise in-house - and this means it’s not just about the technologies that we know now, then we are in trouble.

Because then what you end up with is the brain-drain out of organisations and we end up resourcing the wrong ends of the organisation that aren’t growing.

The Nirvana

Reeves was particularly keen on promoting his ideas around how local authorities should address

Businessman in stream of data and light with blue background © Sergey Nivens –
data when considering digital transformation. He believes that the key to all of this is going to be a rethink in terms of how local authorities use citizen data to deliver services. This is also at the top of central government’s agenda (see the work being done on registers), but has run into trouble in the past (see the troubled NHS project). Reeves said:

The nirvana is when we move to a single integrated view of our residents and our people whereby they have got control of that record, their own data. Then we can bring professionals together through the power of digital.

Reeves adds that the government needs to rethink how it approaches data, in terms of what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“For many, many years all public services got ourselves into an unfortunate fix whereby data sharing protocols, Caldicott principles, concerns of data security and integrity got in the way of a vision of how we can integrate everything.

Fast forward, now all the platforms are there. If people are still worried and concerned about the power of cloud and how we might keep data secure, or open source data, the truth is now that we can secure that. We can integrate at pace. So what’s left is legacy data sets and ownership of that data - which is the people’s data, it’s not ours. So this is a leadership challenge, it’s not a data challenge.

There is a greater good here about sharing information to improve people’s lives and services. I think the leadership challenge for us over the next five years is to break down those silos. The technological solutions are there, we can do a much lower cost with higher security. It’s about leaders, including chief executives, understanding that unless we integrate and get a single view, we are going to struggle.

We’ve got to allow the the communities and the people to actually own and interrogate and use the power of their own data. It’s not for organisations to hold that ring, it needs to be a lot more expansive. It’s a big shift, but this has to be the hallmark for the next decade for public services.

My take

There is a lot to digest here and I’m going to need some time to properly mull it all over. But it was hugely refreshing to sit down with a chief executive of a city council that had some solid ideas about the capabilities of digital. We need more of these.

I like Reeves’ comments about letting 1000 flowers bloom. In the past national programmes to implement vanilla IT across the country have failed, because of the failure to recognise that there are local needs and no everywhere is the same. Because of the cloud, we now don’t really need centrally held infrastructure, but rather we need guidelines on standards, governance and perhaps some reusable platforms?

Maybe we do get a bit sidetracked about everyone moving at the same pace and to the beat of the same drum, when actually educating, knowledge sharing and empowering people to do what works for them might be best? The risk here though is that too much leniency could mean no-one does anything and we continue at this very slow pace…

What I’d perhaps like to see, which would help, is a postcode-based rating system for how good digital services are in your area. Maybe that would help? Lots to think on and I’m sure I will be revisiting this very soon, but if you have any ideas please do send them my way.

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