The Gov(tech)ernor

So these days I am apparently in the business of GovTech. People write reports on it and create lists about it. It is thing. Funnily enough six months ago when I was working in government technology I never heard anyone refer to #govtech (on this side of the Atlantic anyway) but here we are.

It is a broad and varied sector. Basically consisting of everyone who sells technology or related services to the public sector but conversely it sometimes feels really small — people move from supplier to supplier to institution and back. Everybody seems to know everybody — or at least someone who does.

Like I’ve written before sometimes I feel like I am living out one of those alternate timeline stories. Everything looks pretty much the same but it isn’t quite right. The changes aren’t huge but still disorientating. I know my way around central government and the world of arms lengths bodies that surround it. I pretty much understand the machinery of decision making, governance and procurement. I’m not saying I don’t take a few wrong turns or that I always find my way out of the maze but I understand why I am taking the turns I am taking. Local Government? Not a clue. The maze keeps changing around me.

Of course intellectually I understood the complexity and challenges of Local Government. I have friends who work there and others who have spent years selling to it. I’ve read hundreds of blogposts about people working in that domain. I read the news so I understand the impossible choices that austerity and cuts have created. The reality is still something of an eye-opener.

There are so many different procurement frameworks and so little broad understanding of things like GCloud and DOS. On a couple of occasions I introduced council staff to their very existence.

The sales cycle (I worry about these things now!) is insanely long. Everyone told me this going in. That said I still wasn’t ready for six months plus just to get a green light and other projects emerging into the light after being dormant for six months.

Silos are a problem in any large, complex organisation but it was still a surprise to be expected to act as facilitator between different parts of a single council as they didn’t know each other. This doesn’t seem like a unique problem either.

I used to scoff when I read about councils consistently talking about how sharing platforms was hard as they were all different. Classic snowflake nonsense. Now I realise it is true — mainly because the differences are hard coded into how they operate. Even common commodity software has been tweaked and twisted to fit which means nothing quite slots into anything else as expected.

This has also led to something of a ‘not invented here’ mindset in some corners. Again not unusual and not something I’m against (I mean I decided to build a publishing platform for ONS from scratch) but it needs to be done with an understanding of existing open standards and preferably open source not locking you into a solution that is going to wither on the vine.

You’d think all these challenges would be overwhelmingly frustrating (and there are moments) but it is also a space where there are loads of great people doing really interesting things and that makes it a great time to be working in the domain.

The Local Government Digital Service Standard is a brilliant initiative. Inspired by the work of GDS but coming from ground up — with practitioners identifying it as a way to improve the services they were providing to citizens and to strengthen the ties of the network.

I’m excited to be attending LocalGovCamp in Bristol this year. It is the only event my team at mySociety is sponsoring this year and that is because I genuinely believe in the importance of the event (and not just because it is in my city!). The original GovCamp really made a huge difference in my career and that network remains important to me every day so I am looking forward to crossing over into the sibling ‘camp’ to meet you people for this new phase of my career.

The Hackney Agile Lifecycle is an example of a council learning from best practice elsewhere but making it appropriate for their own needs (and what could be more agile than that!) This week I even spotted they did an internal hackday to test out the process. Great stuff.

Councillor Theo Blackwell, from Camden, has been writing a whole series of blogposts outlining not only their local approach to digital strategy but what is needed for the whole of local government. It is clear and coherent thinking and avoids easy answers but provides a roadmap and some starting points.

Then there are experimenters like Aylesbury Vale seeing whether the new voice activated personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can support public services.

There are loads of other great activities out there — these were just what I happened to have in open tabs! Not to mention other great suppliers like Futuregov and Delib who work in the open, sharing experiences and knowledge as they go along.

So despite the occasional frustrations I remain incredibly happy and excited to be working on this side of the table, in this field, at this time. No-one said it was going to be easy but it is interesting every, single day.