Just before Christmas I posted some thoughts about several interesting meetings I’d had with public sector designers and innovators in London a few weeks earlier. I also mentioned I’d spent a day when there at an Inside Government conference: Future Councils – New Ways of Working and Delivering Public Services – which was also quite thought-provoking. (25% of public spending in the UK is channeled through local authorities – they are responsible for much that the states and territories, and the Commonwealth, are responsible for supporting, such as education, social services, housing and economic development).
The conference was traditionally structured, leading off with national government bureaucrats acknowledging “a whirlwind of change” etc, foreshadowing further pain, and defending the fact that central government will always have priorities. These speakers were looking to the councils for “Radical Service Transformation”, saw co-design and co-delivery as a part of this change, and warned against central and local government retreating to silos as is often the risk in difficult times. I admit I’ve been in their position before (a Commonwealth bureaucrat defending ‘interesting” policies, programs or positions) but had no compunction in asking questions such as what, specifically, were they doing to help promote design thinking and to support efforts to conceptualise and deliver transformational change? (Answer: it’s a challenge for them! They’ve done a bit but need to work out how to do more…). Bit disappointing.
Fortunately, they were followed by a number of passionate speakers from the trenches of local government, all with ideas to turn the dire financial situation in the UK around with innovation and energy. And they had experiences and lessons to share – two in particular were standouts for me.
There was Chris Williams of Buckinghamshire County Council, who has set up a Transformation Board, worked with the Innovation Unit to co-design new ways of demand management and deals with staff’s resistance to change by getting them to map out customer journeys when customers interact with council – a powerful way of involving staff in co-designing the change. There was Nick Clarke of Cambridgeshire County Council, who runs the largest local government shared services venture in the UK. Its 1100 employees provide strategic, advisory and transactional business support services and they’ve learnt that “perfection is the enemy of success”, that you keep things simple, and that by giving the venture a great deal of autonomy it can change things quickly when they’re not working.
Jenny Coombs, project director of Local Partnerships which is a joint venture between The Treasury and the Local Government Association, spoke of ‘the holy grail” – reducing demand with the consent of customers and reducing cost. She emphasised a place-based as well as customer focused approach – that while customer insights would define opportunities, councils should also understand the advantages of their places, be entrepreneurial and experimental with local suppliers and innovators, and use revenue savings to drive growth in the local economy.
Alistair Gordon and Paul Probert, from the Strategic Services Directorate at Essex County Council, looked at the changing public service landscape more broadly. A continuing fiscal squeeze; the demands of demography with an ageing population wanting access to costly advanced medical technology; changing expectations with more informed and assertive service users; and different community dynamics, with shared interests equally as important as locality. With majority opinion agreed that the current model of local government is outmoded, they posed four questions for councils to consider as they worked out their own road map for change. I think these are equally useful for Australian public sector organisations at every level to ponder:
- What’s the core purpose of your organisation?
- What’s your operating model?
- What relationship do you want with citizens?
- What’s your organisation’s appetite for risk?
Apart from the presentations, I also enjoyed meeting some great local government professionals from around the country. The team from Cornwall who said they’d picked all the low hanging fruit – as professionals who were committed to their sector they knew it was now time for fundamental rethinking of roles and ways of doing things. The young woman from Surrey County Council who’s involved in setting up a new lab to do design-led innovation as part of the council’s investment in radical transformation.
There are clear themes emerging that form part of an overall pattern of public sector challenges and responses around the world – putting the citizen or user at the centre of a whole system or systems-thinking approach; journey mapping; and reconceptualising the skill-sets of the public servant to be flexible, citizen-focused and innovative rather than tied to professional silos – and to have expertise in commissioning and partnering rather than reacting and regulating.