The most telling session at the Better Connected Live event in Birmingham at the end of last month was the Q and A that ended the morning session on day one. The 20 minute Q and A drilled into the heart of the challenge and the problems of being a digital authority in 2016.
Chaired by Birmingham Councillor Lisa Trickett the panel included Martin Reeves (Chief Exec for Coventry and interim CEO for WM Combined Authority), Dylan Roberts (Chief Digital Officer, Leeds City Council), Geoff Connell (Director of ICT for Havering and Newham Councils), Amanda Derrick OBE (Silicon Abbey) and Gerry McGovern (CEO Customer Carewords).
Each speaker put across their message in their own way – mixing facts, beliefs and a passion for their job in equal measures but the underlying themes were the same: to not change is no longer an option. The fear of additional work with under-resourced departments or investing for the long term have blighted many Local Authorities attempts to modernise and adopt a true digital by default approach to their customer. Add to this a procurement process that continues to penalise the emerging small to medium size businesses in technology whilst ensuring that the end result is often to essentially remain wedded to legacy infrastructure and systems and it is little wonder that the big organisations continue to thrive and secure recurring revenue from dated applications.
But now the digital ‘disruptors’ – that small group of previously-seen-as-eccentric suppliers and LA managers – are finding a voice and a level of support that is becoming impossible to ignore.
The panel in the session were all experts but in a field where outcomes are not driven by fixed specifications or conventional wisdom. The panel took their cues in the Q and A and offered candid and open opinions, rather than the usual rhetoric, on why it is so hard to move to a strategy that the commercial world has embraced for years.
The soundbites fell like rain:
“Systems and environments should be built to change, not built to last”
“Legacy systems and suppliers are impeding progress – sometimes deliberately so.”
“We are being ripped off by suppliers who try and charge us to be more connected when the technology they provide is the cause of the problem in the first place.”
“Procurement is broken.”
“When you go to market put your requirements together as what outcomes you are looking for. Don’t simply describe what you already have as you’ll just get it again looking a bit different.”
There were few dissenting voices from the audience or indeed from the small number of suppliers who lined the walls. Most of these suppliers were small, emerging businesses with a genuine set of innovative and contemporary solutions. As long as procurement persists in awarding contracts to organisations with the biggest bid teams, the most resources to spend filling in pointlessly detailed documents and with the lowest ‘visible’ price tag then real progress will be hampered by the weight of bureaucracy. In the real world most of us do not buy on price alone but if we were forced to base 40 or 50% of our buying decision on every purchase we would all be walking around in clothes we didn’t really want and furniture that made us a little uncomfortable whenever we had to sit on it. So it is with so many LA projects where the winning supplier isn’t really what was wanted and the price paid is not, ultimately, what it said on the tag at the auction. ‘Oh you wanted an engine in your car…? I’m sorry that wasn’t clear when you bought it so you’ll need to pay a bit more that I’m afraid. Oh and by the way, we are miles from any garages now so getting an alternative car is no longer an option for you. So don’t bother looking.’
Does the panel think that legacy infrastructure and a tendency to cling on to the old and comfortable relationships will bring about the change that is need in UK Local Government?
No, it doesn’t. And most of the world seems to agree but just can’t seem to get started – or doesn’t know how to. Or maybe it’s the case that, in some instances, people just don’t want to because it feels too difficult…………