On Wednesday 12 December I joined like-minded innovators at TechUK’s Future Gazing event to hear sector experts talk about technologies and trends that are transforming local government. I was keen to hear how predictions made for 2018 panned out and what’s in store for GovTech in 2019. Policy in Practice works with a number of leading lights in the sector, helping them to unlock their data to tackle the drivers of poverty.

Sharing the stories of public sector innovation

I am passionate about the role companies like Policy in Practice can play in transforming public services. Recent events such as the GovTech summit in Paris have bought together a global community that is equally excited by this opportunity and new innovative stories are popping up every day.

TechUK’s Future Gazing: Where Next for Local Government Tech in 2019? event caught my attention as it was billed as an opportunity to reflect on the past year of tech transformation in local government. The goal was to offer a leading lights tour of technologies that have been re-defining service delivery throughout 2018. The programme also promised a look forward to the major trends moving into 2019, showcasing emerging, disruptive technologies across the GovTech sector.

Central and local government speakers shared insights

We heard from five speakers, all experts in building government technology, from MHCLG, Westminster Council, Essex County Council, TechMarketView and the Local Government Association. They all touched on the impressive stories of 2018, as well what the GovTech community should strive for in 2019.

  • Linda O’Halloran, Head of Local Digital Collaboration Unit, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 
  • Jason Kitcat, Executive Director, Corporate Development, Essex County Council
  • Siobhan Coughlan, Programme Manager, Local Government Association​
  • Dale Peters, Research Director, TechMarketView
  • Councillor Timothy Barnes, Founder of The Rain Cloud and Westminster Councillor

Linda O’Halloran from MHCLG highlighted the successes of the Local Digital declaration now signed by over 130 councils and the early success of the Local Digital Fund which has secured funding of £7.5m to invest in innovation in government. 

Siobhan Coughlan from the LGA spoke about the need to sell a solution to an existing problem, not just using technology for technology’s sake. This observation is very much in line with our the work we do at Policy in Practice to use data to predict risk of financial crisis  so it was good to hear the support the LGA’s has given LB Newham to develop technology to triage homelessness cases.

Dale Peters from TechMarketview shared useful insights to the tech investment market in local councils. In particular, his observation that many councils are still shackled by existing and cumbersome 5 – 10 year legacy contracts, reducing their ability to do what they would really want with their budgets, was a powerful and worrying point.

Councillor Timothy Barnes set up the first GovTech incubator, The Rain Clouds, in the UK. He shared his passion on how procurement approaches at councils must change for this market to really achieve what it is capable of. Tech companies should be sought out by councils for solutions, not the other way round.

We also heard great success stories at Essex County Council from Jason Kitcat, where clarity of vision, collaboration and determination has enabled new tech to be inexpensive and effective, such as working with a another local council to use their website infrastructure and commissioning via GCloud.

My 3 conference takeaways

1. Sharing ideas itself is an achievement. Local councils and tech companies need to openly share ideas on how to solve problems. By working in a open and even uniform way (such as by following the Local digital declaration) we can have greater impact at scale. In reality this also means working together, taking inspiration and ideas from other councils, submitting bids to open tenders, using pipelines  such as the MHCLG coloration space for tech solutions and eulogising about ‘open by default’.

2. Data is the fuel. Great work is happening with ‘open data’ but so much important data is still siloed with multiple owners not willing to share across departments, or across counties or regions. How do we unlock the insights this data can provide? Traditional models of procurement, from contracting to data sharing and budgeting can get in the way without meaning to. Working hard with these corporate structures to overcome legacy issues and prove the power of tech and data can yield great results. This has been shown in Essex and with so many Policy in Practice clients such as Luton, who are using data to put people first and the department or specific budget pool very much second.

“Organisations are waking up to the value of data – pursuing the open data agenda, creating new data, and looking to external sources. The potential, if value can be unlocked, is clear.” – TechMarketView

Data sharing has already seen success in areas such as fraud prevention and debt collection. Why can’t we use datasets more powerfully to help people at risk? Policy in Practice is built to pursue this goal.

3. Business cases matter. Tech needs to prove its value just as any other solution might do.  Buyers might not be at ease with building business cases with tech at the core and it may be up to the tech community to make this easier. It’s worth it – Tim points out that ‘Government’ is the biggest market in the world at $9.5tn. Business  cases should be built in an environment of honesty and openness, building trust, as so many councils have been burnt by legacy suppliers. We’re helping Luton Council build a detailed business case on the impacts of prevention (request a copy here) and routinely help all our clients to evidence the returns on their investments. Our work with Croydon Council, for example, has helped them to evidence the impact of the effects of the benefit cap and enable over 2000 families avoid homelessness.

The promise that technology brings

As Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, famously said at last year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, “The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.” The disruptors and innovators in the room at Future Gazing will be the ones to watch as they, like Policy in Practice, build solutions to today’s public policy challenges.

Find out more about Policy in Practice’s data analytics work with local gov tech sector in our next webinar, Use your data effectively to identify and prevent vulnerability, which is on Wednesday 20 February, register here. In the meantime please connnect with me on Twitter @TomBNugent, as well as @policy_practice, and email hello@policyinpractice.co.uk for further information. 

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