Take-Aways from #LocalGovCamp 2015

Consolidating my thinking and in a spirit of sharing …

The Right Conditions for Digital

Paul Brewer (@pdbrewer) pitched a session about the Right Conditions for Digital (see his blogpost) based on his experience at Director of Digital and Resources at the very interesting Adur and Worthing.  This could have been a longer session.  Paul is clearly enjoying the extent to which he is making progress in his new role, but knows enough to realize that some of this progress is down to some untypical circumstances which apply there.  This is in contrast to common trait in local government which is to assume that “the good results I am achieving are because I’ve got my stuff together and if only people would just have the sense to copy me all would be well”.  Some of the Beacon thinking and indeed some of the Awards schemes potentially fall into that trap.

Paul is smart enough to reflect on what is going on, and to tease apart the ingredients for success.  That he adopts that kind of reflective approach is almost certainly one of the reasons he is being successful, it seems to me, and not something he himself mentioned – so I am saying it here.

Paul’s blog hints at some of the unusual circumstances at A&W, and in the discussion we reflected on the fact that the new Chief Executive at A&W early on created a very compelling vision for the council encapsulated in a document Catching the Wave – I think that anyone wanting to make change happen in local government should read this.  It’s a masterpiece.  And by securing agreement to it a space has been created that is the right shape for innovation.

I was interested to know whether the fact that Adur and Worthing are two separate councils with one shared management team acted as a brake on innovation and it seems not – the level of integration between the teams is very high.

I’m always keen to put the level of innovation which a council exhibits in the context of the resources it has and the financial pressures it is under – and I have some data from an external source which gives a rating for the level of stress that councils are under.  Both Adur and Worthing are around about the middle of the pack in terms of financial pressure – their success is not (for example) because they have loads of spare cash and are burning it up!

There was also a bit of a discussion about how it is possible to make the case for IT – which is perceived as a back office cost to be minimized especially when front-line services are being cut.  The back office/front line language really doesn’t help – it is far better to use language that reflects that the right “back office” spend – eg on the right sort of “digital” multiplies the effectiveness of the front line, and multiplies the effectiveness of the council in the community.  The Resources Directors Network, of which I am a part, wrote a report about the Future of the Corporate Centre which uses the language that is used in the army for support functions to the front line.  They are referred to as “force multipliers” which you have to admit is a better name than “overhead costs”.

Governance Challenges of Devolution

Ed Hammond (@cfps_ed) led a discussion about the governance challenges of devolution.  In great Localgovcamp style that brought together people with diverse perspectives and interests, including some insights into Amazon anthropology (the place not the online retailer) as well as knowledge of a range of devolved models an devolution bids.  It’s interesting how unconsidered this all is – there is a lot of detail still to be filled in about how the deals (which have been hammered out behind closed doors due to the speed imperative) will be governed, scrutinized, and how they will engaged with their relevant populations.  It is a blank sheet.

It was interesting to reflect that while there is a central government preference for an elected mayor, with the success of the London model in mind, no-one is requiring the scrutiny and accountability mechanisms which London has – ie the Greater London Assembly, Mayor’s question time etc.  In a way that’s not surprising – it’s a costly operation and repeated referenda have shown that there is little public appetite for a new layer of politicians – but it does mean that we need to think through the accountability mechanisms, and I am pleased that Ed and the fabulous Centre for Public Scrutiny are going to be doing some work on this.

The local media can be a mechanism for holding to account, and it’s interesting to spot that whilst some of the combined authority areas have a “natural” local paper (eg the Manchester Evening News in Greater Manchester) there are others that do not.  It will be interesting to see how the practice of different Combined Authorities is affected by different levels of coherent press scrutiny.

Uberising Rural Travel

Adam Walther (@adamwalther) from FutureGov led a session about rural transport – whilst there is much excitement about app-driven  disruptive entry in terms of things like Uber, and more gently with things like CityMapper, these focus on urban areas and relatively wealthy people.

There’s an interesting set of issues around whether the technologies can support different models of transport – eg a dial-a-ride that takes someone to a bus stop rather than to the ultimate destination.  There may be scope for deploying community resources – eg minibuses with volunteer drivers, car sharing – if there can be some way of surfacing the currently hidden demand for services.  We see what people do, not what they would ideally want to do.

The FutureGov work is clearly at an early stage but I was fascinated to hear about the transport systems in Helsinki where there is a deliberate design intent to make car ownership irrational.  “Mobility as a service”.  Thought provoking stuff.  There’s a Guardian piece about this, and it’s one of my main takeways from the day.

An Open Data Session that I Enjoyed

Simon Redding (@simonredding) from the Environment Agency did a session engaging a select but enthusiastic band of folk around discussing how Defra should prioritise making all of its datasets available.  I really enjoyed a session about Open data that was about thinking about creative uses of data, and thinking about where to land the ideas, rather than … the usual session that seems to happen about Open Data!  For those interested a jumping off point to find out more is on GOV.UK here  though there is clearly an opportunity missed to put an advert for analytics software on that page*.

*(An on the day in-joke).

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Observations of a World-Class Team Leader

Recently I went to a musical performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  My seat was in the choir seats behind the orchestra and I was right in the middle so I was directly opposite the conductor and therefore able to see exactly what he was doing in leading the team that is his orchestra.  Dudamel is lauded as an inspirational conductor, though there are some who prefer their conductors grey and more mannered.  I hugely enjoyed the concert, and I hugely enjoyed watching closely as Dudamel did his thing.  It really was a masterclass in team leadership.

When I watch a concert from behind the conductor (as is usual) or on TV, it sometimes feels as though the conductor can’t possibly be leading the orchestra – or not that much anyway, perhaps just giving the beat and key stop and start signals – to some extent it feels as though they are dancing along to the music rather than shaping it.  Watching as closely as I was able to this week, there was a tiny but perceptible gap between an instruction from the conductor and the relevant thing happening – I became more aware than ever before of the rich extent to which conductors (or, this one at least) has a profound and direct effect on the orchestra, on the split second behaviour of 100 skilled and attentive people.

It is a bit of cliche in the management literature to study orchestras as teams, usually in contrast to the style of say a jazz combo.  But I am going to add some observations of this specific conductor, on this particular day, that felt interesting – some of them may have wider relevance, in certain circumstances.  Some of the leadership points are very obvious!

Expressive, modulated, leadership using every tool available.  Dudamel used the whole of his body and an extraordinary array of facial expressions to communicate.  He missed no opportunity to convey his intention.  At times his movement was huge, his facial expression massively contorted, but at no point did it feel over the top, partly because the extent was always directly linked to the need.  For one really quiet passage he – quite literally – conducted the beat with the smallest movement he could do – he conducted the orchestra with his eyebrows

Conducting as though nobody is watching(!).  As a result of this massive expressiveness there were times when he looked really very stupid and undignified indeed!  A freeze frame shot could have been entered into a caption competition.  At one moment his bottom half was doing something like a “Frank Spencer ‘Ooh Betty'” while his top half was going three different ways at once and his eyes were popping out.  And of course nobody did laugh because the results he was producing were extraordinarily good.  A great leader, he only gained credibility from taking a personal presentational risk.

Knowing when not to lead.  There is a short, lovely and important oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Uniquely during the performance, for this section, Dudamel did nothing.  He stood, smiling respectfully, poised and waiting for the oboeist to finish before bringing everyone else in.

Stopping, waiting, and starting.  In between movements at a concert there is silence.  On this day I was able to detect three distinct silences, one after the other.  There was the silence that is necessary for a couple of beats once a piece has ended, there was the restful silence that was between pieces, and there was the preparatory silence just before things got going again.  These stages were signalled by Dudamel’s body language, and holding the baton straight up against his chest during the middle silence.  This made me wonder whether we do enough to allow that pause for reflection once something has finished, a moment of rest, and then a reflective pause before starting again.  In a concert the total length of the silences is about ten seconds, and I don’t think it need take much longer than that in a work context.  I think some meetings would be greatly enhanced by these three pauses between agenda items!

Individual attention in a crowd.  There were probably about 100 people in the orchestra, yet there were times when Dudamel gave very specific individual attention to one of the players.  Never for more than a few seconds at a time, he gave undiluted attention at particular key points.  His arms kept things going for the rest of the orchestra but his face – and you felt, his attention – were utterly focused on making eye contact with one person.  He would smile, or widen his eyes, or do something, which conveyed a sense to the player concerned – you could read it “now then, like that time at rehearsal that I was happy with” – a quick smile of thanks when the performance was delivered and then on to the next.  Do we give 100% focus to individuals when they need it, even fleetingly, or do we get distracted by the wider task?

Credit.  Dudamel was very generous with credit to the players.  He did the usual conductorly thing of inviting soloists or groups of players to stand and take an individual bow and receive specific audience applause.  But more than others he went to them where they were sitting and he BEAMED at them, shook their hand or patted them on the back.  Apart from the initial applause when the conductor turns round to take a bow, whenever he came back to take more applause he invariably did so from within the body of the orchestra, with his arms around some of the players.

In some of the social media traffic around this concert a friend mused about how Dudamel gets such extraordinary performances.  This is how.

(The specific concert I listened to is/was broadcast on Wednesday 14th January 2015 at 9pm.)