Local Government


21st Century public service – is it a thing?

Posted on 16th April 2014 by

Our work is often about helping public services relate to people in simpler ways.

We might help them build trust and use the trust to provide wider forms of civic good. We might help them empower more people to communicate online – shift power relationships from gatekeepers at the top to park keepers at the bottom.

An anonymous “senior civil servant” wrote on the Guardian website today:

Part of the problem in the civil service is that so many decisions are escalated to senior levels. Unless we can create a working environment where staff at every level are empowered and enabled to make decisions without being micromanaged from above, nothing will change. Creating that culture is one of our biggest challenges.

I argue often that our most successful work with public servants happens when a number of things are present:

  • The people trying to achieve something tend to behave more like citizens than public servants on one side or customers on the other.
  • You go with  the grain of the network – following lines of trust to make things happen rather than creating layers of process.
  • You recognise that public service can happen in all sorts of places – it’s not the preserve of public servants to provide it (indeed some public service is stifled by bureacracy rather than enabled by it).

I’m confident that public service in the 21st century can be different from the 20th century and that public service will need to change.  In basic terms the new leaders of the public sector are becoming less patient with rules that mean that at work you have less flexibility than you do out of work.

So what might shift?

  • More flexible structures. I asked a few years ago why doesn’t government have reservists? But more flexibility will need to follow from  a smaller state where much of what gets done is a negotiation between formal government and the things people make happen themselves.  Officers who can’t embrace that negotiation as a positive thing will – I think – find themselves confused about what they are there for and fail to achieve better things in our communities.
  • Driven by values (again) rather than process.  At Podnosh we check what we’re doing against our values which are simply :  Make Things Better, Think, Give a S**t.  This does mean we need to behave in ways that support that – so being confident about values and then skilled at translating those into how we  behave will make public service a more satisfying place for people to work and more importantly could make it easier for people to work with public servants.
  • People need to be encouraged/permitted to develop real relationships. Valuing connections is not just good for work – it’s good for us. We work with a lot of third sector organisations and the best achieve what they do with very sincere human relationships.  It’s easier to help someone when they know you’ve made the effort to get to know each other.  To much money saving in public service is designed to strip the relationship out and replace it with manageable, insure-able process.

For more thinking on this Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan and colleagues at Birmingham University are doing some work on 21st century Public Service – .  Helen Dickinson writes:

Our research found that public servants urgently need to learn commissioning and decommissioning skills alongside the ability to challenge the status quo, be willing to innovate, understand risk (and know who holds the risk in a particular situation), and stimulate and manage behaviour change. The ability to be a fixer and facilitator is also seen as a fundamental component of public service roles, as well as the ability to deliver, particularly during difficult times.

Oh and one final quality:  transparency and openness.  To that end we’ve been working with Helen and her team.

Live Streaming Council Committee meetings – How we helped Birmingham City Council Billesley Ward Committee get online.

Posted on 28th March 2014 by

I’ve mentioned about how we’ve worked in South Birmingham in conjunction with the South Birmingham Community Safety Partnership when we wrote about what Austin Rodriguez , South Birmingham Safer Places officer had to say about the project.

What I haven’t said yet is that we’ve been working on a second phase of the surgeries with him.

Austin has been doing a great thing empowering the people he works with to use social media to talk to each other, to improve where they live and  to  build a stronger communities and with him we’ve continued to build on the momentum from phase one of the project.

In February we were holding a surgery in Bartley Green that  Alex Buchanan  – Ward Councillor of Billesley – attended. He came along with Austin with the idea that he’d like to trial live streaming his ward committee meeting .  Birmingham City Council have been live streaming their meetings from the council house and he wanted to see how he could make that work locally.

The Technology

Out in the community centres and church halls where community meetings are usually held there isn’t the infrastructure the council have  - there isn’t high speed Wi-Fi or  high definition webcams and high quality controlled audio. Nor is there a bespoke website to send the feed to,  so we had to look at what was available. 

Councillor Buchanan had invested in a laptop with a webcam and a decent microphone so we decided Google Hangouts would be the way to go, using the On Air function to stream to Youtube, which also meant it could be shared via other platforms and embedded into blogs – We spent about an hour looking at how this could work for them and then on the 20th February they put it into action.

Some observations – Be brave.

You can see in the video above that while the camera was positioned in such a way that the whole top table could be seen – the microphone struggled to pick everyone up. As the people farthest away from the set up took their turn to speak at times the audio wasn’t very clear at all but then they weren’t using a multi-directional mic that can pick everyone up like at the council house. What they had was a small mic plugged into a laptop  -  but  it could have been moved to pick up more voices.

This seems obvious watching it back but again it comes back to the fact this was a trial and a learning experience. What it needs next is just a bit of bravery, Bravery to do it again and to take what they’ve learned doing this and apply it. If during the meeting they were willing to pause proceedings by just a few seconds to re-position the mic before people took their turn to talk this would greatly improve the quality of the audio, make better use of the technology they have available and improve the experience for the community watching.

In saying that though it is fantastic that Councillors are looking at ways to open up the local democratic process to more people, and live streaming of meetings is definitely a good way to go. The fact that Councillor Buchanan was willing to even consider giving this a try is fantastic and who knows what could be next? What other public conversations could take place in – well – public?  

Why public meetings are the rocky-bed of the public talking to public services.

Posted on 24th March 2014 by

Microsoft_Word_-_Report_v2_docx_-_citizen_engagement_final_report___dib_pdf

A very honest piece from Delib called Why Delib Has Given Up on Police and Crime Commissioners has given me an opportunity to pull together a range of things about the bleedin’ obvious.

Delib is a business which helps public services with digital engagement – much like us but a bit different.  They’ve spent months trying to get Police Crime Commissioners talking to them about better ways to talk to the public about policeing and crime and safer communities.  They’ve now given  up.  Why?  Because they keep being told that the Police Commissioner holds public meetings, and that’s good enough:

You wouldn’t walk to a phone box to call a friend in Australia anymore. Equally you wouldn’t walk to a draughty town hall, at an inconvenient time, to ask a question of a PCC you’ve never heard of.

Public meetings have moved from the bedrock of local democracy to the rocky-bed. A place that only seems still comfortable for those used to a diet of lumpy and cold communications – or those who would rather not share their bed with anyone.

This has been recognised in Birmingham with an impassioned report from Cllr Lisa Trickett and her scrutiny colleagues on public engagement. (I gave evidence to the ctte).  In it they conclude that the traditional Cllrs meeting with residents in a hall doesn’t cut it:

7.3.10. Overall our conclusion is that Ward Committees are not currently fit for the purpose set out in the Leader’s Policy Statement (2012) as the major means for citizens to engage on issues affecting their area.
Its recommendation opens the door to radical democratic alternatives.

7.3.13. Some strong pioneering effort should be promoted across the city for radical experimentation with new and different formats.

We are about to start working in Kings Heath and Moseley to support that shift.  There the aim is to create a fledgling partnership. How this will happen in detail I’m not yet clear.  That’s a good thing.  It is very easy for those who organise one process to replace it with another which they in turn have organised.  Doing that misses the opportunity to involve new people in change, but there’s a tricky balancing act between the open and involved and the organised enough for people to appreciate how it might help them.

That’s the core of it:  it’s better to meet people where they are – very few people are in draughty halls and more and more people are on the internet.

—–  Some extra stuff…

but, there are also wider changes for the council centrally to

1. to improve the Council website
2. for an improvement plan for how the Council deals with citizens as customers
3. for a ‘cross-cutting improvement plan’ for consultation
4. to ‘bring forward a plan that addresses the key concerns raised and opportunities set out in the report and take on the fundamental step changes set out in Chapters 5-8.’

Number 1 is actually about the core problem that for years the democracy section of the council’s website has been unusable – you can’t link to an individual document.   I found the report on the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Birmingham Against the Cuts website – I couldn’t find it on the council site through a google search. A google docs accounts with some folders in it would have been cheaper and better – and that, or dropbox, still might be the best solution.

As for two -when given evidence I bashed on a bit about this thinking of us as customers.  I’m very keen to encourage officers to be thought of and act as citizens – not as shop assistants.  This report talks of people as citizens (although recognises that  often all we do really want is a simple and effective service from the council).

Our job is to encourage a wider participation in local civic conversation on the web -  encourage people to use the web to say what they want to say and try and help public services learn how to listen to that – join in and make what comes out of the conversation useful for the community.  Of course Moseley and Kings Heath already has plenty of that.    Which is why some people still stick to their public meetings – because they can be fairly confident of what will happen.