#CounciloftheFuture: Harrow Council’s Journey of Culture Change

Quick recap

Over the past year we had taken senior officers and councillors on a journey to create a culture which was more open to innovation. In doing so, prove that digital innovation could deliver savings for the council and improve service outcomes.

First, officers presented to councillors the innovative work they had already done and the results of it. This de-risked the concept of innovation, proving to us that innovation could produce positive results.

With that in mind, we then opened eyes as to how this could be taken further. We had a series of organisations come in and show both officers and councillors how technology was being used in other councils in more advanced ways. Doing this with officers and councillors together was really powerful, as officers saw first-hand the positive reaction of councillors when presented with practical examples of how technology and digital innovation can improve the way we deliver services.

With eyes and minds well and truly open, officers and councillors then went through a couple of workshops to identify the challenges the organisation faced. We then had a session at techUK where we collectively brainstormed with tech companies and came up with ideas of how we could solve those challenges.

This eventually led to a number of projects on the table to transform various services, and a structure in place to manage its implementation.

What has been taken forward

Being able to make savings and deliver more effective services by innovating and make better use of technology has been the hypothesis driving our work. Each project that we have taken forward has been assessed through this lens and either has or will deliver millions of pounds in savings.

A digital planning portal for planning applications, a hub for dementia patients to access care and the latest tech to help them live at home, an individually personalised council website based on the needs of that user, tech-enabled temporary accommodation to introduce home care to those in need, and an app for children in care with targeted communication are amongst the projects that we have taken forward, with many more in the pipeline.  

These are hugely exciting, but almost secondary. The bigger picture with this work has been to improve the culture of the organisation so we are bolder in making the most out of technology and think differently when designing or re-designing our services across the board. The opportunities come from systemic and widespread change, and go beyond a one-off exercise limited to a handful of services.

We have most definitely achieved this. The types of projects now being proposed are a testament to that – from drones in enforcement to AI in care. Once we had moved the dial on the culture, ideas started to come from beyond the service areas we had originally identified, demonstrating the wider impact of a culture of innovation. By creating this, we have given ourselves a platform to affect much bigger change.

The impact of culture is sometimes hard to quantify, but when things that you want to happen unexpectedly start happening, that’s when you know you’ve got it right. If you want to innovate in a local authority - with its many unique aspects - getting the culture right is the single most important factor. From there, anything is possible.

What next

Innovating is a mindset, and so it should never stop. We have done some great work which has given confidence to the organisation. Our challenge now is to take this further.

So far we have just focused on working with senior officers and councillors. This has been important but should only be the start. We must create an environment which encourages this type of thinking and working at every level of the organisation. Continuously.

We must also extend our focus beyond culture. In my view it is a pre-requisite for innovating in a council but there are also other factors involved. This is very much “how long is a piece of string?” territory – the more we put in the more we will get out. We have an opportunity to work with each department to set a direction, and expectations, over the medium term for how services can be delivered; with technology and the potential that enables at the forefront of our thinking.

And finally, this should not stop in Harrow. I have begun visiting councils across the country to share our story with them, and the importance and impact of creating a culture which encourages and enables innovation. I’m happy to do this with any council who is interested, so please get in touch if you are.

Thank you to all the people and organisations who have helped us on this journey, it has been hugely impactful and appreciated. Especially techUK, Future Cities Catapult, Nesta, Alcove, Umbrellium, and all the techUK members who lent us their wisdom.

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