I went along to a SOCITM South West event in Exeter last Friday where local authority IT managers were encouraged and challenged to think about the role of ICT in the new world of budget cuts and the big society; specifically, they were asked to try and come up with some possible ‘quick win’ project ideas.
It was really interesting to sit in and get a bit of a view from the ground, but also especially to hear from Jos Creese, SOCITM president, who very clearly and quickly articulated a compelling vision for the central role of ICT in the transformational/cultural change in local service delivery being demanded by the new government. It’s worth seeking out some of his chat if you can (I can’t immediately track down anything from Friday).
I think the final set of project suggestions put forward by the group are still being written but I thought I’d briefly share three of my ideas to encourage innovation – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, met with a mixed reception! These were more about trying to get people thinking in a different way, though, which I think is always a useful thing to do, even if it’s just so that you can dismiss the approach from a position of information rather than prejudice…
- Contribute to an open source project
There’s so much that could be gained by doing this that it seems probably the easiest of easy wins to me. Council staff would increase their understanding of open source software, and probably their trust of it; they would learn a lot about remote working, different development approaches, collaborative problem-solving, rapid iterations etc etc – and all this whilst building something that could be of tangible benefit to their organisation. Think a useful facility in a CMS would be the ability to identify files that need to be tagged for compliance with a government risk management scheme? Why not build it yourself?
(By the way, the biggest objection to this seemed to be ‘but people will be cross that we’re not in the council building doing our busywork’. If that’s the case, I couldn’t help but wonder, how are you able to happily take a day out for an event in Exeter?)
- Develop a Spotify-style/apps approach and bundle up your service in easy, bitesize chunks (maybe sell it, too?)
This idea seemed to be seen as one or several leaps of logic too far, but at the same time I think it’s quite likely to actually come about, possibly even as policy. Have a look, for example, at some of the TSB funding streams, or the Big Society Network‘s talk of a ‘big society store’.Anyway, in short, I’d love to see what local government could come up with in terms of simple apps to enable their community to do things – taking common points of interaction with the council, or useful data that is available, and packaging it up in a simple, useful, accessible tool. I don’t know, it could be providing alerts on planning applications in a given postcode to landlords, or an organagram builder for community groups to self-organise and register their membership.
I think there’s lots about this that is going to be seen as desirable in the near future: the ‘hyperlocal’ approach, putting speed and simplicity first, getting discrete things done rather than trying to build an uber-system. I also think it’d be a great exercise in training council staff about user-centric design. Also, a lot of this is just common sense with the web as it is now (for example, I did find myself cringing at one point when we saw a presentation of a workflow module for a £300k contact management system for reporting of local problems – you just think ‘this isn’t necessary or easy. Just use MySociety’s FixMyStreet already’).
- Invert your firewall
OK, so this one is a little flippant, but I’d certainly be interested to see what would happen if you shut down access to all the enormous internal management systems and opened up Facebook, Twitter and YouTube instead. Might we find that social media can be a more human and quicker way to run large parts of customer contact? Might spending a little more time in places where residents actually converse, rather than staring at workflows and system messages, have an influence on the way staff talk to people? I don’t know but, like I say, trying and finding out is better than assuming.