Last week I had the good fortune to attend my first LocalGovCamp. An ‘unconference’ bringing together over 130 people with an interest in local government, it has a focus on digital but is not a no-go area for the non-programmers among us. The Camp has no fixed agenda ahead of the day. Instead, attendee’s crowdsource the programme themselves, with those who are interested in hosting a workshop pitching to the room. Finally, the ‘rule of two feet’ applies. If a session is not what you expected, or you want to explore something else – get up and move on!
During the two days I found myself returning repeatedly to a few key themes, some about the sector generally and some about the role of senior officers more specifically:
A key theme I kept returning to throughout the two days was the role of senior officers in supporting and encouraging innovation, service design, digital, agile and the other approaches which epitomise the event. The Leaders’ Summit provided a good launch pad for thinking about this. The event did not follow the usual structure of detailed presentations, followed by Q&A. Instead, it focussed on a series of 10 ‘lightning talks’ of 5 minutes – broken up by a practical session considering a real-life example of service redesign. The focus was not on specific products, services or techniques. It was on the type of approach needed, the capacities that organisations and individuals need to develop & organisational culture. Digital leadership was conceived of as a style of approach rather than the development of a technical understanding. This is something we are considering coming back to at Solace in the autumn – thinking through the ‘right questions’ for Chief Executives and Senior Officers to ask to ensure their organisation is on the right track.
Linked to this, I was surprised by how few of the conversations I was involved in focussed on technology. Over the two days I was involved in debate and discussion about the future of local democracy, importing ‘hacker ethics’ into the public sector, proposals for redesigning a (very complex!) process for claiming housing benefit and more besides. Whilst digital ran right through the centre of many of these discussions, technology (in the traditional sense) did not. The focus, in reality, was on people, culture and ways of working.
Another key reflection is simply the energy, enthusiasm and approach of the people in the room. Throughout the Camp, discussions and workshops were enthused with an ‘agile’ approach. They focussed on what could be fixed now, or at least soon. Grand strategy and long-term vision were relegated to an important, but supporting, role. Front and centre were incremental change, solution focussed conversation and ensuring the best was not an enemy of the good. The scale of the challenges facing the sector can lead us to believe we need an equally ambitious, large-scale programme of change. The lesson was perhaps that, to quote economist Ha-Joon Chang at a recent RSA event, ‘We need radical change in small steps'.
Finally, there was a focus throughout on the scale of change that technology and digital innovation will unleash – and the need for local government and the wider public sector to be ready to respond. At the Leaders’ Summit we heard a presentation from change.org, a platform which is only a few years old but is now capable of mobilising tens of thousands of people in support of a cause. At the main Camp, a session by Catherine Howe of Public-i explored the need for new, deliberative forms of democracy as the digital revolution destroys traditional hierarchical forms of power and replaces them with distributed, networked power structures. Debates like these can feel academic, even dangerously superfluous, in a context of immediate, daunting fiscal and service challenges. Yet if we don’t begin to address them, they could do as much damage to the state, and public services, as any Autumn Statement or Budget.
So where next? On a practical level, the ‘lightning presentations’ from the Leaders’ Summit are now available on the LocalGovCamp 2014 website and are well worth a look. It might also be worth seeking out any LocalGovCamp attendees in your council and talking to them about what they learnt and any small, quick wins you might be able to identify for your authority. Longer term, we at Solace will be thinking about the role of digital leadership in local government and look forward to further discussion with you about this over the coming months.