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Confessions of a #LocalGovCamp attendee – part 2

With day 1 of LocalGovCamp 2017 down, it was time to see what day 2 entailed, (and more amusingly, how people’s heads were feeling after the meal/social event the prior evening).

Day 2

This was the main event – the unconference.  For those unused to the term, an unconference is an event that is loosely structured, with the main content created by suggestions from the attendees themselves – you can read the Wikipedia article for a full definition.

Again, as per previous years, there was no end of suggested topics from the attendees on the day, leading to my usual problem of figuring out which session I should go to. I took a leaf out of Harvey Dent’s book and used a coin to decide the following schedule, although there are notes online for all of the sessions that took place that day.

Session 1 – “Have we stopped innovating?” – Simon Gray (Birmingham City Council)

This was intended to provoke discussion, and it certainly did.

In the current climate, where every council is putting together some kind of self-service offering (more on that later), apps for some services, and funky new user-centric website designs, this type of innovation is now just an expected part of our digital offering.  However, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t still pushing ourselves to find better ways of working, or to create something that will save time and money for everyone involved.

We discussed why we don’t celebrate our innovations, and, with such a subjective term, how do we actually measure “innovation” anyway? Practically, we can put a mix of quantifiable and subjective measures around feedback, customer satisfaction, return on investment/savings, perceived culture shift, and the “we’re the first to do this” claim on a report, but even then we face blockers. These can stem from internal politics, working in silos (or trying to do all the work ourselves instead of bringing in partners to plug the gaps in skills/understanding), lack of R&D funding and an organisation being risk-averse – especially if that risk relates to a long-term investment.

The session ended with a thought-provoking idea – shouldn’t we be asking the public for more ways to improve our services?

Fourth confession  – this blog was referred to at the start of the session as one of the first in the public sector to talk openly about what we were doing and why, which gave me a sense of pride and a bit of shame. I am very much aware that we aren’t really posting as frequently as we used to, and this is something I’ve just got to plan into my workload, and encourage the team to do the same.

Session 2 – “Portals and My Accounts” – Linda O’Halloran (GDS)

This was a slightly controversial session, as it challenged our perception that the public want to have online accounts to interact with councils. Plus, I’ve got a bugbear with the overuse of the word “portal” to describe a website service, so felt a kinship with those others in the crowd who also flinched when that word was used in the pitch. We don’t call Amazon a portal, yet that has the same functionality – basic information that requires a login to make a transaction, as well as allowing you to maintain your own personal info. A portal to me is either a couple of great video games, or something you hear about as a method of getting people around in sci-fi/fantasy.

The general truth of the matter is that the public don’t usually think about their local council until they need something, and the majority of the interactions are one-offs.  So why are we obsessed with driving people to create online accounts with us?

Realistically, online services do provide benefits for the public and for the council, but the weighting can be more on our side of the fence. As with anything online we can monitor usage of our services and resources more effectively, encourage self-service so that we aren’t having to spend so much on each interaction, and it does allow the customer to do things quicker if they’re interacting with us on a regular basis.

The trick in making it even easier for all customers lies with making our online services work with or without the need to sign up or log in each time. Give people the chance to report anonymously, or to fill in the form as a one-off, with a prompt to create an account later with the info they’ve already provided. There were comments from some in the session that they do see drop-out rates climb when people are forced to create an account before they can submit anything online – so it’s in our best interests not to put those people off using the most cost-effective channels we have.

We touched upon the use of GOV.UK’s Verify service for identity assurance (which would be beneficial where our services cross over between public sector bodies), and ways we could make having a council account more appealing – such as having it as a membership service with discounts for local shops/activities. It’s definitely something I’d not considered before, and it’s definitely worth investigating further as a way to help promote the local economy.

Session 3 – “LocalGov Digital – what’s the user need?” – LocalGov Digital

For those who don’t know, LocalGov Digital is the network of people in local government who are responsible for building and maintaining digital services, and a core group of this network are the organisers of the LocalGovCamp itself.

This session came out of an impromptu meeting of the regular members the day before, where we discussed some of the comments, concerns and suggestions about the group, its membership and its aims.  The general feeling was that it wasn’t clear to outsiders how to become a member (it’s simple – everyone in local government who wants to be a part of it can contribute), and there was a need to formalise the process around the steering group and electing a chairperson.

The number of people with various backgrounds in and around the public sector who attended the session, and this range, along with their input, was validation in itself that the group is still required. The user needs were written down on post-it notes using the agile “as a ____ I need to ____ so that I can ____” approach, and soon filled up a section of the wall of the room we were in.

While the specifics were varied, they all added up to a common theme – we all want to improve local public sector service delivery, and the network can help us compare notes, share our work, and provide common standards for us all to work to.

Fifth confession – I’ve mentioned this earlier, but I’m in awe of what other people have achieved, and there were a lot of those people in that session (such as Phil Rumens, Nick Hill, Linda O’Halloran, Ben Cheetham, Gavin Beckett, Matthew Cain, Simon Gray – and so many more). I feel honoured to be part of this group, and really want to try and do more to contribute and promote what this group is doing.

Session 4 – “200+ local authorities, how do we collaborate?”

This was a good follow-on from the previous session, and addressed the elephants in the room around the shrinking budgets for the public sector and the fact that a lot of us are working on similar projects, but separately.

We covered the potential for engaging suppliers for joint projects, using their skills and resources to build solutions to our specification, and contributing funds for R&D processes (something that the majority of us lack, either through financial, time, or political constraints). We’ve also talked about the LGDSS, and the use of open source, both in terms of procuring new services, and sharing what we’ve already built.

To wrap up…

Two long days (and a fun social night out) = one tired, but enthusiastic Dale.

It was great to catch up with people I know, meet some new faces, learn new things, and, more encouragingly, see that central government organisations, local councillors and suppliers were keen to be involved with these events so that we can share more, and make things better for everyone.

On the point of local councillors, it was great to chat to the leader of one council during the social, and hear about the great session that was pitched by a newly elected member for the unconference (“Help I’m an elected member”). Both of whom were enthusiastic about what they do, open to new ideas, and are actively seeking ways to make things easier for local government to do their jobs and let the public have their say.  They really want to challenge the perception of councillors, and are willing to embrace change, even if that does mean going against the party line at times.

If you haven’t been to a LocalGovCamp, you really do need to go next year.  Still not convinced? See what others have said about the event – you may change your mind!

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