local government digital

How and why I got into Local Government

I’ve never done this before. But following a thoughtful and challenging post by Carl Haggerty on Friday 13th February I was moved to write this my first blog post.

I left university with an engineering degree with a heavy flavour of “lean” realising that people were much more interesting than machines or computers. This led to five years as a volunteer, then paid member of staff working with people in recovery from substance misuse. I carried my “lean” thinking with me, particularly respect for individuals as part of a wider system of actors and processes, and with antennae attuned to spotting waste and potential improvements. Through this work I came to realise that although the acute therapy was essential and helped people to make amazing life changes, they were still stuck in a wider system of debt, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and often unhelpful social circumstances. Unfortunately this wider system continued to work against the person in recovery.

“Paddling upstream” or trying to uncover the root cause is a key principle of lean which led me on to taking a role with Citizens Advice to work on the “wider system”. My main work was developing policy and management guidance which took me from Durham to Lostwithiel, and Aberystwyth to Norwich. Much of my work was with service users, bureaux managers and trustees, looking at barriers and access to services. This experience led me to believe that services were available for people but the information and access routes were fragmented and confused. Services were definitely not designed with the end user in mind, with the result that vulnerable people often could not access services or apply for benefits which would improve their lives.

In 2007 I joined Kent County Council as part of the Gateway “Front Office Shared Service” team. In a nutshell the idea of Gateway was to create a face-to-face google, a friendly first step where the public could ask anything and not be sent down the road or across town. Someone would listen, take responsibility and offer practical help toward resolution. From the start we worked with partners, districts, boroughs, VCS, central government and we wanted to provide an integrated response not just a brand with a load of concessions inside.

To help us on that route I worked with service designers such as Live:Work, Engine and our own SILK. Working with cross-functional, and cross-agency teams, and real customers to design, to prototype, to guerilla test. It was brilliant, exciting, tiring and rewarding and the results in terms of customer satisfaction and savings through property rationalisation were very good. We even got awarded a green flag by the Audit Commission for the leadership we had shown in working with partners.

Alongside the service design, engagement and ethnography, I also realised early on that we needed to build a complimentary data based evidence model to ensure that we had the right balance of partners in each location. Working with 18 local government partners across northern France and Kent we set up CBOOPSD (in French!) to use anonymised data sets, segmented through Experian MOSAIC to build a predictive demand model by location. The overwhelmingly positive results for Ashford Gateway Plus in terms of footfall, take up and customer perception showed the power of customer insight applied appropriately. This was copying work that big supermarkets and others in the private sector had been doing for several years but it was very new for local government.

Of course we wanted more and we hoped that through redesigning the front end contact we would draw back office services in to redesign conversations. We were trying to blend service design techniques with principles of lean such as citizen customers “pulling” services rather than us “pushing” them. This certainly worked in many areas such as housing, registration, planning etc. Our successful partnership work led us on to putting our hand up to be part of the Tell Us Once pathfinder group, delivering significant customer experience benefits to bereavement reporting.

We also had an aspiration to go multichannel and to take the Gateway service model online and to telephone channels. Then of course in late 2009 and certainly by 2010 the austerity agenda was hitting local government and priorities changed.

Most recently I have been leading a programme looking at our high demand services and redesigning new digital by design services. These are not thin veneer web services with an untouched back office. These are brave and bold redesigns where the back office is removed almost entirely and the fulfilment is as deep and as immediate as possible on line.

This leads me on to a final point and one which I am becoming more and more fascinated by. I’m not sure big “change programmes” work any more. I am coming to believe that every decision at some level is an emotional decision. The role of the change manager is now to “coach” the service manager. To help and challenge the service manager to express what the service aspiration is. To discover together, through the evidence, through user engagement, what the customer need is. To be clear about the statutory duty and what it means. To help the service manager work through the emotional cycle of change, fear, denial, loss, disbelief, through to hope. To have faith in the design process to build something more elegant and which creates more value. To take an agile approach building in direct feedback from service users. To realise potential and to eliminate waste. For the design to be fit for purpose we need to support the service manager through the experience of change. Ultimately the change will only work, and the saving will only be realised if they undergo change themselves. And as Carl said we have to be prepared for change ourselves, prepared to give up some things in order that the wider system can benefit.