The Challenge of New Ways of Doing Things

Last week a couple of local authority chief executives, a young entrepreneur leading a future government consultancy and I got together to discuss ideas from the emerging field of social media and – critically – how they could be adopted within local authorities.

The conversation was quite wide ranging, covering some of the tools of social media and (perhaps more significantly) the different approaches which proponents of new media exhibit, such as more instinctive desire to seek wide input, and an inclination towards quick solutions and experimentation.

Some of the ideas are challenging to formal governance. For example a fast-prototyping, exploratory approach to systems development makes fabulous intuitive sense but it is hard to see how a process without a predefined endpoint can be rigorously and cheaply procured, audited and scrutinised. People are clearly testing the edges of this at present. There was also a feeling that such processes are adept at cheap, skunk-works style development that can keep within procurement thresholds. Indeed there was a feeling that constraining people severely in terms of budget is more likely to produce genuine innovation, for example to have people maximising the use of open source software, and take a creative approach for a few thousand or tens of thousands than an approach which expects to spend a million and take two years (and therefore cost two million and four years because it gets so complex).

Another area of challenge for some of the engagement tools of social media is in the way they may cut across the role of the elected member. The new media makes possible very cheap and easy local votes on specific issues, e-petitions, budget allocation consultation “games”, and consultation “jams” in which wide input is sought, discussed and entirely openly debated. There are new ways of engaging with a population that are quick and cheap. There is a danger of members feeling disintermediated. If evidence is gained that they, and the population, are in different places on an issue, does it undermine them? The answer of course is that it shouldn’t, however we see potential for such insights to lead to tension between officers and members if the tools are predominantly in the hands of, and driven by, officers. I concluded that there would perhaps be more power and applicability if the tools were in the hands of members – tools to help them engage with their communities, rather than tools for officers.

The last category of insights came in relation to risk. The political environment is highly adversarial with a press corps eager to jump on any indication of error or waste, and with a very nearby opposition eager to jump on any such issues and draw them to the world’s attention. This is a significant barrier to local authorities taking risks; understandably so. However it is also clear that Local Government needs innovation if it is to manage through significant budget reductions and improve customer service, and true innovation is inherently risky –things are tried, many of them go wrong, but the “one in ten” that works really works, and more than pays for all the other attempts. A lesson from my own experience in the private sector suggests that taking a portfolio approach to this may be useful, and may go with the flow of existing governance mechanisms. If a local authority determines annually what its innovation appetite is, and sets aside a relatively modest budget for it, and then determines how it wishes to deploy that innovation resource, that may prove easier to govern, audit and scrutinise – the question becomes “why this risk?” rather than “why risk?”.