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How the London borough of Harrow is building the council of the future

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.

Local government and technology – a stuttering relationship

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

  • Some council services are simply not possible to deliver through tech. Local authority services are used by a range of people – some of whom aren’t digitally or technically savvy – and other services such as frontline child protection or adult social care will always be primarily people-centric services.
  • It’s been possible so far, in the main, to manage funding cuts with incremental change rather than radical reform. This is not to say there has been no innovation, just that the burning platform so far has not been burning quite enough to make tech-driven change impossible to avoid.
  • There are fears that technology doesn’t provide the insurance for a worst case scenario that traditional methods do. For someone who needs care assistance at home the emergency pull cord may not be able to run a predictive algorithm to anticipate when they are going to run out of food or have a fall, but at least it will never fail.
  • Innovations are risky. Councils operate in a climate in which small failures are severely punished by the intense scrutiny of the media and highly engaged groups, while big successes are largely unrecognised. The risk-reward dynamic is out of kilter.
  • Incentives for officers and councillors are not aligned. For councillors, the pressure is on ‘selling’ what’s happening to the residents. In an era of austerity this has become an exercise into whether the administration hasn’t/has got something wrong. Officers, on the other hand, have enough trouble keeping their heads above water. There isn’t the time or money to think about innovation.
  • Tech companies don’t understand the vast array of jobs a council does – and therefore haven’t seen all of the opportunities available. The fragmented nature of the local government market, with its hundreds of individual purchasers, can also make it hard to access.
  • Government procurement processes are famously unfriendly for innovation and for new startup companies. For instance, Nesta research found that just 3 per cent of government spending goes to startups.

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 Harrow Future Council project

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:

  1. De-risk the concept of innovation.
  2. Demonstrate the relevance of technology to local authority service delivery.
  3. Seek innovations which respond to our challenges, rather than the other way around.
  4. Raise awareness around potential of innovation that could be applied across services.
  5. Prove theory of technology being able to play a role in addressing our biggest challenges.
  6. Keep councillors and officers aligned throughout the process.
  7. Work with the tech sector to demystify engaging with local authorities.
  8. Demonstrate scale and potential of local government as a market.
  9. Provide forum and pathway to implement technology innovations in Harrow Council.

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

Photo Credit – R~P~M via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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Niraj Dattani

Elected in 2014, Niraj Dattani is a councillor for the London Borough of Harrow, where he takes a lead on innovation.