Meeting in the Middle

“Innovation develops best when it is open, diverse and collaborative.” NESTA

Introduction

Transformation is not a moment, it has no time scale. It is a continuous process. Just as Change is not a momentary inconvenience or temporary glitch, it is the nature of all things.

Charles Darwin taught us that.

Why then, after a period of turmoil and reappraisal, do organisations suffer from collective amnesia and settle into old habits as if nothing had ever happened?

In the words of Winston Churchill “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

If organisations are not fluid and adaptive, they cannot truly transform or change for the better and will cease to be effective. The consequence is poor delivery a lack of trust from our customers and a damaged reputation.

Rather than fear change, we should learn to embrace the novelty of new experiences and ideas. It’s also worth noting that it is during challenging times that people rise to the challenge. Out of chaos comes creativity. The downward pressure of the global financial meltdown has led to a dramatic re-appraisal of how public services are to be delivered but unlike previous times of hardship, this event is occurring at a time when technology is democratising knowledge and the sharing of information in an unprecedented way.  Citizens feel empowered and can effect change as never before.

This in turn has provided the Public Sector with not just the opportunity but also the means of opening a dynamic conversation with our customers and developing working practices that channel dwindling resources to areas based on local priorities. This is cost-effective and builds a positive reputation.

The means presently exist to engage with communities through dialogue not edict; to identify a need, consult with the community and provide evidence of work completed all in the same forum.

This revolution in communication requires a change of mindset. The notion of ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ is becoming increasingly meaningless. Transformation in the Public Sector will require partnership. It will require us to plug into the energy generated by citizens who are passionate about their locality and are actively engaged in trying to bring about positive change. Communication will become a conversation not a press release. It has to. This new forum has already established democratic protocols and the belief that everyone from a CEO to an average Joe has their place at the table is non-negotiable. Public Sector organisations new to the game will need to accept this fact if they are to benefit from the experience.

On the subject of passionate and actively engaged we should remember the Public Sector’s greatest asset, it’s staff. Old working practices and time consuming, often meaningless protocols are the enemy of creativity. They serve to sap the energy of good people who only want to do things better and more effectively. If an organisation has a paranoid fear of what its customers may be saying about it at the bus stop, it certainly wouldn’t want to hear what its own staff are talking about at the water cooler.

People or “Give a Man a Fish”

Let’s examine the perception of the delivery of public services from a people perspective.

The relationship between say a Local Authority and a resident is an interesting one.

Someone with a negative experience of work undertaken by their Council might perceive that services are done ‘to’ them, as in ‘look what the Council have done’ –  we deliver services at the community

Someone with a more ambivalent view might perceive that services are done ‘for’ them in the sense that someone else (in this case the council) has the responsibility for making something happen – we deliver services for the community.

In both these instances, the responsibility lies firmly with the Local Authority.

In the former example, there is the potential for simmering resentment and a damage to reputation. This is often the result of the reliance on outdated an ineffective channels of consultation.

In the latter example lies the pervading culture that it’s ‘someone else’s problem, not mine.’ Or the classic ‘that’s what I pay my council tax for.’ (ironically, the earlier stance leads to a subtle reworking of this statement into the question ‘What do I pay my Council Tax for?)

As options are weighed, limited resources plundered and tough decisions made, the real shift will come when the resident is brought into the conversation – not near the end of the process but at the beginning. Someone who has been able to make an intellectual and emotional investment in an idea, is far more likely to support it to its conclusion. Likewise, a shift towards a communal approach to problem solving is far more sustainable. In this case the public sector is seen more as the facilitator or to return to the analogy, services are delivered ‘with’ the community.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day – teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.”

Relationships or “You show me yours..”

As the adage goes, ‘a relationship should be based on trust’. Trust is built on openness and to some extent a willingness to admit vulnerability or an admission that we are not perfect. The national drive towards open data will place unprecedented amounts of information in the public domain. Already, small armies of citizen activists are reusing this data to build pictures of their locality and in turn, lobbying for positive change. We must never imagine that this trend will be reversed at some point in the future. However, data without context is not always helpful. The role of the decision makers is to place that data, where applicable, into context to provide a transparent and more meaningful understanding of how sometimes conflicting needs must be resolved to reach decisions. In terms of tough budgetary decisions, Councils are already asking residents ‘what would you do?’. A better informed community with contextual data and an invitation to contribute to the debate could help a Council make decisions that make the best use of resources, decisions that have greater support and underline a new age of collaborative, more inclusive working.

So a Council would ask the community, ‘What’s the problem? – These are the available resources – Here’s our idea for solving it, now you show me yours.’

Virtual Communities

In terms of locality, a sense of place can be as limited as the garden gate or as wide as the county boundary. The sense of community may be mourned in some quarters but is alive and well in the realm of new technologies; only now my ‘neighbour’ who shares my interests and concerns and with whom I’m in regular contact may not be next door but in the next town (or the next continent). It’s ironic that the technology of the Internet which many predicted would lead to isolation and introspection, is creating virtual communities that in many ways conform to our perception of how communities functioned in the good old days. Greetings are frequent and friendly,  help is sought and advice given.

Most problems are universal and the odds are that someone has already faced yours and found a solution or at least made a mistake you can learn from. Virtual communities succeed because they have a wider potential membership not constrained by geographical boundaries or transport issues.

i-citizen

The drive towards Open Data heralds a new age of the i-citizen. The Internet has increasingly been used to focus on single, micro-local issues. Activists and concerned residents who historically would rally neighbours through petitions and public meetings are becoming tech-savvy. They have seen the democratic power of the Internet and have learned to harness it for the common good. There is a positive element to this for the Public Sector. Responding to the traditional model of activism would require a Local Authority to answer phone calls and letters, attend public meetings and still leave it at the mercy of an unsympathetic local press. The i-citizen posts blogs and forms online Communities of Interest. A pro-active council can use free technology to receive alerts when topics are raised in these forums and can enter into the dialogue to engender  a sense of co-operation rather than conflict.

 

Communication

The Internet will not replace traditional channels of communication but it does make reaching people a good deal easier. The notion of the Digital Divide, though real, should not be overplayed. Research undertaken in Rochdale by CACI showed that, for instance, single mothers on benefits are highly likely to use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and have a mobile phone rather than a landline. Social and Child Services in some authorities have recognised this and are already using the viral nature of Facebook to reach out to this demographic. SMS texting alerts may have their place too.

A Chief Executive, elected Member or officer who blogs or tweets enters a predominantly friendly and interested community. The council that delivered services ‘at’ the community suddenly has a human face. In opening up channels of communication that are by their nature dialogues, the council that delivered services ‘for’ the community can begin to explore delivering services ‘with’ the community.

Conclusions

In local authorities across Britain there are plenty of examples of best practice in this field. Free and reliable technologies and software abound. Aside from officer time, cost is not necessarily an issue; though it could reasonably be argued that a timely and helpful intervention in an online discussion forum could silence an urban myth and save a great deal of frustrating effort in the future. Likewise, Open data with context and open forums are likely to reduce the number of time-consuming FOI requests.

If we are open, direct, honest and pro-active, we have nothing to fear from these new technologies.

They exist, they are a reality and they aren’t going away. Rather than being a hindrance they are a help.

They offer a place to discuss options and ideas with engaged citizens who just want what’s best for their locality. In truth, that’s what we want too. We have the knowledge of the factors that influence decision making, let’s share it and credit residents with having the intelligence to work with us towards sustainable solutions.

We can’t do everything anymore. Let’s face it and tell it like it is.

‘Every great journey begins with a single step’ Confucius

Reference:

http://www.socialbysocial.com/ – A practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact

http://www.idea.gov.uk/idk/aio/17801438 – How Local Authorities can use social media to achieve more for less

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Hello world!

I’m working in the public sector and I’m particularly interested in the process of transformation. I’ve written a few things about the challenges and opportunities we face and I’ll post some stuff here over the coming months. I’ve just set this baby up so give me a while to get up to speed and I’ll be away.