In the second in the Social Design Talks series, Carrie Bishop of Futuregov discussed how to work within the constraints and realities of local government, and make change happen anyway. Futuregov, a digital consultancy, works almost exclusively with local government, which, rather than design, is Carrie’s career background. The focus of their practice is using new digital tools and technology to radically alter public service processes – going far beyond teaching public service managers how to do PR using twitter, to using new technology to change public service paradigms.
She began with an analysis of ‘how change happens’ at present in local government, characterising much of it as either ‘tinkering around the edges’ (business process engineering, LEAN) , or top-down, politician-led programmes, which can easily fail without the buy-in of those charged with implementing. From years of working within the system herself, she is acutely aware of the unwieldiness, in particular, of government IT systems, and the difficulty of changing them at all.
She is also aware of some of the criticisms typically levelled at local government employees (risk – or rather blame – averse, bureaucratic, and terrified of IT), and had several choice quotes, from participants in Futuregov projects, to illustrate her points: ‘If it’s not written down it’s not real.’ ‘Don’t put my number on there. People might call me and that just creates more work.’ But she insisted that many of these caricatures are grounded in rational reactions to the realities of working in that system. She also insisted that most people working within local government do want to make things better, and lots of them are prepared to be quite open-minded – conceiving of their task as broadly as ‘collaborating with users who haven’t even been born yet’. It became clear during the course of her talk that the success of Futuregov’s practice relies heavily on their understanding of the social dynamics of the organisation. In fact the social design, if that is what they are doing, seems to be as preoccupied with how local government employees organise themselves and work with each other, as it is with the citizens at the receiving end of public services.
To exemplify her argument she discussed a project called ‘Patchwork’, an App which allows social workers from multiple agencies to find out quickly and easily who else is working with their family. This project was the result of observing of how social workers go about their practice in more than one local authority, conducting around 75 workshops, and finding one very understanding chief executive in Staffordshire. She admitted that the idea was not a complex one – common sense in fact – which only serves to confirm the existence of barriers to making services joined up and simple. She added that when working with government data, there are a number of restrictions on what , legally, can and cannot be done and shared – a frequent stumbling block in digital projects, especially in cases where the implication is that people cannot be given information about themselves.
Futuregov also runs hack weekends – like social innovation camps, where a broad range of stakeholders in any one service or locality, come together to develop new ideas. Whilst these can be very productive – the recent and topical ‘benefits camp’ won a great deal of attention for this reason – they are also limited in that they take place outside of working hours, not within the remit of anyone’s job. However Carrie noted that with these camps, as with much of Futuregov’s work within local government, part of their role is as social glue – to introduce people who would never normally have met, to bring users (such as a handful from Gransnet) into the conversation with service managers.
What plagues her at present is the question of scaling – of how to make these projects pay for themselves, to be a regular feature not just a one-off, to apply to thousands of people rather than twenty. How do you scale a service that is essentially social? If there are four hundred local authorities, does that mean there are four hundred different answers? Futuregov is also under pressure to prove its ROI – to measure impact and quantify how much money has been saved, which is a constant requirement in government.
She closed with a list of her tactics and strategies for bringing new technology projects to a successful conclusion in hierarchical, politicised, accountable and IT-challenged contexts. A significant one seemed to be about playing the game the local government way – generating lots of paper and reports, and meeting monthly with a senior governance team, allowing the rest of the Futuregovers room to breathe. She mentioned again the value of creating a network within the organisation, of being truly social – making friends, acting as a node, introducing people to each other. Other tactics included saying ‘yes’ all the time, and largely abiding by the principle of asking for forgiveness rather than permission. As an external consultancy, she argued that much resistance could be subdued through taking accountability away from the public service managers and onto Futuregovers themselves, who – with faith in their ideas and abilities – are happy to shoulder it.
Responding to Carrie’s talk was Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham Council and, as Carrie, an advocate for design as a tool of change. He concurred about the social nature of the challenge, making a distinction by analogy between blueprints and recipes. Process engineering will always be limited when applied in organisations because it overlooks the fact that humans are not cogs that behave predictably. (Design, of course, pays much closer attention to human whims). There is no one blueprint for making change happen – but there are recipes, which might come out differently each time.
Whilst joking that he would love, as respondent, to be able to speak in praise of ‘hierarchy and bureaucracy’, he agreed with Carrie that, when facing those conditions, a positive disruptive force is sometimes the only thing that will create true change.