Archive for July 2010
The day of great conversations
Today was the final day of the LGA Conference and for me it turned into a day of some great conversations and ended with a bizarre twist and the realisation that lots of work still has to be done.
Over the previous 2 days those that stopped by at the stand ranged from those with a genuine interest to those who were there just to have a go on the wii or pick up a business card holder. Today was different. Nearly all the conversations today were great ones. We had councillors asking us to talk to their service areas so that they could learn from us; I had the chance to show how to mash an RSS feed into Google Maps to show detail; I asked aCounty Councillor to consider shared ICT services with a neighbour; I asked another councillor to go back and find out who their BA was!
I really think that many of those who visited the Digital Inclusion stand went away educated, and I would hope in some way inspired to include Digital Inclusion in future plans for their councils.
I also managed to have some great conversations with other exhibitors (unfortunately I did not win the IPad). I learned today about the cultural transformation programme that Fenland District Council has implemented. It was very impressive to hear how it has changed the organisation from a demotivated, hierarchical council to one that driven by the employees for the benefit of the citizen.
Fenland have really understood that Leadership is different to Management and that people respond differently to leaders than managers. Many authorities and many companies can learn a great deal from that approach. (Learn to relax, learn to win.)
I also had a conversation with the Big Lottery Fund who are looking to support a number of projects that could really change peoples lives. In addition there will be the chance to bridge the Digital Inclusion gap with this funding.
By the time the Councillors and delegates had left to tell Michael Gove what they thought of him, I was on the way home feeling quite smug that, maybe, I had made a difference.
The bizarre twist
Having battled the traffic I got home and changed hats. One of my personal roles is Vice Chairman of Solihull Round Table and was invited to attend a local community meeting to help understand Council priorities for the future. I really thought that this was very timely.
It was a real shock entering that room to find that I was the only representative of a community group and the other attendees consisted of Local Council officers, Local Councillors (none of whom were at LGA) the Fire Service and the Police Service. The local people had put their trust in their councillors.
The conversations resolved around the work that the Council was planning to improve the neighbourhood and they were asking for affirmation that this approach was correct. The data used to formulate the projects was years out of date, a point quickly picked up on by the Councillors.
On Tuesday Eric Pickles made it very clear that from now on Councillors were in charge, the community knows what’s best and the council needs to meet the needs of the locality. Big Society was born!
The bizarre twist was that these Councillors did not know what was happening in their area and did not seem enthused to find out. I challenged the Councillors at the meeting and they admitted that they only learned and followed the bad news stories (such as bin collections!) and never the good news stories.
The council had put a lot of effort in trying to engage with the local people but actually had a poor response from the public. It happened that I was also a resident of the area discussed and it turns out that I was putting my trust in these Councillors to accurately represent my needs to the council. I have never even met my councillor, how can they tell the council what is working well or needs to be improved?
The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) has released an excellent paper discussing the need for engagement with the community and how Councils should work with community groups to understand local needs. It also describes the roles that Councillors should take in the future to meet the expectations of Central Government.
My personal experience has made me feel that unless the community realises what is expected of them, their councillors will not change their attitudes and we will continue along the same path with the Council second guessing what local people want by using out of date data.
My challenge to Councillors: Get on the street, talk to every resident, learn what’s working and what’s broken. Ask the RIGHT questions!
My challenge to Community Groups: Be part of the Council, get involved, make sure your voice is heard, be active, promote the good and the bad.
Till next time,
Day 2 of the LGA Conference in Bournemouth got off to a bad start, my colleague and I had our cars broken into overnight and she had some items stolen. Luckily (if there is a lucky side) neither car was damaged. Needless to say this put a bit of a damper on our enthusiasm, but we rallied and did our best!
I would describe today as a mixed success – the number of people stopping by fell, however those that did come stopped and chatted for some time and, hopefully, went away with new ideas about Digital Inclusion. We also had a few repeat customers who, having thought over night about what we said, wanted to find out more.
There was a lot of discussion regarding the future of councils and the scope of their empowerment. I found that many of our visitors were interested in how the Beacon Councils have saved money by delivering services more efficiently through innovative use of ICT. It appeared that Digital Inclusion aimed to support the community and individuals directly was not on their radars.
I made the point today of asking our visitors what did they think the challenge was for Digital Inclusion in their areas. Two main concerns came to mind:
- Lack of access to broadband
In the majority of cases this was limited to accessing broadband in rural areas, however in some cases it was lack of high speed broadband that was causing the issue.
Many rural areas are still suffering from lack of coverage, however schemes and ideas do exist to help these communities. Schemes such as Staffordshire Moorlands Digital Bus which visits these areas, bringing with them a host of ICT equipment and connectivity to introduce people to the benefits of the internet. In other areas community centres are being used to host digital spaces. Where the centre is already connected, opening it up to allow access to other users is a benefit to the whole community.
Schools are another example of where they can be used as a hub of Digital Excellence in rural areas. One councillor I was speaking to was advocating that schools should be open 7 days a week around the year and become more than a traditional school.
The second element of lack of access to broadband concerns high speed broadband. For those areas luckily enough to be ‘covered’ and hitting the 2mbps universal commitment the next challenge is about how to attract new business to their area if they cannot provide high speed connectivity.
Large businesses have the ability to pay for what they want – if they want 100mbps lines then they pay and they get. Small businesses cannot afford this luxury and so instead are looking for locations that can provide these speeds “off the shelf”. By not having this high speed internet access innovation is being stifled and ideas are quashed. What would a council say if it learned that the next Micro-Goo-App-Soft-le-le decided not to invest in their area because while they were small they could not get the broadband support that they needed at the time.
A number of Authorities around Birmingham, UK, have got together and formed the City Region group. One of their aims is to promote the availability of high speed broadband to enhance the region as a location for new businesses. A workstream of the group is to define planning guidance that will ensure any new developments (commercial or residential) will be capable of delivering high speed broadband to the premises.
To do this the region is asking planning departments to include requirements that ducting needs to be included in any new designs.The ducting will be used by the telecom operators to provide high speed fibre to the development to enable the speeds desired by companies.
A plan for the future roll out of broadband across the UK is essential. To become a digital nation we must accept that there is an urgency to clear the ‘not spots’ so all areas can receive broadband – but we cannot stop there. We need to be looking to the high speed future that is essential to keep innovation alive.
- The finances don’t add up
I mentioned yesterday that the need for a suitable business case still has to be found. When speaking to Councillors today they were asking for the Golden Egg, that pot of cash that will be saved by investing in Digital Inclusion. I was happy to point out that Digital Inclusion is not 1 large egg but many small eggs that make up the savings. Unfortunately, although they agreed in principle, I doubt that they were anyway ready to sign and Digital Inclusion projects off!
Having been given time to reflect on the announcement that Local Authorities were going to be held responsible to voters and not to central government this gave me the chance to talk to the Councillors about what the voters wanted. Councillors have a duty to listen and how would they react if they were told that the voters wanted to be Digitally Included and that it was the roll of the council to create the environment that will support growth in this area. Would the Councillors then consider investing in community centres, or as mentioned above, transform schools to become the hub of the community with ICT facilities available to all.
When looking at the same problem from a different angle, the Councillors were suddenly warming to the idea. If the message is delivered by the voters, loud and clear, to the Councillors then Digital Inclusion can happen.
A surprise conversation and a challenge
One of the final people that I talked to today was from the construction training industry, a fellow exhibitor who stopped by the stand drawn in by one of the freebies! We got talking about the importance of Digital Inclusion in general terms and I started to think about how Digital Inclusion could be relevant to the construction training industry. I had a small eureka moment.
The courses that the construction training industry delivers are not just about putting one brick on top of another, they, like nearly all courses, include elements of research and the submission of coursework. Why don’t a training provider, like the construction industry, work with a local authority to retrain individuals who are receiving benefits. In return the local authority would fund a PC and broadband connection for the duration of the course.
By providing the ICT to support the individual during their course would lead, hopefully, to an increased pass rate and less drop-outs. These increased skills would enable the individual to come off benefits sooner than if they had not taken the course, leading to a cashable saving for the council. (I cannot deny that there will be risks such as unfortunate job market etc, or guarantees that the course will lead to a job.)
I came to the conclusion that people need a reason to use a computer and succeeding in training could be the enabler that is required to make Digital Inclusion work. I think that this could be the start of a viable business case.
My challenge then is to Local Authorities to work with education provider and become that business case. Make Digitial Inclusion work.
Till next time,
Tomorrow is the last day of the LGA Conference. If you’re around call in and see me on the Digital Inclusion stand, or alternative follow the twitter hashtag #lgaconf
On Tuesday 6th July 2010 I will be in Bournemouth attending the Local Government Association 2010 Conference.
It will be one of the first major events since the general election and the emergency budget, both of which have had a profound and urgent affect on Local Authorities up and down the country.
In October 2009 the SOLACE conference was flagging warnings about the situation to come. I am going to be interested to see if Local Authorities heeded the SOLACE message and how much of a ‘shock’ the emergency budget is having.
It is a time for Local Authorities to think beyond the norm are realise that how they have delivered services in the past may well not be the way to deliver the services in the future.
ICT is going to play a huge part in the future of service delivery for local authorities, both as a tool to process information but also as a way to shape services into 2011 and beyond. The new government has already shown the way to engage with tools such as:
- Your Freedom – the chance of members of the public to challenge the laws of the UK
- The Spending Challenge – inviting Public Sector Workers to tell it how it is and how it should
Changes are happening and this Government is serious about ICT. The challenge for Local Authorities is how to use ICT so that it delivers cashable savings and not become a Money Pit.
To me it is all about attitude and vision. Too many local Authorities are thinking about the immediate future but forgetting the long term benefits that ICT can bring. We need Local Authorities to plan for the future and be prepared to invest now and save later.
In addition it is necessary, when looking at the savings, to realise that there may not be a single ostrich that will lay a golden egg, instead it may be made up of many hummingbirds laying a lot smaller golden eggs. Digital Inclusion is an example of little savings making a big pot.
I will be looking to update this blog and will be tweeting while I am in Bournemouth, and if you’re around get in touch.
Till next time