This was first published in Government Computing
By all accounts, my former colleague in Government Digital Service, Tom Loosemore, ruffled some local government ICT feathers at SOCITM’s recent spring conference in London. At the heart of the debate seems to be the battle between the old “triangle of despair” (legacy systems, lengthy and complex procurement processes, PRINCE 2 management) and the world of iteration (alpha, beta, live, informed by constant user testing and feedback.)
This suggests that the battle is about technology - juggernaut proprietary systems vs Brompton free wheeling open source solutions. But these things are never about technology they’re usually about people, power and fear. But to understand the rumblings it might be useful to provide some context.
Having worked in a local authority I know that change is not new. For more than a decade they’ve been rationalizing and restructuring to meet ever more stringent demands from the centre. Even prior to The Gershon Efficiency Review, the 2004 National Procurement Strategy fed into local authorities CPA Audit Commission ratings. So efficiency savings through smarter ICT procurement and shared services was on the agenda way back then.
But in order to get the culture of local government you have to understand the dominant ideologies driving public sector reform globally for over 30 years. New Public Management was first identified in 1991 as a generic label for administrative reform in the public sector (going back to the early 1980’s). Broadly there are three themes that characterize NPM. Cut your costs while increasing productivity, decentralize your management responsibilities and create targets to improve performance.
A generation of senior local government officials know only this management model. These are the officials that delivered Audit Commission stars to their councils (thereby securing their central government funding) and Heads of ICT and procurement officers were often the heroes of those Audit Commission years delivering as they did huge chunks of the much-needed efficiencies.
But the almost exclusive reliance on NPM methodologies, has had its consequences, the results of which are being played out in these debates between the “triangle of despair” and the new world of iterate, iterate then iterate again.
At the same time as local government was doing what it was tasked to do, new ways of thinking were emerging quickly in the wider world. In 2007 Don Tapscott described these as the confluence of technological, social and economic forces enabling societies to fundamentally redesign how government operates, how and what the public sector provides, and ultimately how governments interact and engage with their citizens. This is the generation, including Tom Loosemore, that now leads Government Digital Service.
They have not experienced first-hand those Audit Commission years, the weeks of preparation proceeding the inspections with extensive staff coaching in corporate messaging to make sure there was a visible “golden thread of policy” from Bin Man to Chief Executive. These were years when failure was simply not an option, when risk was something to be resolutely eliminated (or suffer the career limiting consequences). The emphasis was on being best in class or family (by comparing your performance to other authorities with similar population sizes and problems) because that’s what you were measured and ultimately rewarded on. The leadership required to tick boxes is different to the leadership required to herd sheep.
Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz describes it as the difference between Technical and Adaptive problems. The former being known problems to which we have a known solution and the latter being something that we don’t understand nor know how to solve. GDS is in the world of adaptive leadership, comfortable with risk and collaboration while most local authorities still struggle with the constraints of technical leadership when going with the tried and tested solution (usually from a big systems integrator) sits more easily within their knowledge, structures and risk registers.
Heads of ICT in local government are often the gatekeepers to risk, inextricably linked to corporate reputation (think of the perils for a council of personal data on vulnerable children being exposed?) yet they rarely have a seat in the boardroom. Until Chief Executives themselves start providing leadership in this space, Heads of ICT will continue to procure technological solutions that don’t scare the horses (not least because scaring the horses is usually way above their pay grade).
And what about the people and power issues? Technology is disrupting everything, hierarchy, knowledge and value chains. In his SOCITM talk Loosemore suggested that in the future, Head of IT should not be the people to lead the redesign of public services to meet the public's digital expectations. I see that not as a criticism of Heads of ICT but more of an acknowledgement that current management ideologies in local government are a barrier that Heads of ICT struggle to overcome. And let’s not forget politics, which people invariably do in these discussions. If you think selling risk to your average local councillor is an easy task, think again.
Disruptive leadership is not just the task of the Chief Executive it’s a fundamental challenge to the political ruling class. If you need any proof of that, just think, when is the last time you heard a local council leader say “hey we spent some public money, we tried this, it didn’t work, so vote for me”? Change may be the new normal it’s just going to take a little time for the system to catch up.
FIrst published in Government Computing 07/05/2013