By Jos Creese, Socitm Associate Director and independent consultant
In the week that our Brexit-bound path became official, I felt it altogether more positive to look back to a milestone that highlights how far digital local government has come and the exciting possibilities ahead: the first BetterConnected Live event.
Held in Birmingham little more than a month ago, BetterConnected Live and its awards evening saw two days of incredible insight and innovation. I joined the first day, which featured practical work streams looking at exemplars in key digital local services, from libraries to waste management, and some of the best presentations on public sector digital strategy I’ve seen, with a powerful lineup of speakers.
The headline of the event was “the re-invention of local public services”, and that is what we got.
The talks opened with Cllr Lisa Trickett of Birmingham City Council setting the scene for digital and the changing role of councils, followed by a keynote from Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council and long-term digital advocate.
Martin spoke about digital Coventry programmes – one of the fundamental components for reimagining public services in Coventry. He was frustrated that reinvention was not happening quickly enough: “We’ve been held back from digital transformation in back-covering conversations about data“, he said. Martin said that everyone in our organisations needed to be a digital leader and it’s certainly not just about IT. There is a real opportunity to reinvent local public services, putting user at the centre of design.
Dylan Roberts (Leeds City Council CIO and chair of the Local CIO Council) followed with Geoff Connell (Newham, Havering and Bexley CIO and current Socitm President), both giving practical case studies and advice from their experiences. Both talked confidently about what they’d learned and got wrong, not just the successes they have delivered.
Geoff described using real evidence and working with citizens to design and to prioritise digital services. He said of the work in Havering “no matter how great your digital service, you have to tell people it’s there“. He also described use of data modelling in Newham to show where council intervention could have the greatest impact to save money and improve services – they have made significant savings, improvements in revenue collection and progress in health and social care integration.
Dylan talked about Leeds’ approach to digital: “The Council facilitates, doesn’t invent“, he said, “It’s important to learn to let go – we don’t know all the answers“. He described how Leeds co-produces solutions, with its digital priorities being dictated by knowing the real and genuine problems. The Council also applies best practice wherever it’s found, and has as a result set a national lead in demonstrating how health and social care can work in partnership around real individual needs.
Amanda Derrick, OBE, made a compelling case for greater collaboration across the public sector. She was critical of the lack of join-up throughout Whitehall and believes GDS must work more closely with and listen to local government. She noted that while best practice examples must be shared openly (“open, connected, cooperative“), they need to be supported by the capacity to implement. It is also important, she added, not to create islands of unrelated and incompatible best practice.
Gerry McGovern (founder and CEO of Customer Carewords) closed the morning presentation, with an impassioned pitch challenging the wisdom of experts in the modern digital world – “Today we all trust our peers more than the experts”.
He noted that prediction in complex environments such as digital is just not possible, so we need models that assume flexibility and adaptability – “get it out rapidly, immerse and measure success on use, then adjust“. That is not to say testing doesn’t matter – poor quality digital products and solutions undermined trust. He applauded the GOV.UK initiative, and the priority of simplicity with the user at the centre of digital design, describing many internal IT systems as “cruel and unusual tortures”.
The morning concluded with a lively panel debate, picking up on many of the topics from the speakers. This included a challenge for vendors of IT solutions who need to be more adaptable as well, with greater incentives to take risks and change to help local public service transformation.
There was considerable discussion about the pain of procurement – over-engineered, slow, cumbersome, not fit for purpose, delivering the wrong outcomes, expensive. There was consensus on that!
Rewards and authority for leadership still often lies with large budgets and resources – not with those able to see and deliver change. The panel agreed that a greater focus on outcomes was needed in assessing performance and reward.
After lunch Racheal Neaman (director of Dot.Everyone and former Go OnUK CEO) was joined by Helen Milner (OBE, CEO of the Tinder Foundation). Rachel described the work of Martha Lane-Fox and Dot.Everyone to improve digital inclusion, demonstrating an impressive ‘heat map’ of digital exclusion across the UK. This, she said, can help local service providers to understand the data and approach needed to increase successful digital take-up. “In less than a year, government would recoup the cost of digitally skilling up the entire UK population“, she said.
She also made an interesting point that although young ‘digital natives’ can use social media, they may not be able to create CVs or look online for jobs. Without core digital skills you can’t take part in today’s society, she noted.
Helen noted the barriers to digital inclusion: access (e.g. poor broadband, mobile or complex IT), cost (e.g. affordability of tools, internet services, support) and skills (capability, fear of IT). But, she added, motivation was also key – people have got to see the relevance, value and need for digital services – and more needs to be done in each of these four areas. Helen noted the importance of our own frontline staff as digital ambassadors.
The day ended with a panel debate on digital exclusion and how to address it. Most people are not excluded by choice but by circumstances, and there were plenty of personal experiences from the audience of poor public sector and private sector digital design which still undermine trust or a willingness to engage with digital services – even with some of the best national examples.
Then, in typical Socitm relaxed and informal style, the evening kicked off with the now famous ‘Better Connected Awards’ in a courtyard setting. In addition to all the council winners, there was a lifetime achievement award for Martin Greenwood who started Better Connected in the late 1990s and has done so much for Socitm and local authorities to support better use of IT.
…Oh yes, the street band and street food were fab – an excellent event – hugely valuable but also great fun.