Digital engagement and innovation the localgov way
Part two of this week’s ‘state of the localgov nation address’ are two subjects close to my heart and close to my interests – it’s all about digital and innovation. Whilst these two areas often overlap they are actually two different beasts in many ways, so it’s worth considering them individually before combining the two.
For no reason other than alphabetical let’s begin with digital. In some ways the last few years feel like nothing much has altered: we’ve still got arguments over Twitter and Facebook, examples of archaic social media policies, no-one’s cracked single sign-on and IE6 just won’t die. However, scratch a little of this surface and you’ll find, in the same way as the Sopranos episodes where nothing happened yet everything changed, we’ve actually come a long way.
Much of the shift in digital thinking can be attributed to one person – the never-to-be-known person who convinced someone that they should ask David Cameron to ask Martha Lane Fox to do a quick report into the state of our digital nation. In line with many of these reports, that she was asked was in part down to her celebrity status and public name; however, unlike some other reports the Digital Britain paper was well thought out, realistic and set out a path that would make a real difference to the work and thinking of the public sector, and through them the prospects of residents around the country.
By no means the most insignificant result of this report was the development of the new Government Digital Service (GDS). A growing collection of some of the sharpest digital minds in local government (although not me I may say, hint-hint… ) this promises to revolutionise much of what we have grown to take for granted. Not only that, it’s already delivering. A new and exciting culture is sweeping through much of the thinking around digital approaches, with even the monolithic Direct.gov not proving beyond their appetite to improve. Don’t believe us? Take a look at gov.uk and then come back to apologise.
Before anyone points out that GDS is central government in essence, may I point out that where good practice starts is not where it is constrained to stay. One of the key elements of the GDS approach is challenging boundaries and not accepting that not-really-good-enough is actually good enough for the public sector. There is simply no way that this attitude isn’t going to seep over to even the harshest cynic in local government, and promises to be the start of a seismic shift in how we conduct our business online.
Allied to this has been remarkable, if not universal, progress in how many local authorities are addressing social media. Many moons ago there were few councils who were truly aiming to make the most of this emerging technology. As we have often remarked, only six years before this post went out to the world, no-one outside of a handful of US students had ever heard of Facebook; we were in fact still staring in open-mouthed delight as YouTube made video sharing easy for the masses.
Some few councils with keen staff were dabbling in forums and blogs, but these were invariably small pockets fighting for any degree of validation, with most senior officers seeing nothing more than a little potential for some few services but not for mainstream council communications or engagement. Forums, after all, were filled with nothing but anonymous childish trolls who had no interest in commenting properly on council business.
Fast forward on a few years and the majority of councils are waking up to the fact that digital is here to stay. Most have adopted some form of policy around social media (even if many are ridiculously restrictive), and there are ever increasing numbers of examples of excellent digital work being undertaken, along with evidence as to what differences this work has actually made. Some few still shout about the number of fans or followers they have as if we were playing a game where higher numbers equated to winning, but more and more are instead focussing on what their followers are actually doing and how they are engaging instead.
This is a subtle but vital shift in our thinking, and one which is essential to support if local government is to have any chance at all of moving the digital agenda forward: digital channels are channels for communication and engagement, not end products themselves. While people see the delivery of a facebook page or the setting up of a twitter feed as an output to achieve they will forever fall short where it actually matters: the outcomes these tools achieve.
Carl Haggarty has been arguing this for a long time: that it should be the content that you should have a strategy for rather than social media. As a grossly simplified analogy – do you have a telephone strategy? A written letter strategy? A public meeting strategy? No, of course not, as they are simply tools and methods used to engage: social media is a different tool with its own idiosyncrasies and requirements perhaps, but it is a tool nonetheless.
The challenge of single sign on is finally also beginning to be considered. We are starting to slowly think about things from a users perspective rather than from the angles sold to us by company salespeople who have a new toy to sell and want our money. Again, some are better than others, but it is becoming more common to see people looking to integrate their software and to think twice before spending out on something new to see if it’s actually needed rather than just shiny.
Of course, a lot of this has been driven in no small part by the financial challenges we have faced recently. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and these days it’s also the step-mother of innovation. Simply put, councils up and down the country are being forced to develop ever more innovative ways of delivering services in order to offset the constantly decreasing budgets they have available to them. Doing things in the same ways will always cost the same money, meaning new ways are having to be found to deliver services (well, those that remain anyway) for less.
One of the major players in this forward charge are the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, commonly known as NESTA. Despite their changing status they are successfully maintaining the good work they have been undertaking since 1998. Their latest efforts were via the Creative Councils programme, which saw them put the call out for innovative ideas from councils across the country. They are now teaming up with six to bring their ideas to life, with projects as diverse as energy regulation, cultural transformation and new economic models for social care.
That being said, generally councils still lag behind here though. All too often the act of innovation is seen as an extra to the day job, and is rarely integrated in the common mindset of the average officer. This is entirely understandable – most of us are so busy doing our business as usual that it’s difficult to negotiate time to do anything more. Of course, in the long term this is not the best of ideas: at some point we must realise that the only way to chart a route through this forest of cuts we need to step right back from the trees. Those organisations which invest officer time and develop a culture of innovation from top to bottom and side to side will thrive and benefit in the middle to long term, whilst those who continue to insist that the only way of delivering is to plough on regardless will sooner rather than later stagnate.
It’s not often that an area of local government is actually looking good for the future, and whilst innovation perhaps has some way to go it’s the world of digital engagement in which there is significant hope. As more officers come to understand its importance and see the possibilities, a virtuous circle becomes possible which must be continued if we are to have any hope of seeing out the next few years.
Now, to find a localgov way of saying LOL without sounding as if we are either 12 or seeing pictures of cats playing the piano.
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