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Flares are back and Aylesbury is the connected knowledge trendsetter

How do you spot a new trend before everyone else? How do you see it coming? Look up, wake up and be hyper aware. One thing is for certain - new trends come from outliers, not averages.

Who would have thought that a forester and an ergonomist (yes I had to look that up too - ‘improving human efficiency in the workplace’) from the affluent county of Buckinghamshire could be the next big thing in local government?

The creative mindsets and adventuring spirits of Andrew Grant CEO and Maryvonne Hassall IT Strategy Manager (ex Unipart) have worked together to pull this off.

Andrew kindly spared me an hour and a half from his very busy schedule last week to discuss how it happened.

Andrew and Maryvonne have taken a completely fresh perspective by turning local government on its head with its Connected Knowledge – Technology Strategy 2017-2022.

Make no mistake - this is not a digital strategy but a change strategy. Using technology - not for the sake of it or the hype - but for the same reason the UK has always led the way in technology innovation (from the steam engine) - to make a practical difference to people's lives. To do things we couldn’t do before and replace time spent on drudgery with space for creativity - even for our workforce. Discerning the useful, practical, applicable technologies from the irrelevant ones.

Why Aylesbury and not The Northern Powerhouse or a Central London Tri-borough shared service?

The same reason as David Bowie did his first live gig at the Friars Club in Aylesbury in 1971. Innovation does not happen centre stage - it has to be developed with plenty of practise and hard work - out of the limelight.

Andrew Grant’s thinking is that by providing very desirable services and charging more for some of the universal offers, they can devote more money to helping vulnerable people in their homes. “If the service is worth more, they’ll pay more”. His thinking started 10 years ago, when he realised in 2007 that local government was about to hit the wall as a negative sum equation. Many council leaders are risk averse - Andrew has been acutely risk aware and relentlessly focused on tackling this one critical and potentially terminal condition - through early intervention. Rather than crossing his fingers.  

For example, processing planning permission for loft extensions used to be subsidised by the council to the tune of £1.5 million per year. Now it turns a £0.5 million profit. “If it’s a no - tell them straight away”. With an ergonomic mindset and help from iese.org.uk (a systems thinking charity spun out of six local councils) they have ruthlessly stripped out delays and bureaucracy.

Technically, three things differentiate this strategy from others:

  1. Staff were involved at every stage and level of the development of the Connected Knowledge Strategy and it shows. This is the first technology strategy that unashamedly focuses on staff productivity as well as customer e-services. The staff use the same customer self service web-based applications to provide mediated services for those residents that choose to phone rather than go online.

  2. Legacy systems have not been used as an excuse for inaction - they've been worked around using ‘low code’ rapid application delivery tools. No need to employ armies of coders to lovingly hand craft new council processes - instead they can be tweaked quickly and flexibly as the end service requires, with no development bottlenecks. Applications have already been migrated to the cloud, now they are being stripped away, merged together and connected. Doing it rather than talking about it.

  3. The strategy is the first to bring the use of machine learning, artificial intelligence, Amazon Echo and chatbots into the local government arena in a practical, comprehensive and nuanced way - leapfrogging others.

Will it work in Humberside and Thanet? Not all of it, but the vast majority is common sense with a very intentional and minimal approach to high quality design and technology investment. It’s politically neutral, you can cherry pick the aspects that work in your local context - put a local twist on it. Local government CEOs and IT strategy people: how about we all show some humility and open mindedness and follow their lead, help develop the Aylesbury approach rather than reinventing the wheel? A single minimalist reusable connected knowledge toolkit for all local government.

That’s maximising the potential of shared services.

Aylesbury believes that it can employ as many top quality staff as it needs, pay them competitive rates, and get top quality support from suppliers, if it provides services that emulate the very best user experience we expect in our dealings with ‘disruptive’ private companies.

Why wouldn’t you? Have a fearless fashion moment - follow the trend.  

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Sketches by Yana Stanjo

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Hilary Simpson

Hilary Simpson

Hilary Simpson

Hilary worked in the Government Innovation Team at Nesta, helping to unblock information sharing issues for the Office for Data Analytics pilot projects.

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