People and processesChange ManagementLocal government ‘is the maddest bag of things ever’

Local government ‘is the maddest bag of things ever’

Jason Kitcat, Executive Director, Corporate Development at Essex County Council shares his thoughts on the journey local government has made in the last year and some predictions for 2019.

Jason Kitcat, Executive Director, Corporate Development at Essex County Council, former Head of Policy & Public Affairs at the fintech accounting firm Crunch and award-winning Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council until he stood down in May 2015, is a champion for digital transformation and passionate about local government and public policy. At the recent techUK Future Gazing: Where Next for Local Government Tech in 2019? event, he shared his thoughts on the journey local government has made in the last year and some predictions for 2019.

Jason started by outlining how Essex County Council is the second largest council in the UK after Birmingham and that it’s fortunate to be given £2m of budget to invest in a service design function, which he believes is the first in the UK. Despite this, he shared, it doesn’t mean the council gets everything right, not least because it’s really, really hard!

“Local government is the maddest bag of things ever,” he said. “There is no business that would bring together rat-catching, pothole filling, school admissions, improve equalities, inward investments and tourism promotion. It’s just random. You can’t go ‘what would Steve Jobs do?’ because he just wouldn’t! As a result, there’s not one local government in the world that has nailed it, you can’t just hit copy and paste and expect everything to work. There are silos of goodness that we can take and learn from, but not one overall package.”

The journey

Jason continued on to outline the journey the sector had made in 2018 – and pointing out some of the main barriers to success. “For me, 2018 has been a year of building capabilities, changing mindsets and how to beat the elephant which is legacy. We do talk about it, but not enough. In Essex we’ve got 1,200 legacy applications that we know about, there are 60 websites that we know about. Unpicking it all is painful. Add in contractual relationships, some of which are over 10 years long, and it gets even harder. Next time somebody says, ‘we can just be like Amazon’ they will get punched, because we can’t. They started with a blank sheet. They didn’t have hundreds of years of legacy or odd bylaws. For example, we had a bylaw in Brighton that said you can’t drum at certain times, in certain areas, in certain ways, on certain types of drum. This randomness impacts on our ability to do things.

“Also, without naming names, there are big technology companies and consultancies out there who think they’ve solved adult social care. I can tell you they have not! You only have to spend an hour with them for them to realise it too. We were once told all people had to do was buy a smart watch. If they’re in our care they have no money – buying an expensive watch isn’t going to happen. And they’re not going to suddenly start jogging!

“However, we are on a great journey and we are making meaningful changes. Collaboration and new ways of working are starting to make a difference. When we started building a new website for the county of Essex – www.essex.gov.uk – we were able to do a lot of work with Stockport and its code base, rather than starting from scratch using opensource code they built.”

Successes

Continuing to look back at the journey of Essex County Council in 2018, Jason told event delegates: “This year we’ve also done a lot of work on upskilling, design thinking and agile working, and we thought there would be a lot of scepticism about it and pushback on its adoption. Yet, people became believers – they passionately took it on board. The elements that have been harder, when I look back, is building trust. Overcoming the issue of who makes decisions and building belief in senior level decision-making has been difficult. It’s definitely still a work in progress.

“The Local Digital Declaration has been a massive success story. Essex didn’t get funding – but I’m cool with that. For me, the money is secondary to the fact we’re now collaborating. We’re all talking to each other, which is priceless.

“Another positive is G-Cloud. We’ve really developed our use of it over the last year and the experience of working with SMEs has been so positive. They just do a really good job. The idea that we can have a relationship of trust, not a sales-based one, is amazing and something we’re looking to build on. Most people in the public sector get out of bed in the morning to do something positive – they don’t need to worry about providers benefitting from long-term contracts abusing their position and trying to screw them.”

Future vision for local government

Looking forward, Jason shared his thoughts on what he would like to see happen, and what he thinks the reality will be.

“What I want to happen is more openness, greater collaboration, design thinking to be the heart of things, evidence-based decision making and a greater risk appetite,” he explained. “I want us to be in a mindset where we’re comfortable not knowing if something will work, but we’ve got enough consistency in our methodology to build our predictions around. One of the amazing powers of the toolset at our disposal today is that you can use analytics to get rapid feedback and work out of something is working or not. That’s something local government should get really good at.

“What I think is at risk of happening however, is that ongoing budget pressures and uncertainty – when will we get the settlement figure this year? Who knows? – will send us back into our silos and bring the worse out of us. We’ll suffer from the fear factor. Recruitment will suffer too. I’ve seen some excellent candidates recently who have ben put off joining the public sector because of the lack of job security.

“Finally, I would like to add something that will stir up the vendor community. We’ve had the year of GDPR, so how about we have a year of liability in software. I think software providers need to start taking liability. All of these disclaimers about them not being liable for errors in their code can’t go on. We’ve got to have a growing up moment. The people willing to step up and take it on have a huge opportunity to get ahead in the changing supplier landscape.”

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