A Good Job
Last week the world was shocked to hear of the death of Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder and spiritual leader of the IT giant that is Apple. Seen by many as the father of the i-mac, the mac-book, the i-pod, the i-phone and the i-pad, Jobs left behind him a legacy that has forever changed the way we use technology, the way we listen to music and the way we connect to information simply and easily wherever we are. He also played a key role in turning Pixar into the giant that it is today and was a big part of the Disney board.
Doubts will undoubtedly rise as to how Apple will respond to this loss. Whilst he officially stepped down earlier this year to be succeeded by Tom Cook, Jobs still played a key role internally and externally within the company. Trying to follow a man like Jobs is a tall enough task; after his untimely death it will be all but impossible.
This is not a technology blog which will go into the short and long term future of a single tech company, nor is it a business blog discussing the private sector, but there are many parallels and lessons to be learnt by us in local government from the successes and failure Jobs had over the years, and the way Apple will now need to evolve to ensure it survives and thrives as it has before.
Firstly, at all costs Apple must retain its willingness to fail and subsequently improve. People usually forget the abominations that came out of Apple over the years, or the products which didn’t work and were quietly swept under the carpet.
Did Apple decide that these were total failures? No: they went back to the drawing board and worked out what went wrong. If it was advertising they improved it; if it was technical they developed and refined; if it was the market being aimed at they re-targeted; if it had no redeeming qualities they made sure it wasn’t repeated.
Local government needs to take the same approach. We’ve spoken before about the need to embrace failure and learn from it, but we also need to get better at checking as we go and getting out as soon as we know things aren’t working. We may have lost National Indicators and other such measurement tools but that doesn’t mean measurement and evaluation is bad.
As you may have read, Jobs believed in the same ideals as Henry Ford, who famously didn’t believe in market research, after all “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Apple excelled at creating things that their customers didn’t know they needed until it came along. Until ipods came along, people were perfectly happy with CDs; now having less than 500 hours of music in your pocket is deemed nothing. Before the iphone the internet was perfect as long as you were at a computer; now, pub quiz cheats across the country can rejoice.
Local government doesn’t have quite the same opportunities in front of them. The majority of our services are the same as they have been for years and can be developed only so far. However, sometimes it is about going slightly beyond what they are asking for and considering what it is that they actually need. Yes, you might be hearing lots of people asking for you to deal with dog fouling and flytipping, but in the grand scheme of things perhaps it may be wiser to focus on some of those less sexy or obvious issues. Cutting funding for some preventative programmes instead of simply continuing to deal with it as it arises might be easier to defend, but in the long term it will do nothing but make those situations worse.
Thirdly, Apple famously managed to create a buzz around their products that went way beyond normal product loyalty. Apple fans have been regarded as borderline fanatical in some corners, and buy into their products totally. They feel they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and see it as a mark of pride to be openly involved.
Local government however have something of the opposite problem. Taking part is seen as a chore, something to be done by the few and avoided by the many. Unless someone feels overly strongly about something negative happening to them, they tend to avoid coming along to Council meetings.
With that in mind, local government could do with taking the occasional step backwards and taking a look at what it delivers and how it might do things a bit differently. It seems accepted that local people don’t want to come along to these meetings and go through formal processes, so why not take the essence of those meetings to where they are? Ask surveys and invite discussion whilst helping people pack their bags at Tescos, ask health and wellbeing questions outside football grounds, basically think a bit creatively about where we do our business.
Finally, one of the things that Apple excelled at was constantly focussing on the user. It’s no surprise that most children are able to use an ipad from the moment they pick it up; the interface is natural and wired to how the human brain thinks. It requires very little getting used to, and creates the simplest environment possible to get things done in.
Local government processes could do with doing the same. Too often we expect residents to understand our systems, our processes and the way we work rather than considering how they might be thinking. We slip into using jargon and relying on form filling because it is more comfortable for us rather than thinking about how residents would like to provide us with their information and enquiries.
If I had a penny for every time I heard a resident saying something along the lines of “why can’t they sort it out, it’s not rocket science” then I’d at least have enough for a Starbucks cafe latte. It’s worth us reworking what we do and involving local people themselves in telling us how they want to engage or contact us, and keeping them at the front, in the middle and the end of every service. We might not be able to actually do everything they ask, but if we can change one form or flowchart to make things more straightforward then we should.
Steve Jobs was not perfect. He was, however, a visionary who stuck to his ideas about how things should be done regardless of how differently others did things. He surrounded himself with people who would challenge him, people who shared his principles of design and who focussed on the user over all else.
We could all take a few notes from his mac book.