Local capacity for innovation & implementation

As we approach UKGovcamp on Saturday, I was wondering about the big “how do we make stuff happen” question.  An NLGN survey of 65 councils  on innovation found that 90% say they lack the skills needed to implement new ideas successfully, but paradoxically they still expect to generate 50% of the necessary savings through innovation .. This is a rather important conundrum!

Having followed the Local Government Digital Service debate which has been ongoing several years now, I’m convinced that we should give up on that essentially cost saving argument in favour of one that recognises the need for place-based innovation centred around the needs of people and communities. I’d like to talk about how public sector resources could be directed to create local innovation capacity (starting with local government but with bigger ambitions) that truly helps leaders and commissioners create radical new options for service delivery.  This is definitely as much about matching existing ideas or products to local needs as creating new things – both are needed.  And loads about implementation.

So what does this local capacity look like and what’s the business case?




Going freelance

I’ve been wanting to write something about what’s been happening for me for a while .. here goes.

Early last year the opportunity to apply for voluntary redundancy came up at Brighton & Hove City Council where I had been working for 6 years.  The way it works is that you can put an application in and only a few months later do you have to absolutely commit.  I put my application in very much undecided, almost “in case”.  And then followed a very long few months cogitating, discussing and putting my finger into the wind.  I had already been asked to consider a position by a prominent digital company, so I gained self-belief from that but the complication was that we were also expecting our THIRD boy in the same timeframe and the job involved a fair bit of long distance travel.  And as some of you will know, I had worked really hard to firstly secure the Patchwork project in Brighton and Hove and then been hard at implementation for over a year.  I had to think about letting that go, along with the job security and the healthy 21 miles of cycling each day along the coast.  On the positive side I had a good sense of how possible it might be to network with other organisations and agencies if I ended up having to be freelance, because it has been a bit of a speciality of mine in my work, and I’d also been fully into “camps” and twitter for a couple of years and had a good network.  I felt like I might be able to make my own luck and was excited with the possibility of trying.

It was all very difficult to think about, much of it speculation –  so many moving parts.  There was also one very patient and understanding person who’d offered me the job who was just amazing.

D-Day eventually came close and my INCREDIBLE partner was still being wonderfully supportive (even though she later told me she was very worried too).  I had to commit without anything concrete arranged, still really undecided, and with a leave date two days before our third boy was due to be born!  Very luckily for me, I was contacted by Surrey County Council who were about to implement Patchwork across the county.  Could I come and lead the implementation?  Well I looked at the map and it was just the right thing to do.  It was fantastic timing and I could sit back and enjoy 6 weeks with my new born son (who hasn’t stopped smiling since he was born, I swear).

I went to see an accountant, thought of a company name and registered it at Companies House.  I went to my bank and opened a business bank account.  I organised professional liability insurance and long term sickness insurance.  And I bought a second car and kissed goodbye to my flattish stomach.  Later, after a couple of months into my initial 6 month contract I found a graphic designer and worked up a logo.  Then I found strikingly.com and sorted out my website at rethinkdo.co.uk.  Thinking about next steps, I contacted a previous boss who was about to start at Adur & Worthing Councils and got a few days more work there.  I started contacting all the cool digital agencies and innovation think-tanks and began to forge links with some which will hopefully somehow open up opportunities for future collaborations or work offers.  I began thinking about what it is I actually do, and am still thinking!  I’m still at Surrey for a while longer but I’m a whole mix of feelings day to day.  Anxious,  energised, doom-laden, optimistic, excited.  I don’t know how it will turn out.  I’ll just keep networking while trying to deliver concrete value to people.  I’ll keep thinking about where I fit in.  I reckon it’ll be ok with purposeful thought and effort.

Get designing and sprinting

It’s been good to see the recent flurry of talk about a GDS for local government.  I agree with those who have said it’s too hard to create a team like the central government one in terms of securing the mandate, buy-in and funding.  And I’m very much with the sentiment from Anthony Zach that we should think beyond the council organisation and more in terms of public service requirements in an area (developing a suite of services and tools for the population).

Maybe we can agree that what we want to do is design and build great digital services for local people rather than looking at this as the design and build of a single “website” for “councils”.  Part of the problem here might be that we each come at this from sightly different digital places.  The different mind-sets I think are roughly,

  • digital = council websites / transactions / information
  • digital = social media / conversation
  • digital = service design / social innovation
  • digital = participation / democracy
  • digital = devices (this one less prominent in my network)

But we should really all be thinking and talking like this

  • users and communities = digital

The GDS conversation is quite naturally taking a website perspective (even if we have good user-centric thoughts behind this) but what would be the effect on the work if we were disciplined about putting users and communities first, perhaps by creating ways to collectively and openly establish user needs first and *then* consider how to design and build digital services to meet them?  What kind of partnership working emerges if we work at it this way?  It might sometimes be about collaborating with other councils, but, perhaps more challengingly for local government officers, it might be about forging new partnerships on a sound business footing with other departments, other local public services or digital agencies and entrepreneurs.

The aim must ultimately be for us to work to help a new kind of  local commissioning approach emerge that has digital in its DNA (something I’m thinking a lot about), not about a new way for web teams to work and get efficiencies.  But I do think this approach *can* emerge out of web teams just like it can emerge from elsewhere – the key is to stay true to the methodology and be brave – trying hard to put together mixed teams from outside departmental or organisational silos.  The diagram below is quite a neat way to describe the design process and how it draws people together (from Jens Otto Lenge, “Service Design meets Agile“).

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 09.01.32

I’d encourage Localgov Digital to look at facilitating a few useful, small projects to make a concrete start.  Create some themes and formulate some problems through an event or two and use the right kind of online tool  and communications drive to attract people to projects (an ideas platform that allows the shaping of problems, the creation of the teams, some stuff to help co-ordination and the ability to post of progress updates openly during the project).

People will join projects that help them meet their own current goals most likely, and the face-to-face time can be kept low to make the whole thing feasible.  The teams would almost certainly need some help to make sure the user-centred design approach is adhered to (GDS, Futuregov, Innovation Unit, Design Council).  By having a good online presence where people can track progress and see success,  a virtuous circle can be built, and more collaboration stimulated.

As small islands of success spring up, where projects are clearly doing something quite different to “council business” , we will see commissioners start to take note.  And maybe those teams will start to get asked to solve bigger and bigger social problems.

So, even if it’s just one project … do it.  Make something good.

Radical Redesign: URGENT

The news keeps on coming about continued pressure on local government finances.  In the article, “LGA warns councils could face ‘financial meltdown‘”, we see that the Local Government Association suggest an expected “black hole” of around 15% of the required budgets for 2015/16.

Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chair is quoted,

Over the past three years [councils] have worked tirelessly to deliver new efficiencies through measures such as sharing services, restructuring the workforce and reducing senior pay

All good I guess (some really excellent work has been done), but in light of the ongoing pressure, he goes on to say,

Ultimately the only way of maintaining public services in the face of proposed long-term cuts is a radical redesign of the way public services are provided and paid for

Service Design

Councils, in concert with other public service agencies in localities simply have to start to look at the challenges of the future in a different way.  This different way is simple and radical and therefore I think it’s unclear how it can emerge very easily from within current structures.

A design approach to problems seeks to really understand how people experience public services.  It does this through research, often including ethnographic work and certainly plenty of time spent with services users and the front line staff operating the service.  The radical part is that a service user’s experience will often cross departmental and even organisational boundaries, and this can feel like service user perspectives will only over-complicate matters!  But the truth is that when we look at things from the service user’s perspective, we see that it is us who have over-complicated things.  Hugely.  We can start to see how things can be radically simplified.  We can start to see how the service we think must surely work, just doesn’t very well.  It is really not the only way to do it.

I had a really interesting couple of pints with a friend who is a product designer last night.  He’s a very clever engineer (he’s building his own plane to give you a sense of it).  He has led several product innovation units in some big private firms and talked to me compellingly about user-centred product design.  In one example he talked about how his team invented a new kind of inhaler for orally dispensing medication.  They produced a prototype and sat behind mirrors watching people interact with the device.  They conducted detailed research on different types of patient – people who always followed the doctor’s instructions, people who never did, and so on.  They sought to understand how to tailor how they needed to support use of the device to suit these different types.  They realised that they should avoid calling it an inhaler, because people know how to use a traditional inhaler and would bring those assumptions and ‘suck then click’ on the new device, even though they were clearly told this new device required ‘click then suck’.  They also looked at how they might encourage people to stick to their medication routines and monitor this.  They had a stick on chest patch (electronic gizmo) that would register a swallowed pill as it passed by.  Problem was, user testing showed that patients weren’t at all good with keeping the patch in place.  Idea binned early and with minimum cost and no reputational damage.

Too often public services have just piled in and implemented their own “chest patch” services, which makes sense to them and appear to be “obviously” helpful.  But what they don’t see is that services often don’t fit at all well with the way people *are* or *are becoming*.  Rather than services being living, changing things based on continuous iteration, guided by service user feedback, they are implemented fully formed – you might say “imposed” – and are run until there’s no money left to fund them any more.  Generally they are not de-commissioned because there is not enough work done to develop alternatives.  Of course there are many examples of great services that are responsive and adaptable – but you get my basic drift.  They are very often not like that, right?

Some of my tweets will make me look like I’m a technology nut.  I pretty much am!  I do think most re-design thinking is going to be powered by the possibilities of new technology.  I even bang on about “cloud computing” in a seemingly abstract, IT guy kind of way.  But actually what drives my thinking and interests me most is how we develop user-centred services and tools.  How we negotiate around existing assumptions and structures.  How we push for radical simplification.  How we come to accept that service delivery will probably be highly distributed (lots of different types of provision and co-production) but strongly networked, with the users at centre stage.

This is not something that will just happen.  We all need to learn about service design, think about ways to start making it happen.

Find a problem, start small.  Get a mixed group of people in the room.  Generate ideas.  Get out and speak to some service users.  Build a prototype, test it, change it.  Don’t wait for it to be fully formed, get it out there.  Start designing the future.

Work/Life Device Scheme?

Devices coming out of your ears?

I’m sure loads of people think the same.  Why have I got a Blackberry *and* and iPhone jangling around in my pockets?  Isn’t it both inconvenient and a serious waste of money and resources?  I’d much prefer it if I could just use my iPhone for work as well as the rest of my life.  And I use my laptop at home alot for work – why can’t I just bring it in with me to the office?

And, what about tablet devices, like iPad?  I’m sure you could build a very long list of immediate productivity gains involving key tools like email, calendar, video production and Skype calls, along with opening up people’s minds to how it could and should be in the future, creating demand for change.  Even with enterprise systems as they are, being able to type up field notes and paste them into a creaking case management system, or maybe save off a voice file or picture to the corporate shared drive (if you haven’t yet got Huddle or similar) – ok, that would start to save plenty of time.  Staff would get a real feel for the possible too, and creativity would blossom.


But what about government security I hear (some of) you cry.  Well it turns out that CESG, the UK Government’s National Technical Authority for Information Assurance, has said that iOS6 is secure enough for RESTRICTED (personal sensitive) data.  Mark O’Neill, Head of Innovation and Delivery at the Government Digital Service, is helping me confirm what exactly they’ve said and where the guidance is.  HMRC are rolling out 7,000 devices including iPad (at the lower level of data called PROTECT or “IL2”) at the moment.

Sticking with iPads, then,  for the sake of argument, assuming that it’s possible to integrate, secure and deploy them (and it appears so) then the question comes – how might we start to resolve this problem of work Vs life devices and save a shed load of cash to boot?

Salary Sacrifice

I’ve got a nice mountain bike that I get to work on.  I “hired” it through the cycle-to-work scheme, which is a salary sacrifice deal where you pay for the bike before tax from your salary, through instalments over a contract term with your employer.  In theory at the end of the “loan period”, you have to buy the bike from your employer, at a very low “used” cost (13% of the purchase price after two years).  I use my bike during the day to get around town to meetings, saving quite a lot on company expenses.  I maintain the bike and pay for replacement parts.  It’s essentially mine from day one, but it’s convenient to use it for work too.

HMRC have this handy Expenses & Benefits A-Z guide, which tells us about Computers loaned to an employee.  It says that if a device is loaned to an employee for both work and private use then only Class 1A National Insurance is due (13.8%).

Government Device Store

Different scenarios need working through around the construction of the scheme, which would probably include the 3G contract that sends staff mobile.  Maybe rather than the ownership being clearly with the employee as above (where they go off to a participating high street store and buy the device), the organisation (or group of organisations) have access to buy/rent devices from a government “Device Store” at a discounted (bulk) cost (and excluding VAT).  Employees could then rent their personal use of the device for a sum per month as a salary sacrifice.  A two year period for a device is probably about right.  At the end of the period, a new device would be ordered up and the infrastructure folk could drop the old device off the network and that would probably be it.

And of course, if you’re like me and would like some decent devices but just can’t afford them, this may well be the way to get there.  (I pay monthly for my iPhone).

Let’s see what Government Digital Service makes of this and I’d welcome any comments.

Patchwork, Culture Change and an elephant

An overdue post on Patchwork..

As we approach the launch of the next phase of Patchwork in Brighton and Hove, I wanted to reflect on how we have reached the more open and creative engagement we are now seeing with teams of professionals across the city. People are starting to really focus on the potential of Patchwork to disrupt and improve front-line practice. That is incredibly satisfying after a year of hard groundwork.

Before looking back at the groundwork year, I wanted to show you what the next year might look like, so that we can get a sense of the journey Brighton and Hove is on.

Phase 2 (Nov 2012-Mar 2013) – Community Creation

  • We’re going to publish a roll-out plan so that agencies and users can see the community of agencies grow over time and understand how Patchwork’s being used. Community and voluntary sector agencies can now join as we have worked through the technical barriers.
  • To make sure Patchwork is immediately useful, we’ll ensure all early intervention (Family CAF) and “troubled families” clients are added on Patchwork at launch
  • We are finalising a pilot with adult services (and the legal work is well under-way).
  • Engagement conversations continue across all children’s and adult services. We’re getting better at helping agencies understand when they should use Patchwork, which is aimed at supporting “vulnerable” service users. For some agencies, all clients will fall into the category. For others, only some of their clients will.
  • We’re creating a community of “agency champions” and carefully considering with them if an online community would work.
  • Developing leaflets, posters and a website resource to explain Patchwork to both professionals and service users and share documents and news
  • Contributing to the design of family/group functionality in Patchwork, for launch in the new year (again, legal work under-way).

An Emerging Phase 3 – Design Projects

While the current phase is ratcheting up, I’m thinking about a phase 3 in Brighton & Hove, which is about design projects in places where the right blend of problem and problem-solvers exists. We have a one day workshop coming up involving some young people in care to look at their experiences of the system. We also have work planned around “supporting families” which will directly involve parents alongside front line professionals. This will be sponsored by our Troubled Families initiative, Stronger Families, Stronger Communities. These design projects will help us understand better what we need (and don’t need) from digital tools and where our ways of working are causing problems. But more importantly, it’s also how we are providing more spaces for open and creative innovation from the people who are best placed to do design – service users and front line professionals.

Phase 1 (Nov 2011-Oct 2012) – Creating Safe Ground

At the beginning of phase one of the project, we launched to a big and enthusiastic audience. Multi-agency communication was very clearly a big problem. But there was one huge elephant in the room that didn’t take too long to start charging around, trumpeting loudly, knocking tables over and scaring people. Information governance. It was something we knew would be a key issue, but in all honesty, we didn’t at that stage have a convincing enough answer for people who were nervous about moving what was often standard off-system practice into an auditable online space. We had to respond to this.

As I outlined in my talk at the Patchwork launch, getting a solid answer to the information governance question took absolute priority. In fact it turned out we couldn’t move far with any workstream until this work was done and communicated. Engagement was often difficult, with understandable scepticism in some teams. There were interesting differences between different staff groups and there was a sense at times that other issues might be hiding behind the legal question – stuff that we couldn’t get to until we tamed the elephant. We did the legal work, we answered the questions. We designed a pilot that was appropriate for the cultural stage we were at (limited agencies dealing with less sensitive issues).

Over time we tamed the elephant .. and look at him now ..!

(Copyright Random House Children’s Books Elmer the Patchwork Elephant)

Now that I’m speaking to people again in preparation for the full launch, there’s a sense that most people have really begun accept that the broad, thin connecting base between public service professionals is legally and technically possible. Indeed, it is necessary! And of course, the fantastic support from decision-makers for phase 2 has sent a clear message. (Big acknowledgement to Steve Barton for that).

Let me digress very quickly to explain the case we made: We have successfully argued – for children so far – that professionals knowing about each other’s existence is the minimum necessary for co-operation. It’s simple isn’t it, which is a great sign.. You can see the main legislation we are relying on here (Children Act 2004, Section 10). And we hope to argue similarly for adults (will let you know!). It should be noted that “minimum necessary” is something that we can keep looking at as we go forward, balancing privacy with the need to be more effective in a multi-agency context.

With our now clear message on information governance, what I have been finding in recent conversations is a much greater willingness to engage on the potential of the tool. We have always had our enthusiasts, but we’re now seeing previously cautious teams get engaged with the possible benefits. We’re also learning how to describe these more clearly, perhaps with a greater sense of confidence!

The other day I had a great conversation with a team that works with children. We were thinking about the impact of them being connected through Patchwork with a professional delivering services to the child’s father. This doesn’t tend to happen at the moment through other means. As the team considered this, there was some trepidation – is that OK? – but quickly winning out was a sense of how useful that conversation might be and how much more effective the work could become with the family. Six months ago I think we would have got stuck on – is it OK. But there’s more confidence now – creative thinking is beginning to flourish on this safe ground we’ve created.

So whilst there will be other wild animals to tame along the way, I think we’ve shown we can do it, and do it by the book. We can open up clear spaces for professionals. This is enormously helpful for a system which has over time invoked fear among professionals and led to a kind of constipation.

I’m looking forward to phase 2, working with professionals in this cleared space and helping create a community. But I’m REALLY looking forward to working with service users in phase 3. We are very conscious of them not being here and know they need to be at the heart of things as soon as possible.

Troubled Families, Design & Technology

Despite a good deal of healthy debate about the government’s Troubled Families initiative, councils are now busy identifying families, recruiting new staff and beginning to think about their longer term strategies. Many newly appointed local co-ordinators will be looking for ways to instigate whole system change because they see there is real potential to achieve a lot in the three years of the programme. Some of the reasons for optimism include:

  • upfront money, which is paid according to the number of families attaching to the programme
  • the policy focus on dealing with the whole family rather than single issues
  • strong partnership forming between children’s services, adult services and community safety within councils and with partners
  • emphasis in the intervention approach on providing practical support to families, including training and employment

The whole scheme is based on the success of the Family Intervention model (intensive, dedicated support to improve family functioning) which was rolled out in 2006/7 to tackle anti-social behaviour (NATCEN research here) and critiqued here.

Right now, Family Intervention team capacity is being expanded in local authority areas and the Troubled Families Unit have indicated that the group of eligible families with lower level needs will be led by professionals outside of the intensive teams. And beyond the “troubled families” we know there will be a significant number of other families who may be at risk without good quality, persistent early help. This larger group could be around 4% of families in an area (1,000s often).

Troubled Families projects will need to find ways to help professionals in a range of services think about the whole family (or group of people in a household) and support more than just the “presenting” client, but address family functioning, relationships and the context people are in. This is likely to be a shared endeavour, requiring very closely connected teams of professionals around families over a long period of time, and hopefully look carefully about the possiblities beyond services, such as peer support, community support and so on.

Whilst multi-disciplinary “patch” teams might appear to be the answer, we can’t really expect organisations to have the appetite or money to release the amount of staff needed into new teams, with all the practical difficulties and costs associated with accommodation, ICT etc. Major re-structures are no longer sensible or viable.

If we are to have strong, effective teams around families, able to maintain long-term support to the numbers indicated, we have to look at secure web collaboration in my view. A design process is needed that places an absolute focus on the need for families to be fully involved, and practical day-to-day help for front line professionals. An approach that promotes simplicity and minimalism over complexity and exhaustive (and exhausting) functionality.

I rather like this quote:

“The aggregate size of networked resources is much greater than the centralised resources of yesterday” (from Why collaboration is the new oil & gas).

I think Patchwork, being launched tomorrow, shows how design and technology can be used to build useful tools fit for the “networked” future, pushing significant service and culture change in the process. The new generation of tools will help people do their work, not hinder it; and help inform and empower families.

If any Troubled Families teams would like to talk to me about collaborating on this, please do get in touch paul.brewer@brighton-hove.gov.uk