Public Sector Focus

01.03.17

The identity crisis of local government

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 17

Carl Haggerty, a co-founder of LocalGov Digital and chair of its Steering Group, tells PSE that the only way to harness the true power of technology in the public sector is to fundamentally rethink why local authorities exist in the first place.

Although the private sector tends to take most of the credit, the public sector has actually been a world leader in helping establish and harness new technology. But its legacy of being an enabler seems to have been forgotten, with many pushing the idea that we should leave innovation in the hands of the private sector while the sluggish state trails slowly behind – dealing only with the basics of what it must deliver. 

Many regard this reputation – one where public bodies are incapable of exploiting technology as quickly as everyone else – as a money problem. Undeniably, council pockets nationwide are bearing the brunt of austerity measures, despite contrasting trends of growing demand for their services. 

But Carl Haggerty, a co-founder of LocalGov Digital and chair of its Steering Group, argues cash isn’t the issue. Sure, finance is a challenge, but it’s not the problem. “The problem of the sector is,” he told PSE, “do we know why we exist? Are we clear about the purpose of local government? Are we clear about the purpose of public services? And if we’re clear about that purpose, are we delivering it?

“If we’re delivering it, then great, but I don’t believe we are. And if we’re not, then what stops us delivering it, and how do we design better approaches to deliver that clarity of purpose for the public sector?” 

A foundational problem 

The problem councils face – and the reason behind its bad rap – is a set of assumptions that allows services to be designed the way they are, essentially meaning we “don’t see individuals in context”. But what exactly went wrong? 

“The most dominant thinking that’s happening in the sector is that we’re not using technology as a true enabler of change; we’re using technology as an enabler of putting in more layers and barriers between someone you can really help — as opposed to using technology to enable organisations to dynamically respond to that problem,” continued Haggerty. 

“This isn’t about blaming anybody; it isn’t about saying political leaders or senior managers are at fault. This is just how local government has developed over the last 30 years. 

“This is the culmination of how years and years of legislative changes in the sector have had a cumulative impact and a set of unintended consequences, which means  that now, in today’s society, when we have the pressures that we do around finances, a lot of those unintended consequences are becoming really, really visible. 

“We have a society and a political system that is not necessarily investing time and space in really changing the way our public services are delivered.” 

Do councils know what their purpose is? 

Technology has a massive role to play in changing this, he told us: but first and foremost, the people in the sector, himself included, all need to “collectively really look inside ourselves and say: ‘what do we really know about the problems of our sector?’ And if people are answering the problem is the level of financing, then they’re looking in the wrong place”. 

Ultimately, Haggerty says, local government is suffering a crisis of purpose – and the only way out is to change the questions being asked in the first place. Rather than rushing to digitise, councils must realise the purpose of public services is in human relationships, and only then look at how technology can enable that to happen better – something which the Local Government Digital Service Standard (LGDSS) could help with. 

“Then, in that context of designing a new public service environment, we know that there are a number of resources we can pull on,” he explained. “The amount of money we have, the amount of people we employ, the new technology we can play with, the data we capture. And we can design around those constraints. 

“But we seem to be starting in the wrong place, which is: ‘we have a financial problem, let’s put a load of tech in to ease that problem’ – as opposed to saying: ‘actually, we have a crisis of purpose’. We have an identity crisis in public services at the moment; I’m not sure we know why we’re here.” 

543 ThinkstockPhotos-473710764

Learning from new service models 

As councils start to redesign services, they will then have the opportunity to think creatively about how to turn problems into “the simplest and most effective relationship or transaction”. 

“It’s really about understanding the scope of technology and, more importantly, the scope and role of data and its visibility, and designing around the problem in new ways,” said Haggerty. 

“That’s about bringing multidiscipline people into a space together, including the person who the service is about, and really trying to design in an iterative fashion a new model of delivery – whatever that is, whether it’s a new model of conversation or new model of interaction. And then learn from it. 

“As long as we’re designing a learning loop and a feedback loop, then we’ll continually repeat that cycle and, over time, we’ll evolve to have really slick, innovative and dynamic local public services.” 

Beyond short-term fixes 

It’s indisputable that several local authorities, especially those which have started to employ digital transformation directors, have made significant savings through quick and easy tech fixes. This is especially true for low-complex transactional services, such as parking, council tax and housing payments. But while that does help alleviate the pressure on their finances, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have taken the time to clarify why they exist, and what role they play in their constituency.

“They just happen to have alleviated a temporary financial challenge,” said Haggerty. “When we look forward over the next three to five years, those councils who have already invested in technology are still going to face financial challenges, and the potential challenges of bankruptcy, if they don’t fundamentally rethink why they exist. 

“There is a massive opportunity here, but it still all comes back to: what’s the problem to solve? Are we clear about that? Where is the evidence for it? What’s the thinking that led to that problem being created in the first place, and how do we change the paradigm? How did we get to the point where our traditional response to the public sector is to do things to people? How have we reached this position, and how can we shift it to being a true enabler of helping people live the best lives they can live? 

“Local services are about human relationships. Unless we come back to that, we have fundamentally lost the purpose of why public services exist. The future of public service is its human interaction. If we’re focused on making that human connection the best it can be at the first point of time that you speak to someone across any public service, then inevitably you will save money.” 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.localgovdigital.info 

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