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Are we still talking about digital transformation?

Are we still talking about digital transformation?

In my last post on digital transformation, I argued that ‘digital’ and ‘transformation’ mean specific, different things to ‘IT’ and ‘change’. But does it do any harm to use them in our efforts to achieve better outcomes for our citizens and organisations?

Essentially, there are two sides to the challenge. Calling something ‘digital’ sets it apart as something special, which is unhelpful when the ambition is to shift whole organisation cultures. Talking about ‘transformation’ puts us on a path to big-bang changes that are disconnected from people’s needs and capabilities.

Digital: an exclusive club we shouldn’t want to be part of

This argument says that adopting internet-age tools and culture into a special team that calls itself ‘digital’, and has a special leader — the Chief Digital Officer — is a bad idea.

This is partly because the people in that team might be tempted to see themselves as better than the rest of the organisation. The rest of the organisation will see ‘digital’ as something that they don’t have to get to grips with. Because those specialists over there are ‘digitising’ the organisation.

The organisation can shirk ownership and leave it all to the digital folks. Change is resisted as coming from outside, rather than being an organic response to recognising that service purpose isn’t being fulfilled. It’s also worth noting, as Perform Green’s Founder, Barney Smith, puts it, “We don’t have a pen and paper department.”

In one of his characteristic, self-described rants, Dave Clark pointed out that the things people find valuable about ‘digital’ organisations were achievable before the word ‘digital’ was used to describe them. For example, it’s always been possible to have a healthy working culture, open and progressive management, and a place where people enjoy their work.

Focus on the ‘doing’

So how can we adopt the tools, techniques and culture of internet-age organisations in a way where everyone feels part of the work? It is probably better achieved by ‘doing’ and letting people experience the benefits than appealing to a desire to be digital.

Let’s add another layer. Important though it is, ‘digital’ is not the aim. Most people working in this space would agree that we are aiming for service transformation, leading to better outcomes for the customers of the organisation. If we focus on the digital aspect, we can miss some of the deeper and more important things that need to change. Is the organisation’s purpose understood in terms of the people it serves? Does its business model fit that purpose?

Carl Haggerty published a number of impassioned posts about digital as a distraction. He also wrote about his evolution from a digital leader to a leader working on the system.

As Paul Brewer wrote in response to the news that West Midlands Combined Authority are recruiting a Chief Digital Officer, there are many other jobs that need doing. There must be other important roles filled to ensure that organisations working together in the region succeed in transforming people’s lives.

Organisations are like organisms, not robots in disguise

I keep using the t-word in this post. It’s an appealing idea — making a major change in people’s lives or an organisation’s capabilities. For me, transformation has always evoked the image of a caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly. It has a completely different structure and new abilities. But perhaps there is a better metaphor for digital transformation — the evolution of organisms through lots of small adaptations over time.

Organisations are not machines with moving parts that confirm to strict physical laws. They can’t be acted on logically in a mathematical or engineering sense. We’ve been seduced by the simplicity of this idea in social science and business management. There are a host of reasons, not least that it’s such a powerful engine of ‘progress’ in science and industry.

But the reality is that organisations are more like living organisms. They are composed of reflective people, whose actions within an organisation’s structure lead it to evolve and change. Informed by purpose, they ‘inspect and adapt’ to what’s going on around them, rather than ‘blueprints’.

Evolution can lead to dramatic changes, but they happen over long periods of time and in response to environmental pressures, rather than plans. Of course, evolution also sees discontinuity and the extinction of old orders.

When there is radical change, those better suited for new conditions succeed and others fade away.

Is Transformation just too much Big Design Up Front?

Transformation is very much about plans. We define visions, future states, target operating models and multi-year programmes of delivery with complicated intersecting project plans and programme tranches.

All of these methods share the following underlying set of beliefs.

  • It is possible to define a future model that will meet stakeholders requirements and solve the business problems of today.
  • If we spend enough time capturing details of those requirements and understanding pain points in how we work today, we can design solutions up front for implementation in the future.
  • A new and different set of people (the transformation team) need to be brought in to transform the organisation (a bit like the people digitising it, mentioned above).

Does anyone actually know of a transformation programme that delivered the blueprint it started out with? One that didn’t have to change course, de-scope significant parts of the design, re-assess the business case mid-implementation and find different sources of benefits because the original assumptions turned out to be flawed?

Can anyone think of a programme where the people involved in and affected by the transformation didn’t turn around at the end and point out that they could have told leaders that problems would occur, if only they had been properly engaged?

Focus on the future

Of course, it’s possible to do anything better or worse, and you could argue that I’m just reflecting on the problems of poor practice. But there’s something more fundamental at work. We’ve come to appreciate the practices and principles of being agile organisations across the public sector A deep challenge to the traditional ways of thinking about policy and change has emerged.

It is received wisdom within Enterprise Architecture (EA) that it’s better to spend time on envisioning the future state than on documenting the as-is. This is usually said to be because EA teams can go into a darkened room to map the as-is then emerge two years later. They come up with a highly complex model that describes where the organisation was, only to find that it has changed while they weren’t looking.

I subscribed to this convention myself when I was a Chief Enterprise Architect. I encouraged my Enterprise Architects to focus on the future that we were trying to achieve. But the truth is that, all too often, we ended up with science fiction descriptions of a future landscape that nobody delivering services could recognise. The breakthrough for us came when we re-imagined Enterprise Architecture and design in relation to agile delivery.

Applying agile practice in local government

I set out trying to understand how agile practices could be successfully applied within a traditional public sector context, like local government. To do that, I explored a lot of the thinking that GDS colleagues were sharing in their blogs. I also investigated Scott Ambler’s Disciplined Agile Delivery framework, which suggested a number of practical ways of bringing architecture and agile delivery together effectively.

Ambler describes the anti-pattern of ‘Big Modelling Up Front‘, which neatly summarises reasons that Transformation Programme Blueprinting is a flawed process. And Matt Edgar points out that agile organisations don’t need “the picture on the box”:

“Agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B — it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement. Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.”

As Matt says, we need to bring empathy back into organisations. That’s how we understand how the people and their emotions construct the systems they work in. It’s also how we enable rapid and flexible organisational responses when unmet need is sensed.

These challenges to organisations are entrenched in the command and control, planning and prediction, discontinuous change mindsets. But such changes in approach are possible. David Marquette shows this in his must-read short book, Turn the ship around!, about a US Navy nuclear submarine crew (surely the epitome of a command and control context).

It’s not either/or, it’s both/and

For most people and organisations that know they need to change, the reality is they need a blended approach, helped by new technologies and ways of thinking. There may be good reasons for rejecting big transformation approaches. But people want to know why they are heading for a new place. They need to have some idea of what it looks like and why it’s attractive.

I discussed this with my colleague, Tracy Dodds, Digital Services Manager in Bristol City Council. She pointed out that what’s needed is, “Small steps towards a bigger picture, with wiggle room to alter the path.” That respects the value of agile approaches and gives people some idea about the destination.

And even though we don’t want to abdicate responsibility to some elite digital unit, in practice organisations are caught in a Catch 22. People in the organisation often can’t break out of the day to day and think differently. It’s difficult for them to adopt new ways of working enabled by digital technology, because they can’t clear the initial space needed to reflect and learn.

Some kind of change agent, intervention or leadership is needed to help the organisation to evolve. We see this in the role of agile or lean coaches, as well as organisational development and systems thinking interventions and change agents.

Providing the catalyst

This recognition inspired the creation of Perform Green. Barney Smith saw the value of stepping out from the day to day and offering organisations the kind of role that could work alongside people within the system. Perform Green provide a catalyst. We make space for people to reflect and then help them to step up and take action.

However, it’s also important that those working in organisations see that there is congruence from the very top. They have to see that the leader or Chief Executive supports new approaches. The Chief Executive of Stockport Borough Council is a great example.

I see a number of other great examples around the country in the public sector organisations I speak to. The ‘digital’ and/or ‘transformation’ teams work hard to make change and adopting new technologies everyone’s responsibility. They focus on culture and unlocking capability as much as bringing shiny new tools into the organisation.

And they also know that being able to use shiny new tools can be a way to unlock new ways of working and thinking. Those approaches may have previously been kept off the table by processes and systems that are unfit for purpose.

Good digital teams work closely with, or embedded in, teams that deliver services. They bring the user’s experience into sharp contrast so that the whole organisation can see what it’s really like for the people they serve.

Hearing and seeing how local government processes affect people’s attempts to live better lives has an emotional impact that helps to motivate change. Rapid service prototyping by the people who deliver that service can lead to better outcomes quicker than a blueprinted, planned programme.

People doing it right

I implied earlier that roles like Chief Digital Officer or Head of Digital Transformation could be seen as the wrong response. I want to conclude this post with some counterexamples. People who are showing that leadership from within an organisation is essential to make the space needed for better ways of working.

People like Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer in London, Martin Wallace, Chief Digital Officer in Scottish Local Government’s Digital Office, and Mark Gannon in Sheffield City Council are all good examples. They are instrumental in setting a vision and making spaces for new ways of thinking and working. They then bring in those people and organisations who can help them catalyse change across the whole of their local public services.

Great leadership is knowing that building coalitions of the willing and able is the key to spreading real change for our citizens.

Gavin Beckett is Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Perform Green. This post was originally published on the Perform Green website.

How could UK local government become platform organisations?

How could UK local government become platform organisations?

Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I previously wrote about the concept of local government as a platform. My post looked at the need to focus on the value propositions and key activities of a platform organisation and how they are significantly different to those of a traditional service delivery organisation.

In this post, I’ll take a more detailed look at what that means. I’ll cover what councils need to be capable of if they are to move away from managing the decline of the service provider model. And I’ll explore how they can nurture creative responses to social, political and economic issues across their localities.

Local government is not just another public service provider in a locality. It has a special role as steward of a resilient and successful place in a competitive global landscape.

The council has to be effective at managing democratic governance and translate community needs and political priorities into strategy. It must build its capabilities as a facilitator to support a platform business model. To enable citizens and service providers to successfully co-create services, the council must engage communities, remove barriers, and ensure space for innovation.

A typical service provider model maps neatly to the traditional management consulting model of the value chain. Inputs are transformed by the operations of the business and outputs are then provided to the market.

This is a relatively simplistic model. It focuses improvement on finding waste and removing it within the organisation. Greater efficiency leads to more value added relative to effort and customers are more satisfied with products and services.

Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

It is immediately obvious that this doesn’t really work in a public service context. We seldom deal with ‘customers’ who want our services and the needs we try to meet are complex and social, rather than consumer wants.

Local government deals in a world of wicked problems and ambiguity. The outcomes we seek may be years or even decades away and many different actors are part of the solution.

So we need to think in terms of an ecosystem — a network of connected communities of interest — all of which have a role to play in creating the problem and the solution. We need to rethink the model of how the council adds value, from a simple chain to being a participant in this ecosystem. Inevitably, that means that a new set of capabilities are required. They must be different to those that a lean service provider would focus on.

Traditional approaches to business architecture and target operating models (TOM) design see organisations as linear and layered:

Very few councils have internal business architecture, service design or systems thinking practices. Those that have tackled whole-organisation operating model change in the past have tended to work with one of the traditional management consultancies, such as PwC, KPMG, Deloitte, Accenture, Ernst & Young and PA Consulting.

The frameworks and mental models consultancies brought to business architecture or TOM work would typically look something like this:

Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The work to populate this kind of framework would largely be internally focused. It would involve gathering lots of data about activities and identifying where work was duplicated and fragmented across functions. The aim would be to find and remove inefficiency.

Removing wasteful work that adds no value to our citizens is important, so there can be value in the outputs of such a TOM. But there is a major flaw in this approach that makes it unfit for purpose in the networked society.

If you conceive the organisation as a box and focus on its internal workings, you miss the essential point that a council is just one part of a wider ecosystem. In fact, this is the case for all organisations, as Tom Graves’s map of the enterprise context space shows.

But it is especially true for local public services, given the wicked problems they are concerned with and the desire to deliver outcomes for communities and localities, not just products and services.

Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

We need to embed the ideas of system leadership that children’s services and the NHS have been working with for some years. We also need to embed the concepts from systems thinking into this new and better model of the business architecture for a council. It starts with the ecosystem and works outside-in (spot the parallel with the idea of starting with user needs).

Taking inspiration from Tom Graves’ work on Enterprise Canvas, we can draw a context model and capability model of a local public services ecosystem:

Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Porter’s classic value chain — Dinesh Pratap Singh — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

What is the key point of this model? It separates the capabilities of the council into those it must retain, create and improve on. Doing that will allow it to become the system leader and locus of democratic accountability that only local government can be.

The capabilities shown outside of the orange box are necessary for organisations that provide services and support to people and communities. They may come from any part of the ecosystem — public, private, or voluntary/civic.

Is the platform business model just outsourcing by another name?

At this point, I want to take a short detour from my main argument.

I’m aware that I’ve used the same management speak that big consultancies employ in their traditional operating models. I also know that this turns off people who are doing the doing of local public services. It’s also a problem for those who live and work in the communities we’re thinking about.

There is cynicism and suspicion in the local government workforce and amongst critics of government. They will see this as a veneer of words that provide cover for cuts and outsourcing.

On a personal level, nothing could be further from my social and political views. But it’s also really important that we can get beyond this apparent conflict for the success of people and communities living across the UK.

Yes, changing councils from service providers into facilitators means that people working in service delivery jobs will no longer be employed by councils. It may mean that there are fewer of them.

But this is only because a number of the jobs we do are required because there is so much wasteful activity in the system.

So many things provide no value to citizens and are meaningless and boring for staff. For example, several times I’ve seen people employed to print electronic documents and then scan them back into an “electronic document management” system!

Public money — raised from people and businesses (that are full of people) — should not be wasted on this kind of activity. Far from being a right-wing inspired agenda, what I’m trying to define is a creative response to austerity imposed by central government, itself a response to a new economic paradigm.

The local government as a platform approach rejects simple command and control cost-cutting. Instead, it looks for ways that people inside and outside public service organisations can develop real solutions to individual and community problems. The aim is to direct the creativity, time and money in the system towards valuable activities and outcomes.

It’s an approach that embraces public service ethos, community and social value, as well as individual agency. It is aimed more at wellbeing and achieving “the good life” than financial targets. There are strong resonances here with the citizen-centric approach to smart cities and smart society.

The oft-cited example of this in public services is the Dutch health-care organisation, Buurtzorg. There, a large number of motivated and self-directed staff deliver services directly to people with needs. They are supported by a very small number of back-office staff. Buurtzorg’s digital platform helps them reduce wasteful manual paperwork to a minimum.

How can we reshape councils to focus on work that genuinely advances outcomes for people and their communities? It needs everyone working for the council to be doing things that are valuable and necessary. It also needs private and voluntary sector suppliers and partners to be doing the same.

This is not a recipe for unaccountable private companies to provide poor services in pursuit of unwarranted profits. It’s a call for all providers — public, private and voluntary — to be explicitly and publicly measured on their achievement of real outcomes.

Remember that one key hallmark of platform organisations is a transparent customer experience. The age of reference practices seen on platforms such as TripAdvisor, eBay and Amazon Marketplace need translating to more important services that meet citizens and communities needs.

New and improved capabilities of a platform organisation

This brings us back to the capability model. The council, in it’s stewardship role, needs to manage identity, trust and the activities involved in matching and building networks.

Capabilities include the business functions, roles and technology components needed to support the organisations ability to act, so it’s worth looking at some specific areas that underpin a platform business model. How do platform organisations focus their investment differently from service providers?

The Platform Revolution outlines their most important activities and technical enablers:

1. Platforms must support the ‘core interaction’ between producers and consumers, where they exchange information, goods or services, and currency.

  • Every platform interaction starts with an exchange of information, through the platform, which enables the participants to decide whether to proceed.
  • If they proceed, participants then exchange the goods and/or services that are of value to the consumer. This could be through the platform if they are intangible, but often outside of it. Delivery and receipt is tracked via the platform.
  • Finally, participants exchange some form of currency to reflect the value of the goods and/or services. This may be money and payment may be required to route through the platform. It may also be other forms of value, such as ‘likes’ or reviews that add to the standing and reputation of producers.

2. The core interaction involves the participants, the thing that is of value, and the filtering mechanism provided by the platform. This is critical to success. People want to find goods and services that meet their needs quickly and easily.

Enabling this activity technically involves establishing trusted identities of consumers and providers. The same applies to the data and user experience designs that will enable good quality matching of needs with services.

Most successful commercial platforms begin with one core interaction and focus their design on that. Only once they have a critical mass of consumers and providers do they begin to extend outwards to additional interactions that provide more value. How could this work in local government, with its wide range of historic accountabilities? Where would we start?

One option that comes to mind from my experience leading digital transformation in local government is health and social care. This may sound like a very broad and complex area, and in some ways it is. But it’s also been the focus of a lot of thought and local public service design over the past few years, due to increasing needs for these services in all areas of the country.

Most councils, their health system partners, and many suppliers, have looked at ways of bringing together people with needs and service providers through technology. But in most cases, the approach that’s been taken is not one of a platform business model.

Councils either commission service providers to deliver against specific outcomes, deliver services themselves, or provide ‘information, advice and guidance’, online directories that allow people to search for services provided by a wide range of providers.

At first glance, these directories sound like the core of a platform approach. But in most cases, they are not designed around user needs and do not enable an ecosystem of providers to develop and sell products and services directly, with the council acting as the platform broker, governing quality and ensuring trust.

When I last looked at the products and services in this market, only one supplier had broken the mould. They designed their solution around needs as people would express them, enabling them to find and rate service providers. They’d built the embryo of a technology platform.

But this is a starting point. If the tools needed for councils to manage identity, trust and matching across the platform ecosystem were developed, we could see this grow into a new approach that has a significant impact.

Gavin Beckett is Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Perform Green. This post was originally published on the Perform Green blog.

Other articles by Gavin for Perform Green:

Changing the local government technology market

Changing the local government technology market

We need to talk about the state of the local government technology market.

Last year saw a new push to highlight the importance of “Govtech” and “Urbantech“. The aim is to define and shape the perception of this as a distinct market that’s worth investing in, just as Fintech has done for cryptocurrency, pure internet challenger banks and related services.

There is much to applaud about this positive attempt to improve the market through the mechanisms of venture capital. However, those of us who have worked in local government tech for the past few decades know that there’s a rather grubby underside to the market.

While we are directly employed by government bodies it’s difficult to talk openly. So we sit in corners at conferences and pass on warnings and war stories to each other. The hope is that we might save colleagues and tax payers from the pain and financial loss that we have suffered.

Now that I’m out of direct council employment I want to say more. But of course, it’s still potentially problematic to point straight at specific vendors.

I am going to attempt to thread a path through the danger and say something valuable. As you will read, I think there are serious problems. There are important challenges that need facing and addressing. Only then will we start to see what I believe is needed — meaningful change.

Local government suppliers don’t meet user needs

Suppliers need to understand user needs

Let me start with a blanket statement. With a very small number of exceptions, the established local government technology market is populated by companies that fundamentally do not understand user research.

They do not start with user needs or design great user experiences. And they do not use the tools and techniques of the internet age to deliver working software rapidly, so that real users get value from it quickly and iteratively.

These companies have formed over decades through acquisition and aggregation. They have hoovered up rivals and complementary companies with products in different local government lines of business.

Rising in the 1980s as various Localgov functions first computerised, these companies were frequently started by a combination of people who worked in the service area and people who saw the potential of computing to automate processes.

At their heart, most see local government as a set of separate functions: housing, revenue collection, benefits administration, planning, highways maintenance, docks maintenance, lighting maintenance, parks maintenance and more.

Yes, I deliberately listed all of those separately. Because heaven forbid anyone should think that these are all types of fixed asset and could be managed from a common system.

The software they created back in the day was based on the old paradigms of mainframe and mini-computer software architecture. Some are still fundamentally structured in that way, although most have eventually designed and released a PC fat client or even a Web 1.0 style interface.

I know many that started database migrations from things like PICK Universe to a standard relational database in the 1990s. Or they ported all of their modules from 4GLs, like PowerBuilder or Visual FoxPro, to a more modern codebase. In some cases, as far as I know, they still haven’t managed to finish it.

Suppliers need to understand user needs

A key practice of these suppliers has been to define a comprehensive and impressive sounding product and market it to council services. Only once a few have bought into the concept and signed contracts would the company try to actually create the software.

It’s very easy to promise that a product can integrate with anything and contain a list of features when it’s a figment of someone’s imagination and a cleverly crafted set of slides.

Unfortunately, during the implementation project it often turns out impossible to produce the goods. The council finds it’s spent a lot of money on something that doesn’t meet what it thought were essential requirements. (Of course, there’s a whole other perspective here, coming from agile software development research, which tells us that 64% of software features are rarely or never used and big requirements up front are a ‘bad thing’. But that’s another blog post entirely…)

For those of you who know the Boston Matrix, pretty much all of the software systems I’m talking about sit firmly in the cash-cow quadrant. For decades, the suppliers have milked them with minimal investment. And to be fair, why wouldn’t they?

We as customers have acquiesced in this. Our behaviour hasn’t given the suppliers any reason to worry. We complain, but in general our only alternatives have been one of the other two or three mid-tier suppliers whose products are scarcely any different.

Our service delivery colleagues have been highly suspicious of IT’s attempts to suggest more modern but apparently riskier approaches to developing or commissioning new services from more internet-age suppliers.

As a result, we tend not to apply any leverage or actually vote with our procurement feet and leave the products behind.

Suppliers should understand internet-age security, accessibility and good design

It’s not only the software architecture and user experience of these systems that are generally woeful. More seriously, in this connected age, very few of the suppliers that work with local government with properly understand good security principles and practices.

Even those providing software as a service via G-Cloud, who claim to be compliant with security requirements, often do not assess the security of their data centres through standard means, like pen tests, or any concept of encrypting data at rest.

When you speak to them about these things, they don’t demonstrate an appreciation of the value of security. They don’t explain that they have other means of achieving defence in depth etc. Instead, they tend to say that, “no other council customers have been worried about security.” They then insist that we pay to pen test their services ourselves. I think we would all agreed that a basic level of Infosec understanding is fundamental for services that store personal data on citizens.

Of course, Infosec isn’t just about confidentiality and integrity — availability is also important. You’d think that a SaaS provider on G-Cloud whose product is intended to offer a generic capability for use across multiple digital services (let’s say Booking as an example) would be managing their “cloud” hosted infrastructure according to modern practices.

For instance, how about insulating their various customer’s instances from each other, so that changes applied to one would not affect others? Or having such good continuous integration and test-driven development practices that they had found and removed any issues before moving to a live release of code across a multi-customer platform. That would certainly be the experience of customers of e.g. Salesforce.

But no, sadly even “market-leading” local government SaaS providers have been found to have no concept of technical change/release management in a multi-tenanted cloud hosting environment. It’s quite frustrating when your public services are unavailable to citizens who want to access e.g. the ability to book an appointment to register a birth, because the supplier has taken out their platform due to changes to another customer’s instance

And it’s not just security. Accessibility and responsive web design are two other topics that are like alien worlds to most local government suppliers. And yet these are not new disciplines. There are many examples of digital creative agencies and web app providers selling to the wider market who employ thousands of skilled and knowledgeable designers and developers, building accessible and responsive websites and services every day.

The inescapable conclusion is the the few mid-tier suppliers who have monopolised the market for the past three decades are simply not looking up and out at the rest of the industry.

What is stopping the market from changing?

You would think that by now, some fast-moving challengers would have entered the local government technology market and eaten the lunch of these slow moving dinosaurs.

A small number of startups have focused on local government, but their penetration into the mainstream is very limited. Why is that? Why hasn’t one of these them ripped through the market like Amazon ripped through online retail? Why hasn’t the old world been torn down? I’ll take a look at some research on this in a moment.

It wouldn’t be fair to ignore some efforts to change that I’ve noticed. At least a couple of mid-tier suppliers have recently bought — or created from several parts — units badged “digital” or focused around a new product line clearly informed by user research and product-managed in a consciously internet-age way.

It’s too early to say whether these units will mark a change that spreads to other parts of the companies. They may still get absorbed into the legacy culture and lose their way. I’ve not seen public deployments of their products or heard in detail how they work with local government customers. Let’s hope this is the start of some change.

So far, this has been a very personal, anecdotal view, based on my lived experience over 20 years working in local government technology services. But as I mentioned earlier, recent research points to some of the factors contributing to this problem.

Public was founded to tackle the fact that the public sector has yet to be as effectively digitally transformed as many other markets, such as retail, banking or food delivery. Their mission is to get more technology startups and digital entrepreneurs to focus on public sector problems. They can help help by providing the right combination of insight, networks and capital.

Public is also attempting to widen the horizons of public sector decision makers and technology professionals through events and publications. That includes a recent report titled, The Rise of Urbantech: How New Technology is Reinventing Local Public Services. (Rural district and county colleagues, please take a deep breath, bite your tongues for a moment and ignore the implication that only city authorities get to work with new tech!)

To quote from the report, the fundamental assumption here is that “…startups are changing our world, our society and our economies with increasing pace. It is about time they were given the chance to change government for the better, too.”

Public notes a number of characteristics of the local government technology market that underlie the issues that I comment on above.

  • Almost half of local government IT spending (47%) goes to the top 20 suppliers.
  • Although the proportion of spending going to smaller firms is increasing, it is doing so more slowly than in central government.
  • A 2014 analysis of eight city councils showed that medium to large-sized businesses accounted for 98% of IT spending.

In their research on local government procurement practice and policy, Public noted that, “local authority buyers tend to be reliant on sectoral networks to surface products and win trust around new ideas,” and that “it is very difficult for even the most savvy and informed buyers to have full visibility of the market.”

This leads to an estimate that local councils are aware of only 3% of the available solutions. On the other hand, the number of bidders for the average local government contract is low — around 3–4 — so procurements aren’t as competitive as they should be.

Hope for the future — changing the local government technology market

I’m not going to end this post on a negative note. There are many councils whose good leadership and professional practice are breaking the mould, often with outside assistance.

Public reference the increased use of “challenges” to stimulate the market, including those launched recently by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. And I know of a number of instances where great work is being done by a new generation of suppliers under a new generation of CIO and Digital Leaders.

That includes the progress made by Bristol City Council between 2012 and 2017, when a strategic approach to sourcing was designed and implemented with the support of Perform Green. It led to the creation of a Commissioning & Supplier Relationship Management service and a major drive to using the G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes and Specialists frameworks to source innovative new products and services from SMEs.

Public’s UrbanTech report lists a large number of new startups targeting the sector and TechUK ran a #councilofthefuture initiative in 2017. It is to be hoped that the dialogue between innovative new providers, forward thinking local government leaders, and the mainstream of suppliers will lead to meaningful change.

Gavin Beckett is Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Perform Green. Other articles by Gavin for Perform Green:

Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 — An Assault on the Senses

Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 — An Assault on the Senses

At first impressions Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 is a technological assault on the senses — with an enormous Expo area full of city infrastructure ranging from smart vehicles to data visualisations. Many vendors attending are looking to sell their technology solutions and many cities and countries are seeking partners to invest in their smart city infrastructure.

Electric Hybrid Waste Truck at Smart City Expo World Congress 2017
Huawei Intelligent Operation Center at Smart City Expo World Congress 2017

Creating a People Centric Programme

However, it doesn’t take much effort to sense a strong current of people centric, bottom up, participatory city philosophy that has been woven into the programme — partly through the influence of people like Mara Balestrini joining the programme committee.

On panels like –

  • “Collective efforts to tackle global urban challenges”
  • “Beyond the Smart City: Democratizing innovation while putting citizens first”
  • and “Digital Fabrication: Transforming Citizens from Consumers to Producers”

Speakers from across the world talked about the ways in which they were refocusing on the people in the city, fostering what Perform Green are calling “smart society”. We also heard inspirational talks from people like Jason Burton and Beth Simone Noveck who shared their experiences of creating the Better Block organisation and bringing people into governance and policy processes through CrowdLaw.

There is amazing work going on in so many places, but to keep this post from becoming a novel I’m going to focus on Barcelona — in part because of the link between it and my home city of Bristol, where we launched the “Bristol approach to citizen sensing” a couple of years ago — shaped by Knowle West Media Centre and Mara Balestrini’s “innovation with impact” consultancy Ideas for Change. It was this project, alongside the delivery of Bristol’s Smart City Operations Centre, which contributed to Bristol taking the top spot in the Huawei Smart City Index 2017.

The Barcelona Philosophy

In Barcelona, under the political leadership of Mayor Ada Colau, with Francesca Bria as Chief Technology & Digital Innovation Officer, this approach has been taken to a new level, within a comprehensive framework that’s both conceptual and practical. Francesca introduced their approach with the stirring phrase –

“There is no digital revolution without democratic revolution”

Francesca Bria shares Barcelona’s philosophy — “no digital revolution without democratic revolution”

In my last post on Smart Cities I used the phrases “top down” and “bottom up” to contrast city/tech vendor led projects with citizen led work, and many other people at the Smart City World Congress used this language. But Francesca Bria took a different approach, saying:

“We want to move away from a top down / bottom up dichotomy… usually you frame it as top down is government, bottom up is people — how about creating a synergistic way, where the government is transformed by the people… meaning that you integrate the top down and bottom up, in a way that you really give and empower the citizens into taking political decisions”

Barcelona have realised this philosophy through their adoption of deep participatory processes, and implemented the digital technology to support them in the form of “Decidim Barcelona

Francesca Bria describes Barcelona’s Decidim project

Decidim is far more than an open source version of the e-petitions and consultation products that UK councils are used to. The project/platform encompasses design, training courses, legal frameworks, user and facilitation communities amongst other things. It goes beyond consultation to support participatory democracy, helping communities self-organise, to co-produce strategic planning, run participatory budgeting, and implement distributed decision making.

Bria strongly articulated the council’s vision for this technology enabled response to the crisis of democracy that so many countries and regions are facing — declining voter turnout, high dissatisfaction with the system, and an increase in populism and right-wing nationalist movements that encourage a turn to focus inwards and blame ‘the other’.

In this context, an insistence on starting with the citizen and social needs isn’t a negative, anti-vendor choice. It’s a profoundly democratic and humanist approach aimed at the good of all who live, work and do business in the city. And projects like Decidim aren’t isolated pilots, they sit in a city government wide policy framework, that includes a technology code of practice, a commitment to open standards, open source and innovative procurement practices.

Barcelona’s digital service standard
Barcelona’s code of technology practices

I spoke briefly to Francesca Bria — she was in demand! — and asked her if Barcelona had been inspired by and borrowed from GDS in the U.K. She agreed that they had looked to the way GDS set out their principles, technology code of practice and the digital service standard, but had then adapted them to fit the context of Barcelona as a city, rather than a national government agency. Colleagues in LocalGov Digital will recognise this as similar to the Local Government Digital Service Standard that we created and adopted in recent years.

They aren’t afraid to tackle seriously complex technical and social problems either. The Bristol Approach included the concept of a “data commons” — where the value of data generated by individuals and communities isn’t appropriated by corporations or the state but is retained for ongoing use and benefit of the people. But for various reasons the project didn’t manage to implement this concept fully. Now Barcelona, along with Amsterdam and a number of other partners, is in the first year of a major project to create the technology platform needed to ensure “data sovereignty” is respected and implemented securely.

The Decode Project

The Decode project is building on blockchain technology, but extending it to be “privacy aware” and making it possible to provide “zero knowledge proofs” — a bit like the concept of attribute exchange that’s been talked about in relation to GOV.UK Verify — the ability to assert that an individual has a characteristic that makes them eligible to do something (vote, request a service) without actually revealing what that characteristic is.

The Decode project explained on Barcelona’s stand at Smart City Expo World Congress 2017

Decode has only just started, and the next year will see prototypes developed, piloted and a programme of engagement and community building.

A similar approach is being taken to the traditional smart city use cases of connecting sensors, data and operations centre visualisation systems — using Sentilo, an open standards, open source platform.

Francesca Bria outlines the use of Sentilo as an open City OS

So the Barcelona Smart City story certainly incorporates serious high tech. But it does so firmly in the service of the people who are served by the city, and does so by creating “Privacy protecting, rights respecting, data services” as Francesca called them.

Be a Shaper & Maker of Technology

In his summing up of the panel “Beyond the Smart City: Democratising Innovation while putting citizens first”, Geoff Mulgan of Nesta commented that ten years ago cities were “takers of technology” (choosing to buy or not buy), but now they are “shapers and makers of technology”. To be successful, cities need new capabilities — they need entrepreneurs within the organisation, new forms of governance, to invest in multi-disciplinary cross-council teams, and to take procurement, technology staff, managers, and senior officials through an agile digital transformation.

How Can UK Cities Tackle this Challenge?

This sounds hard, and in these times of public sector austerity many senior leaders are seeing their organisations through purely financial or accountancy lenses… so how can UK cities tackle this challenge? To paraphrase the message from Turin’s Paola Pisano and Francesca Bria:

“We have to build new coalitions, link between cities, to collaborate on creating the future we want to live in.”

This mission resonates strongly with the idea of a “coalition of the willing and able” that Andrew Collinge and Theo Blackwell both spoke of at Smart City Expo, in relation to encouraging collaboration amongst the 33 London Boroughs within the Greater London Authority’s strategic scope — which is also relevant to the whole of the UK’s local authority landscape. All of us working in the public sector and in organisations dedicated to improving public service should be willing to work together to find better ways to support the growth of more engaged participatory democracy — so if you are able, seek out these coalitions and get involved.

Read more from my Thought Leadership series

Local Government as a Platform — beyond “delivering services digitally”

From Smart Cities to Smart Societies — The Story so Far

Can We Still Talk about Digital Transformation?

If you would like to discuss how to integrate a people centric approach into your smart city plans then contact Perform Green to speak to Gavin or one of our team.

Local Government as a Platform — beyond “delivering services digitally”

Local Government as a Platform — beyond “delivering services digitally”

Between 2014–15 the “Government as a Platform” (GaaP) concept — what it is and how we create it — was the subject of a lot of Twitter traffic and generated blog posts from a number of people in the local government digital community. At the time I felt there was a missing dimension to the debate, specifically in the Local Government space which has been my professional world as Chief Enterprise Architect and then Head of Digital Transformation for Bristol until October 2017.

Local Government as a Platform — Connecting Services for Citizens

Creating a Platform Business Model in Local Government

Now that I’ve left Bristol, joining Perform Green as their Chief Innovation and Research Officer, on reflection it seems to me that the debate has moved on very little in the past two years. Therefore it feels like a good time to look back at where the discussion around Local Government as a Platform started and in the coming weeks to look at what it would take to create a platform business model in local government. I’m also going to be exploring the related topics of smart society, digital transformation and the local government technology market in a series of blog posts.

Engaged & Critical Thinkers Bringing New Ideas

Everything I share in this post has been shared with me by someone else, I’ve been lucky to have a number of clear sighted, engaged and critical thinkers to work with, who’ve pointed me to a variety of new ideas.

Three of the best articulations of GaaP in 2015 came from blog posts. The first was from Dave Briggs, emerging from his practical experiences leading Adur & Worthing council’s Digital and Design service — “What I’m talking about when I’m talking about Government as a Platform“.

The second is referenced by Dave — Sean Tubbs’ post “Platform is a Business Model. Not a Tech Stack“. Both of these posts draw strongly on Mark Thompson’s articulation of digital government — summarised well in his Computerweekly article “Where next for UK government as a platform and GDS?

The thing that all of them get totally right shouts out to us from the title of Sean’s post — Platform is a Business Model. I won’t repeat the details of their arguments, but it’s worth highlighting a few statements.

Dave Briggs says:

“Digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.”

and points out that platform business models use the internet

“to directly connect people with needs, with those who can meet those needs”

This is the most important element of the platform business model
 — the role of local government changes from directly providing services, and directly commissioning services to providing ways for demand to be aggregated and made visible to the market, and ways for the market to develop and provide services to people.

Most of the posts about GaaP take us to the brink of this point, but then pull back. For instance Sean Tubbs says:

“So, put simply, ‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers…

…Government is primarily a supplier of value-add services to the ever growing demand of the citizens of the UK…

…Government has an opportunity to transform itself to a digital business model by supplying services to citizens via a standardised common platform.”

Government Cannot Just be a Service Provider

For me, this misses the point, the “why” of the Government as a Platform debate. Drivers from two directions (at least) mean that government cannot and must not continue to conceive of itself purely as a service provider.

From one direction, we simply cannot afford to operate this way any more — social and economic needs are too complex to be resolved by a simple “citizen demand” met by “government service” equation within the scope of available public sector budgets. As Tim O’Reilly put it way back in 2009, we have to get away from “government as a vending machine”.

Let’s Harness the Best

A new political settlement is needed that recognises what we have now does not work, and harnesses the best parts of government, business and civil society.

Driving towards that from another direction, people’s expectations of the way that they relate to organisations have been reshaped by their experiences over the past couple of decades. In the world of consumer goods and services people expect to be able to look at reviews created by other service users who have rated and shared rich narratives about their experience (described by some as the move from the age of deference to the age of reference)

  • they expect to be able to configure products and services to fit their needs
  • they expect choice, convenience and speed of delivery
  • and throughout all of the experience they expect transparency — to see what is happening and when.

But above and beyond these two forces there’s an even more important point rooted in the question “what is local government (and government generally) for?”

What is our purpose?

Yes, we provide services, and we also shape markets. But why? — so that our citizens and places can determine for themselves what value is. The platform is a way of tapping into existing conversations so that how people really think and feel about their local area can surface; so that these views and feelings can be discussed and new ideas for improvement put forward; and so that the best of these ideas can be selected, prototyped and implemented by whoever is best placed to do it (hardly ever the council).

In other words, the platform helps citizens co-define, co-create, and co-ordinate civic value.

Democracy does this once every 4 years, but now we need to do it every 4 minutes.

So Local Government’s role in this purpose should be as a ‘trusted’ organisation, which has similarities to platform businesses like Amazon, but is also quite different in its culpability and responsibility. If Amazon, Uber or Facebook fail to deliver, the consequences are relatively small. If care, education and housing services fail, the consequences are life-changing or even life-threatening.

Within this context, of course it’s true that the Internet and digital technologies provide a significantly different infrastructure for government in comparison to the information systems and technologies employed to automate back-office processes for the past 50 years. We see how companies like Uber, Facebook and Amazon have used these new technologies to change the game in contrast to their non-digital predecessors.

But if you’re familiar with the Business Model Canvas you’ll know that “key resources” is just one of the 9 areas for attention when you are mapping how an organisation “creates, delivers and captures value” (And if you’re familiar with Tom Grave’s Enterprise Canvas you’ll know that there are more dimensions that need to be considered if you want to make sense of the overall context in which an organisation operates — the shared enterprise which determines what value actually is.)

Focus on the Value Proposition

So my point is that if discussions of Government as a Platform always immediately plunge into details about the technology, we are fundamentally ignoring 80% of the important aspects of a new business model. In particular we should focus on the significant differences in the value propositions and key activities of a platform organisation from those of a traditional service delivery organisation.

That was my contention in 2015, and it’s somewhat disappointing to note that in 2017 the published articles about Government as a Platform are still repeating some of the mistakes. Especially because I know that there has been a lot of developed thinking and practice since then. So I’m going to follow this with a series of posts on Local Government as a Platform, to share this work with the hope that it helps colleagues working to transform the public sector — and especially local public services.

Read more from Gavin:

From Smart Cities to Smart Societies — The Story so Far

Can We Still Talk about Digital Transformation?

Gavin is part of a team of specialists and experts at Perform Green, working on world leading projects in the Smart Society space. Find out more at Perform Green.

Can we still talk about Digital Transformation?

Can we still talk about Digital Transformation?

Words matter. How many times have you been in a conversation where somebody says “it’s just semantics…” to dismiss the point you’re trying to make? Frustrating isn’t it, because semantics = “meaning” and that’s pretty important.

Digital Transformation is dead….

Recently I’m seeing a lot of talk about how “Digital Transformation” is dead, or that the phrase is just a faddish name for the same old thing – change enabled by technology. In one sense that’s not wrong.

Yes, it’s a new term, and has been used, more or less deliberately depending on the author, to indicate something different and worth attending to. Yes, it is basically about using technology (in its broadest sense) to help us turn old organisations and ways of working into new ones. But I think we lose something if we just talk about “technology enabled change”, because there’s nuance in language, and in this case I think that there is genuinely a tangible element that we can set apart and call digital transformation.

Until very recently I worked for Bristol City Council, and my last role there was very deliberately called Head of Digital Transformation. I created the service, shaping the capabilities within it to support a specific scope that went beyond what we’d done before. The service included the elements needed for true digital transformation:

  • Digital Business strategy
  • Enterprise Architecture
  • Technology Strategy
  • Service Design
  • Digital Services UX and content design
  • Software Development and the support/delivery of some of our key council-wide systems

As a service, we combined big picture thinking, design, delivery and operations.

Digital Transformation is not IT Enabled Change

Digital Transformation vs IT Enabled Change

Historically, IT enabled change meant that we used the new features available through updated versions of back-office systems, and new devices, to remove inefficiency and wasteful activity from the work done by our colleagues. More recently it meant using web and mobile services to enable citizens and businesses to interact with us online, getting data to those back office systems and onto staff devices with less manual effort.

All of this activity stayed within an accepted context – that local government provides services, and our role in using technology was to reduce cost and increase satisfaction with the service provided. With the rise of the Government Digital Service (GDS) from 2010 we all began to refer to our web and mobile offerings as “digital services” but they were still firmly within the service provider paradigm.

Re-thinking the relationship between citizens & the state…

But over the next few years it became more and more obvious that no matter how well we did in digitising access to services, and automating tasks in the back-office, we could not meet the financial challenges of austerity. There was simply too much money to be removed from council operating budgets. At the same time we became aware of the ideas that have been badged “government as a platform” – whether from Tim O’Reilly’s “Government 2.0″ article, or from earlier thinking such as Manuel Castells’ “Rise of the Network Society”, the fundamental message from these thinkers was that we needed to rethink the relationship between citizen and state.

Surprisingly, roughly the same outcome can be reached from a right-of-centre political rejection of state paternalism, or from a sociological analysis of the effects of the information age revolution on society, or from a critical urbanist political view on active citizenship. I’m going to explore the idea of “local government as a platform” in a linked series of blogs created in my role as Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Perform Green. In this introductory post I just want to underline that there is a genuine challenge to the purpose and therefore the shape and structure of local government.

Re-imagining the future

So we need to do more than just incrementally change how we provide services to citizens. We need to fundamentally re-imagine, re-think and restructure the institutions of government, and change the nature of their relationships with citizens. We need to harness the creativity and capacity of the city, and change the nature of the way that councils and local partners work together with communities to address the issues for their locality. This is surely worth describing with the term “transformation” – I certainly think so.

And to achieve this transformation we will be using technologies and methods that are “of the internet” – including connected physical things, using data generated by multiple sources and by users interactions with us to drive design, while iterating far more rapidly than before. The recent opening of Bristol’s Smart Operations Centre which integrates city and council services to deliver innovative city management has the power to be truly transformative. The links with the world leading Bristol is Open testbed provides a route for innovation and ideas to be quickly assimilated into the cities workings and part of the councils ongoing approach to being a smarter city. This type of transformation around working relationships and digital delivery are key reasons why Huawei have moved Bristol above London to take the number one spot in the recent 2017 Smart City Index report.

Agility, user needs, discovery… these are not practices found in traditional IT enabled change projects – the ERP and CRM rollouts (or death marches) of old. Calling them “Digital” and truly meaning something different, something lower cost, faster to fail and learn from, faster to deliver value to real users – again I think this is a term worth using.

So, to me, Digital Transformation is about using the technology and methods of internet age organisations to bring about major structural change in response to the new context that government is operating within.

This all sounds pretty reasonable to me. So why are people criticising and rejecting the term? I’ll look at that in the second post in this series.

If you are tackling a digital transformation programme and would like to learn more from experts in this field then contact Perform Green directly to gain insights and knowledge from first hand experience.

From Smart Cities and Smart Citizens to Smart Societies — the story so far…

From Smart Cities and Smart Citizens to Smart Societies — the story so far…

Over the past few years, in my role leading digital transformation and enterprise architecture for Bristol City Council, I worked to bring the smart city innovations run by our Bristol Futures team, into the mainstream of council operations. During this time I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of passionate and talented people, working to make Bristol a better place, and have learned a lot about the competing agendas and perspectives on what a smart city should be — indeed, whether we should even use the term smart city is contested.

As I’ve read through a wide range of writing on the subject, I’ve seen two major contrasting positions articulated in most of them. One is the technocratic, often technology vendor led, viewpoint on how smart cities can be built and managed to be more efficient and cleaner, producing happier residents. The other is the humanist, citizen centred and politically critical perspective of the urbanists who want to see the purposes of citizens as the primary driver for any use of data and technology in cities. These two perspectives are set up as oppositional and incompatible, and in most of the best recent articles the citizen centric viewpoint is the clearly preferred and morally approved approach.

I think there is a third, hidden, perspective — that of the often unheard public servant, trying to do a better job for the people they serve, navigating between the lure of technological silver bullets and the critique that they are no better than big brother. Through this series of blog posts I’ll attempt to articulate this perspective, based on my experiences within Bristol City Council as we delivered our Smart Operations Centre project, and connected it to our City Innovation team’s projects.

The Smart City technology vendor perspective

As they are major global suppliers, smart city solutions from IBM, Cisco, NEC, Microsoft and others are marketed to city governments — the only economic actors with the scale and remit to invest in whole city projects. As a result the language used frames the problems to be solved in a particular way. Although the citizen and service user appears in the narrative, it’s usually as the recipient of a service, which smart city technologies can make more efficient, leading to more effective use of limited budgets, and better insight on whether outcomes are achieved by using data differently. Whilst the technologies are indeed light years ahead of the traditional city government infrastructure, most suppliers have been marketing and selling to people who are still operating inside the “local government as service provider” business model. As I will argue in a later post, this mould has to be broken — we need to move to the “local government as a platform” model, enabling a “Participatory City” approach that transforms the relationship between citizen and state.

Progress comes through confronting issues and through dialogue — a number of suppliers and local authorities are talking and listening to the challenges coming from the urbanist, smart citizen perspective and changing their relationship.

Smart Connected Cities: People Centric Design

The urbanist, smart citizen perspective

There are many voices in the chorus of critique against this supplier driven approach to smart cities. I’ve found two in particular to be clear and compelling articulations of the issues. Adam Greenfield provides a powerful critique in his articles for the Guardian, highlighting the political nature of technocratic interventions, the contested nature of what communities want, and the flaws in much smart city thinking. He points out that

“The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services.” 
(The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamourous technology)

In a similar vein, Mara Balestrini (and colleagues in Ideas for Change and Making Sense.EU) paints a rich picture of people as active agents, not passive victims/consumers, who will appropriate technology and ideas for themselves, whether we like it or not. Her work has strong resonance with the GDS mantra “what is the user need?” — focusing on bottom-up projects that start by drawing out what issues communities care about and then support them to find ways of using data and sensing technology to address those issues.

This approach, focused on smart citizens rather than smart cities, shares a lot with Asset Based Community Development, and other strengths based approaches. Rather than applying a “deficit model” (what is wrong or missing), it focuses on what the community has in abundance. Investment in the group work, facilitation, and community building needed to sustain projects, is more important than the technology itself. In Bristol this approach is exemplified by Knowle West Media Centre, and I’m going to highlight their work and several other examples of citizen led approaches across a number of European cities in a later blog post in this series.

The public servant’s perspective

When I worked for Bristol, with colleagues planning smart city projects, we were very aware that we stood on contested ground. We knew that there were very legitimate concerns arising from our access to massive new sources of data generated by surveillance and control systems, which led to ethical questions about ensuring privacy. We also knew that to be successful our projects had to meet the real needs of people living in Bristol’s communities. We also had a responsibility to use the data from internet connected sensors and the software systems that can aggregate data sources, enabling us to respond to events and issues in a more efficient and effective way — ultimately helping us to save money.

At the stark end of the spectrum, people monitoring CCTV in Operations Centres have to watch road accidents as they happen, track people all the way down as they jump from buildings, and assist blue light services when potentially terrorist related incidents occur. They use the sensors and software systems which support a more sophisticated response to events in the city in an attempt to improve public safety and wellbeing. Of course it is true that this is often merely treating the symptoms of deep seated societal and individual problems, and I’m sure most people would recognise that investing in supporting the strengths of communities, tackling isolation, mental health and social cohesion are all better than waiting until it’s too late. But while that work is going on, and these problems keep occurring, councils and their partners need more effective ways to handle them, nonetheless.

Equally, traffic management and effective responses to congestion, which relates to air quality along major roads and junctions, are increasingly integrated into internet connected systems. The data emerging from these systems in near real-time can be published to open data platforms and through transport APIs for a wide range of people and businesses to use in understanding and addressing opportunities to improve travel in cities. At the same time, of course council transport departments are looking at all of the other ways they can change the nature of travel — including improving public transport by incentivising people to use park and rides, switching to zero-emission vehicles, encouraging “active travel” — walking and cycling — and encouraging changes in the nature of where people work, for instance through investment in fibre broadband rollouts and supporting more remote working.

People working in councils are by and large motivated by the sense of doing the best for their community, and aren’t interested in smart city technologies for their own sake. If vendors can’t articulate how their products solve real problems, they shouldn’t get bought. And public servants are generally very sensitive to the ethical dilemmas of increasing surveillance and potential to control — so they respond positively to the challenges and opportunities flagged by the urbanist critique. As a result, there are a growing number of Smart City initiatives that are applying different approaches now, beginning to set a new human-centred standard, that others would do well to follow.

I’m going to review some examples of these “Smart Citizen” approaches in my next blog post in this series. And alongside that, I’m going to draw some parallels to the bigger picture of the “re-negotiation” of the relationship between state and citizens, councils and residents, that has been driven by the necessity of austerity economics, the shifts in political ideology that values a removal of paternalism, and the continued agitation and expectation of engaged active citizens. Smart Citizens inhabiting a Smart Society need local government to evolve away from being a service provider towards “local government as a platform”.

Gavin Beckett is Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Find out more about Gavin here.

Reflections on Localgovcamp 2017

Reflections on Localgovcamp 2017

Welcome to LocalGovCamp
LocalGovCamp 2017 participants being welcomed to the event in Bristol’s City Hall

I’ve been going to Localgovcamp since 2014 and every year it’s helped me to think about how we should do digitally enabled service design in local government, given me the opportunity to meet great people who share my values, and given me a route to connect my team up with the wider network so we can share what we’ve achieved and learn from others.

This year I was excited to bring Localgovcamp to Bristol, hosting the event in the civic grandeur of City Hall, and showing off a few of Bristol’s many attractions to old friends and new. (It won’t surprise anyone who knows him that Esko Reinikainen found The Volley before anyone else…)

Welcome to LocalGovCamp
LocalGovCamp 2017 participants being welcomed to the event in Bristol’s City Hall

For me this was a bittersweet Localgovcamp, with the elation of an amazing event in my home city laced with the sadness that I’m leaving local government after 20 years, and know that I won’t quite feel as much a part of the community next year…

Having said that, the truth is that’s just a comment on my self-identity, not the community. Localgovcampers might be people working for councils, councillors, volunteers in community organisations, people working for suppliers, and freelancers — but they all share a sense of purpose and common values.

Localgov Digital: What is the User Need?

At the moment that purpose and those values are implicit — and making them more explicit and visible was one of the main things I took away from the session that Neil Lawrence and I pitched on behalf of the Localgov Digital steering group — “Localgov Digital — What is the user need?”

It was my first pitch at an unconference and I managed to stumble over the words “localgov digital” ? I was really pleased to see how many people turned up to the session from all of the parts of the community, veterans and fresh faces. Also a pleasure to co-facilitate the session with Neil — we did some rapid planning right at the last minute (agile!) and ran it as a user story generating workshop, then moved into discussion and debate about the implications of the needs for the nature of Localgov Digital in future. (Thanks to Peter Fleming for his kind words to me at the end “there are two kinds of people, those who can wing it in workshops and those who can’t — and you know which group you fall into!” ?)

Most of the user needs related to people working in localgov needing support and a space to share and learn from each other.

Welcome to LocalGovCamp
LocalGovCamp 2017 participants being welcomed to the event in Bristol’s City Hall

In some ways it would have been easy to assume we could accept what we were seeing and continue to run events, provide tools like unmentoring and structures like regional peer groups. But several people injected a bigger picture to the discussion — with Esko Rainikainen asking us to answer the fundamental question: “what’s the purpose of Localgov Digital?” This took the conversation onwards, and got us thinking about what was unique and valuable about Localgov Digital as opposed to the many other groups in the networks we operate within, and who we should be collaborating with to help us achieve our aims most effectively.

During Localgovcamp and in the Slack and Hangout discussions since then we’ve made good progress and I expect there will some “official” news soon. For my part, I made a number of specific notes following the Localgovcamp session:

  • Viewing directly employed council staff as good and all suppliers and contractors as bad is too simplistic for the modern public sector. A values based approach to membership of a community of interest is far better.
  • How can we achieve that in practice? What is the vision and purpose of Localgov Digital, and the values that we would be asking people to sign up to? How would we manage the community and ensure people committed to and adhered to agreed standards?
  • How do we sustain and grow the network, so that it can be effective in meeting its purpose and the user needs expressed? What activity isn’t happening or happening too slowly or with quality problems, due to lack of resource? Where could that resource come from?
  • What other bodies exist that LGD could be affiliated to or exist within, that might help create the structures needed for sustainability? What role could LGA and Solace perform? Could LGD be the digital peer evaluation provider for LGA? Could some in-kind support be offered, rather than cash?
  • Need to reconnect with Comms professionals — people like Dan Slee were closely involved in early days of Localgovcamp but comms not so embedded in LGD steering group now — need to bring someone in who can lead on that.
Welcome to LocalGovCamp
LocalGovCamp 2017 participants being welcomed to the event in Bristol’s City Hall