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Ben Cheetham · local gov digital

Reflections on working in local government transformation

Today marks 6 months since I left Guildford Borough Council as the IT developer in the Business Transformation Team and moved to work in the shared service for Royal Borough of Kingston and London Borough of Sutton as their Digital Service Design Lead.

I had become very jaded at Guildford because there had for a number of years been a complete lack of leadership at senior levels compounded by a rapid succession of director and IT management changes that just made it impossible to make progress on anything meaningful within the IT service, let alone make any headway on redesigning services for the public we served. The team dwindled in size during that time which made matters worse, such that by the time I left the team was going to just be a single business analyst - sorry Alex!

Despite people from outside suggesting otherwise, it didn’t feel like we were making any sort of progress. Looking back now, despite all the shit and lack of acknowledgement or appreciation of the work we were doing I can see we did or supported some really good work either officially or unofficially including Local Waste Service Standards and Surrey Digital Services Address Lookup API.

I can’t take even one ounce of the glory for this but Rob Spiers did some fantastic work off his own back using data from Environment Agency and Ordnance Survey to determine buildings with a suitably sized south-facing rooftop that could be potential sites for solar panels.

I think we designed and built one of the best set of household waste services. It’s also heartening to know many of the products I built are still running now and to know they’ve outlived products that were bought to replace them because they meet needs and do it well.

Moving to Kingston and Sutton has felt like moving from a small village corner shop to a hypermarket. The scale and number of people is huge by comparison with the usual departmental silos multiplied by there being 2 councils involved.

This is my first experience of a shared service and it’s successes has mirrored some of my preconceptions. It’s easier to share infrastructure and real commodity technology like email. For the most part people don’t even know about that stuff and the user need is so common that there is little to quibble over. It gets a bit harder when it comes to line of business systems, either consolidating on a single instance or at least jointly procuring them. The challenge however has been when it comes to properly redesigning services or delivering them in the same way. That’s when it becomes really hard with all the politics and it also brings to the fore the difference in the cultures of the organisations. This has certainly been reflected in the outcome of the Digital programme that was coming to a close as I started and means I and others have a tough job to work with services to get them to engage.

Reflecting on my experiences there are some areas that I think are important to be successful in transformation:

  • User needs - you can’t ignore or argue with them without looking like an idiot. They’re an important tool when breaking down barriers between services within an organisation, but even more so when you’re trying to get 2 organisations to work together. Researching user needs is not something organisations can cheat on by just using data or a couple of anecdotes. Real users need to be included throughtout the project.

  • Start small. It takes time to build a team and get them working together and establish a presence and a rhythm as well as trust with the organisation. Make sure you celebrate success within the team and recognise you are doing the right thing. Keep projects focussed so you can start delivering quickly and showing progress.

  • Look at the service design end-to-end. Front office, back office, payment office and any other office that’s involved. Include people from all those areas and get them all together. The focus is on making this stuff better for users, it’s not about getting rid of the bits of work their team dislikes and trying to just shift it onto another team. It can take time to some of these parties to engage, but be persistent.

  • Be open about what you’re doing so others can learn, join in, see progress as well as lack of progress and start thinking about how they can change. It might also help the organisations move from ‘everyone wants to solve the problem’ to ‘everyone wants the problem to be solved’. I’ve lost count of the number of groups that are looking at transformation across the 2 councils. In some cases this results in needless competition and friction and in others it’s just a wasteful duplication of effort.

  • I’m also convinced more than ever that you just need to get a team of competent people that bring a mix of the right skills together with a budget to get the tools they need and an avenue to get senior support, quickly. Then give them time to sit down with services, engage with them and explore user needs and then work together to redesign services that do the actual things actual people actually need. It doesn’t matter which department’s budget pays the salary of the people. Focus on the skills and experience they bring.

  • Be agile. Iterate the service you are designing and just as importantly, the team. Learn from what you do to make things better next time.