Start small, think big

Local government got serious about digital in 2014. Next year its leaders need to focus on starting small but thinking big, says Dominic Campbell, director at FutureGov.

2014 was the year where people got serious about digital public services for the first time.

2014 was the year that SOLACE appointed Martin Reid as its digital representative to work with chief execs and senior leaders in the sector to put digital at the heart of local government renewal.

2014 was also the year that local government workers were much more serious about experimentation on a small scale and increasingly looking at where we can scale up these small experiments in digital services to support the wholesale transformation of local public services.

For example, FutureGov's work with the Families & Children's Services (FACS) of New South Wales in Australia shows how prototyping and design led-technology is now being adopted at scale and points to where the future lies in 2015.

New South Wales has roughly the population of London (7.5m people) and just one social care department that covers that entire state (compare that to the 33 social care teams that cover child protection in London). They have a huge (A$500m, £272m) child protection reform programme called Safe Homes for Life (SHFL), a big part of which is modernising technology.

In response to the technology challenge, FACS is getting serious. It is taking a prototyping approach, building light prototypes and putting them out to the market to show what innovation looks like and what is expected from suppliers. It's not a procurement exercise with a huge specification; it's something entirely different and we've loved being involved.

Dominic Campbell, FutureGovGovernment technology tends to follow a well-trodden path: Big bang, all or nothing, expensive procurement-heavy processes that result in replacing one bad system with one slightly less bad, slightly less expensive system. Solutions are focused on business needs rather than user needs and the people at the end of the process are not involved in any way.

The challenges faced in both 2014 and those we will see in 2015 are clear and we are now starting to get the kind of leadership in place that we're going to need to support this kind of innovation.

But there remains a challenge in technology departments of government in terms of capacity and ability to meet its agenda.  

There is a skills shortage in the sector and there needs to be collaboration in the sector and outside the sector to plug that gap. The biggest barrier to digital public services is around staff culture, with 22 per cent seeing this as the main challenge - up from four per cent last year - according to the report from Goss Interactive.

We need to think differently about how we do procurement. We are stuck in the routine of our old behaviours around procurement, where we're looking for neatly packaged solutions that solve all of our problems.

They never will.

Instead, we need to be thinking about how we start small and think big.

We need to be open to open innovation and design, as well as moving beyond "buy, don't build" to "buy if it's good enough", otherwise we have to have mechanisms to make that happen.

There are now plenty of experiments that have shown their value. There remain too few of those that have been supported to scale. It's now time for the leaders of the sector to step up and create the conditions for both innovation and new kinds of solutions to complex problems that can't be solved by local government alone.

In 2015, we need to be finding a way to support the kinds of technology that will be a part of that solution. Challenging your organisations to think and act differently, and expecting better from public service technology.