Guest blog: The future of government: data, culture and tabula rasa

Henry Ford supposedly once joked, “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Whether he said it or not, these words should resonate for local government leaders today. From the Internet of Things (IoT), to Artificial Intelligence (AI), we’re used to hearing about the huge potential of ‘faster’ technologies—but are we planning to use them in the right way?

I see two different mindsets at large. The first, fixed mindset asks, ‘how can we apply technology to remove costs from our existing services?’, while the second, a mindset focused on reinvention and transformation, wonders, ‘if government planners a century ago had access to today’s capabilities, what would they have done differently?”.

Of course, cost-efficiency in the face of austerity is important. There’s no room for wastefulness, but local councils should embrace the second mindset in looking to the future. Now’s the time to think differently and to re-examine the challenges we’re trying to solve. Ford wasn’t improving on the status quo with the Model T, he was creating a new—and better—solution to the problem of mass transport. It was revolution, not evolution!

Let’s start with a blank slate, or ‘zero-based’ outlook. By focusing on the underlying needs of citizens and the problems to be solved, local government can approach service design by working back from the outcome required. Technology enables new ideas to become reality and new approaches to be taken, but the fuel for solving today’s problems is data.

Today’s emerging technologies are either powered by data, or simply enable it to be captured, analysed and actioned more effectively. Indeed, data is the cornerstone of today’s much vaunted artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities.

With an unprecedented volume of data now available, local government is in a position to make better, more informed decisions and deliver more targeted, proactive services. Failing to harness the power of data is like driving with your headlights off. Opportunities to redesign services and improve citizen experiences will be missed and the potential for early, preventative intervention will be wasted.

For instance, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has used its data and insight, organisational knowledge and local networks to completely reimagine local government services. It no longer has Children’s Services, Adult Social Care, or Housing departments. Instead it has redesigned services around the way they add value to communities. Technological advances have enabled 21st century service design, while data and insight empower continuous, evidence-led service improvements.

Other local authorities are using data to attack problems by focusing on prevention. For example, Doncaster is addressing the problem of young people not in education, employment or training by targeting early intervention in an area it’s not responsible for—careers advice.

With a local network of information sources for people and place, councils are an ideal nexus point for government data innovation. However, going further and faster in this revolution also demands a significant culture shift. To innovate, employees must have permission to experiment, fail, and learn from failure, without being subject to criticism or scapegoating.

A growth mindset alongside the service culture of local government will ensure that it remains at the heart of the physical, mental and economic wellness of our communities for many years to come. Let’s follow in Ford’s footsteps and make the bold moves required, driven by the right mindset.

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