What a change five years can make

Predictions, predictions

Five years ago this blogger was in a very different place.  I’d just been made redundant from a third sector organisation thanks to the spectre of organisational bankruptcy, and were beginning my local government career as an SO2 worker (for those of you outside of the wonderful world of local government pay, this isn’t a sum that the Daily Mail would get too outraged by).  With no qualifications post-GCSE, no real experience of anything outside a very narrow and somewhat saturated field of work and no contacts, things were looking a little grim.

Fast forward on and things are looking a lot brighter.  Several career hops, a little hard work and a lot of luck sees me clinging on to a fourth tier role with an exciting team to lead and some very interesting work areas to own, shape and evolve as I see fit (within boundaries of course).  My ambitions in general are similar, but the world and my immediate targets have become very different in a relatively short space of time.

Why this trip down memory lane?  Well, I’ve recently been looking into some of our ICT and digital engagement strategies, which are coming up for renewal.  These are coming towards the end of their five year shelf lives, having been developed initially in 2007 and refreshed in 2009.  Reading through them has shown me just what a different place the online world was back in 2007.  Here are a few examples:

·         Facebook, which had been open to the public for a year, reached its first million users in the UK

·         MySpace (remember that) was the top social network by a fair margin

·         YouTube was officially launched in the UK

·         The first i-phone was released in the US, although the app store was still a year off

·         Twitter saw 400,000 tweets per quarter – today it sits at around 200million tweets.  Per day.

·         Internet Explorer 7 was a year old already (you hear that IT people – IE6 was even out of date in 2007!)

Now, I know 2007 is in the grand scheme of things a very short time ago; it’s not as if dinosaurs ruled the planet, Napoleon threatened the nation’s interests or even Man City were in the second division.  2007 was just a short time ago, yet the digital world has changed and evolved exponentially in the intervening half-a-decade.

Acknowledging this has happened is good, and reviewing how we work digitally is also good, but repeating the process of creating a single strategy that will shape and determine our IT action plans from now until 2017 seems just a tad strange to me, simply replicating the problems I am now coming across.

If you try to predict some trends for the next year or two you will find a wealth of conspiracy theories out there to back you up or decry your opinions.  Some, such as internet tv, video e-mails becoming common, augmented reality and placed based social media (like that seen in Minority Report) are believable, some such as the total shift to cloud computing have been discussed for years without real fundamental movement, whilst others such as people commonly having microchips implanted into their brains are a little more farfetched.

What cannot be argued however is that change will happen, and it will continue to happen quickly.  Local government is already well behind the curve in a lot of ways, which a trip to the average council website will clearly show.  The functionality of even the simplest web start-up company these days often eclipses most of what can be done on current council systems and will continue to evolve to meet public demand.

Local government will be spending years catching up and at this rate will be able to provide a service suitable for life in 2012 by the time 2017 rolls around.  There may be some examples of individual authorities taking the lead and showing what could be done, but the average council will simply look to survive and meet the simplest needs of its users (although often in the most complex of ways).

With all this in mind, I’d like to change up how we go about setting our action plans in particular, and perhaps also our longer term strategies.  Yes, it’s all well and good to have some high level, unarguable long term digital engagement goals such as allowing people to find any information about their local area, local authority or local services online, to conduct transactions online and collaborate for the good of a local area online.  Setting more specific targets and action plans with an operational life of five years however, bearing in mind that often the technological starting point is already a good few years in the past, will get us nowhere.  By the time we get to the end of the plan, even if we have achieved everything we set out to do, we will be back where we started, behind the curve and playing catch up.

Our action plans need to get shorter and more immediate, with far quicker turnaround of projects and increased flexibility to deal with and respond to changes in technology and the direction of the web.

I think of it as building a house.  The more traditional method of doing so is to plan for years, construct entire rooms at a time in isolation from each other and then try to put them together in one go.  If the rooms fit together then great, although they will fit together so solidly that they are then fixed in place and immovable, with all fixtures, fittings, other rooms and extensions having to fit around them.

Instead I’d like to see it done on a much smaller scale; building small bricks which work in and of themselves perfectly and which can then be used in loads of different places without any structural changes to the main building.  Then, if someone comes along with a new and better type of brick it’s only a small job to pop the old one out and the new one in rather than rebuilding the house from scratch.

Yes, I know that’s a tenuous analogy, but it makes sense to me.

We need to do less long term action planning and more long term direction planning.  As George Patton once said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what you want them to do and let them surprise you with their results.”  IT strategies and plans should learn from this: set out your goals, and then keep plans short, evolving and agile.  After all, it’s harder to turn around a single tanker than a fleet of speedboats.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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One Comment on “What a change five years can make”

  1. Olly Benson Says:

    That’s exactly how Agile project management should work. A very basic outline of what you want to achieve, and then plan in small chunks so that you can adapt quickly. And deliver regularly and iteratively. We should end this notion of stopping development on a current website while we spend 18 months rebuilding a new website behind the scenes.

    I know several local authorities are moving to Agile, not just in web production but looking at how it can work in other services.

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