The UK’s LocalGovDigital movement continues to gather pace. Now in its eighth year, their live unconference: LocalGovCamp (no tents required) proves their genuine commitment to innovation for citizens

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Saturday Open Space main event and I have to hand it to the team – it was very well-run. I admire anyone prepared to sacrifice their weekend to manage or attend an event like this. It proves the importance of localgov tech and a passion to innovate for residents. Thank you for making me feel so welcome.

I was a newbie so I spent most of the day listening. I was surprised at the unexpected amount of attendees who shared our interest in coordinating communities with web-based tools. Here’s some of the most important stuff I jotted down from each session. I must admit it was tough to decide which sessions to go to – so many great pitches.

Session 1: Help I’m a newly-elected member!

As a relative outsider to local government, I couldn’t have asked for a better session to start. It really helped me grasp the knottiest challenges facing the sector. Deftly facilitated by Neil Prior – cabinet member for Pembrokeshire, with an IT and Transformation portfolio – he sought advice on how to thrive in his new position. We heard some great suggestions (my favourite being: read Flat Pack Democracy a book about not waiting to be given permission to drive local change).

My impression was that many civil servants at local government level are frustrated with slow progress in digital transformation and need tactics to help drive change in the ‘frozen middle’ management layer. Most suggestions seemed to favour applying negative messaging and pressure to push managers to shift.

It felt to me that a carrot-plus-stick strategy would more likely succeed. I can imagine a campaign spotlighting the benefits of digital transformation reinforced with a few persuasive case studies providing the necessary pull factor for risk averse, cash-strapped managers.

I have to agree with Phil Rumens: witnessing a local councillor facilitate an openspace session about digital innovation in local government on a rainy autumn weekend paints an inspiring vision for the future of local British politics.

I also spent some time afterward hearing about a fascinating policy-mapping project in the Italian region of Lombardy from Joel Rosen who worked at the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing – a lovely suggestion that digital teams should deploy digital tools to solve their own problems.

 

 

Hello campers: Lucy Knight emphasises the importance of not judging other people by their choice of laptop stickers. Photo: Chris Wells, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hello campers: Lucy Knight emphasises the importance of not judging other people by their choice of laptop stickers. (Photo: Chris Wells, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Session 2: What can we do to move the conversation on?

The pre-lunch workshop asked how to start taking real action to drive change and there seemed to be uncertainty around how to influence senior managers (yep, that theme again). The consensus was that fear of failure (or exposure of failure) motivated senior managers to avoid change.

Intriguingly, the solution which won the most support wasn’t digital but a peer-assessment programme with LGD experts evaluating one another’s projects against a service framework. This seems sensible. But I felt it would be far more likely to succeed if it ran alongside an awareness-raising campaign promoting successful case studies.

Someone asked whether a Chief Exec could one day read ‘Which?’-style reports to guide their decisions. It occurred to me that apolitical might be one useful exemplar here – they take a journalistic approach to sharing best practise in policy-design. Could their model be  adapted to LocalGovDigital? We think so.

While still at Nesta, Paul built the CivicExchange platform for CodeForEurope. As well as offering a civic tech ‘app store’, they also applied journalistic standards to reviewing and writing about civic solutions.

Rather like CivicExchange, the Pipeline platform could be enriched with high quality case studies written in layperson’s terms to surface the likely impacts of running certain software and non-digital solutions within local authorities.

What’s more, Phil’s commitment to ‘Mindmap the relevant actors/bodies (localgovdigital, SOCITM, SOLACE, etc’ would make a fantastic open network graph dataset, rather than a mindmap (tools like GraphCommons are now free for this sort of work).

 

A side-on image of Glastonbury Festival's 'Pyramid stage'

Phil Rumens finishing his Pyramid Stage set at this year’s LocalGovCamp before Lucy Knight came on to headline (Photo: Pyramid stage by Rachel Docherty is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Sessions 3 & 4

I decided to attend both afternoon sessions which focused on aspects of coordinating communities and engaging with voluntary groups – an area we’re very familiar with:

We took a broad-brush look at how technology could ameliorate the worst effects of austerity. Rather than exploring the wider picture, we got a bit stalled on ‘data’ but we did manage to look at how digital services and innovation could support groups who want to work more effectively with local authorities.

I was sorry we didn’t have more chance to talk about open data standards like OpenReferral that have the potential to make community group data more accessible and how we adapted that into our Connecting Communities project for Lambeth Council.

The fourth session was much smaller so we were able to discuss more concrete ideas such as the scarcity of bodies currently funding strategic digital projects (aside from Nominet Trust, Comic Relief, The Big Lottery and Esmee Fairbairn). We agreed we’d all love to see a funding body focused strategically on funding UK community/voluntary sector tech since it’s among the biggest factors preventing more community groups developing effective tech.

 

Herne Hill Forum’s low-tech prototype for their wall-wide web community noticeboard shows digital content offline and vice versa, Photo: www.portrayedphotography.co.uk

Coordinating communities analog-style: Herne Hill Forum’s low-tech prototype for their ‘Wall-wide web’ community noticeboard shows digital content offline and (eventually) vice versa. (Photo: Portrayed photography)

A few reflections

I was inspired to see how many bright, local authority digital people had shown up to a weekend conference, eager to develop better services for citizens.

There are signs since the conference (championed by Dan Slee) that the movement is seeing the benefits of strong comms and positive, clear, exciting storytelling and an inspiring vision to aim for. Folk Labs would love to be involved in breathing life into that communications project.

In a future post I hope to go into more detail on how coordinating communities with web tech and their eventual digital transformation might offer benefits both the local authority as well as the groups themselves. But I’ll wait to see what comes out of VCSSCamp2017 before I do.

One point became much clearer after meeting Helen, Ted and Pauline: when we speak about connecting and coordinating communities and voluntary organisations, we don’t necessarily mean that local authorities should impose coordination on their communities. Instead, we’re suggesting that communities should coordinate themselves – facilitated by the local authority.

It was encouraging to discover we’re not alone in believing that vocal, organised voluntary sector and community groups can plan an influential demand-side role by calling for innovation in local government services.


Featured image: Tents by Andy Wright is licensed under CC BY 2.0