Let’s equip ourselves for change

By Simon Parker | 31 August 2016
  • Simon Parker

‘Let’s go and visit the digital floor’. Earlier this month I was visiting a New Local Government Network (NLGN) member in the North to find out more about their transformation programme. I walked through the brutalist 1970s building, progressing through the usual cloisters of local government efficiency. My host opened a door and we stepped into the area where the council’s new website was being put together.

And all of a sudden the atmosphere changed.

The hush evaporated, to be replaced with a low buzz of conversation. All around me, knots of people were clustered around monitors, solving problems and testing web pages. The wall was covered with Kanban charts, breaking the huge project down into bite-sized chunks and allowing the team to feed back their progress in real time at daily 10 minute stand up meetings. The council’s website was designed around the needs of its users and a basic version is already live so that it can be tested and refined with user feedback.

I ventured north of Watford as part of my preparation for a new job. Later this year I’ll be joining Redbridge LBC to run their strategy directorate. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about working in local government. My usual reply is that I’ll move into the sector once someone invents a council that would actually hire me. It takes a certain amount of imagination to understand why the skills I’ve developed over 20 years of journalism, consultancy and think-tanks might be valuable in a local government context.

I still don’t think anyone has invented the council I really want to work for, though I hope we might get a lot closer in Redbridge over the coming years. But my trip to the digital floor – along with lots of other visits and discussions over the past few months – tells me that change is on the way.

Councils across the country are using their digital programmes as a way to smuggle new ways of working into their organisation. A new, digitally-inspired culture is emerging which demands people work in ways which are iterative, open, human-centred and collaborative. It demands that we adopt insights from service design, which tells us that policy only works when it takes into account the way real people behave. Think of the technology as a benign cultural virus which spreads from the council’s website to infect the rest of the organisation.

The key shift for me is about a different way of approaching council strategy. The classic public sector approach to making big decisions is to conduct lots of analysis, consult stakeholders, engage the politicians and then implement a big top-down change programme. Then you have to spend years defending your original decision even if, in hindsight, you realise it was the wrong one.

A better approach might be to set broad goals, find a rough, credible set of answers to your challenges, and then improve those answers by prototyping and testing them in the real world. In other words, we should find answers not primarily through analysing the world, but through experimenting in it. As the former head of the Government Digital Service put it, ‘the strategy is delivery’.

These approaches are going to be hugely challenging for local government to implement. As the Society of IT Management recently pointed out, councils are fundamentally based around management hierarchies, and their tendency is always to revert to command and control. A digital way of working will require managers and politicians to put more faith in middle managers and the frontline, giving them the tools they need to transform their services and supporting them to scale the solutions up.

As you may have gathered by now, this is the last of my regular columns for The MJ. Over the past six years I’ve worked with hundreds of amazing people to try to tell a story about a new kind of local government. Now I have a chance to help build it. I hope I’ll never lose the habits I’ve picked up from working for NLGN, an organisation which is inherently dynamic, participative and curious. But perhaps I can add a whole new set of skills as I grapple with the challenges of delivery and change at the frontline.

From thinking to changing. Wish me luck.

Simon Parker is outgoing director of the New Local Government Network

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