In the London Borough of Harrow, a programme is underway to change the culture of the council. The aim is to make it more receptive to innovation, and in particular, technological innovation. In this blog, co-written with Cllr Niraj Dattani, one of Harrow’s councillors, we explore the ambitious programme Harrow are taking on.
The need for this programme will be familiar to anyone who’s been following local government in recent years.
Councils are under huge financial pressure and face growing service demands. Since 2010, the Department for Communities and Local Government has suffered the biggest hit when it has come to governmental spending decisions, and at the same time local authorities are being saddled with more and more responsibilities by central government. The Local Government Association’s ‘graph of doom’ (pitting projected expenditure against projected income) suggests local authorities are running out of runway.
The LGA's Future Funding Outlook (2015)
Meanwhile, away from the civic centres and in the co-working spaces and tech hubs, the UK technology sector has been booming, rivalling the world’s best. With global success stories such as ARM and household names such as Shazam and SkyScanner, tech clusters in cities up and down the country are an increasingly important driver for national economic growth. The economy is becoming more digital, and new technologies are automating the delivery of products and services across an ever-growing range of sectors and consumers.
With the tech industry producing profound changes in the way many different sectors of economy work, and councils under pressure to do more with less, surely these two worlds should have met by now? The reality is they haven’t. At least, not truly, madly, deeply.
Nesta’s Connected Councils report bore this out. The research looked into the potential of tech-driven innovation and found that many councils have already changed the way they provide information and how they manage transactions – it’s never been easier to pay council tax or find information about local services online. Indeed, in Harrow, £1.55 million was saved by moving transactional services online.
However, the opportunity offered by new technologies is much greater than digitising information and transactions. But for the most part councils have digitised transactions in isolation, independently reinventing the same wheels, and creating a digital replica of outdated existing processes or shifting the bottlenecks elsewhere. Many departments remain unable to share data easily or are reliant on manual processes to make sense of ‘digital’ transactions.
Connected Councils sets out an ambitious future vision of councils in which tech has been integrated into everything from back office processes to frontline human-centric services like social care. It estimates possible savings from achieving such a vision of £14bn. The prize seems to be big enough, so why isn’t it happening?
There are a number of good reasons why this is the case
All of this adds up to the status quo, with – in the main - no seismic changes in how councils work as a result of tech. So how does local government address these challenges and embrace technology?
The answer, we think, lies in changing the culture of an organisation. This is what enables a council to overcome all the other technical, political or practical problems they’ll encounter when adopting technology.
The LB of Harrow has been managing cuts since 2008, when government funding increased below inflation. The “fat” was trimmed long ago. Yet the council is determined to keep delivering services effectively, and efficiently. Harrow recognises that the expectations of citizens are changing; they are used to a certain standard and experience in other areas of their lives.
Harrow also understands that technology is advancing significantly, and innovations are being developed across the world that people could benefit from.
So how does a council change that culture so that it attracts, catalyses, and incubates innovation? Could this be the answer to delivering high-quality services as funding pressures intensify?
Working with TechUK, Harrow have designed a programme which aims to find out. Over the next few months Harrow will:
This is going to require investment both from councillors, but especially from officers. In a world where there is too much to do and not enough people to do it, this is no small ask. And like with any form of culture change, momentum is key.
It is therefore important that this exercise is conducted swiftly. It is, after all, a proof of concept. At the end of the next few months, Harrow hope to have implemented a technology based solution which results in delivering a service differently, in a way which saves money or generates revenue.
If this can be achieved, it will have demonstrated the significance of various cultural dynamics which can prevent technology being leveraged by local authorities at scale to deliver services. Harrow will also have demonstrated how to overcome this, and the rewards on offer of doing so.
Harrow will use this project to embed an approach which attracts, catalyses and incubates innovation as a way of effectively and efficiently delivering services for the long term, within the funding parameters the council operates in. This is the big prize on offer, not just for Harrow, but for all councils.
At the end of this process, we’ll be back to update you on the progress. For information, in the meantime, you can also follow Niraj on twitter to see how Harrow are getting along @NirajDattani