The frustrations of a digital optimist

Interview: Camden councillor Theo Blackwell talks about the resistance to technology in public services, how it can be overcome, and his own council’s exploration of open data

A conversation with Theo Blackwell conveys a combination of optimism and frustration over the prospects for digital transformation in local government. Overall it’s the optimism that shines through, but he’s not inclined to hide the shortcomings he sees on the national scene.

Theo BlackwellAs council member for finance, technology and growth at the London Borough of Camden he has emerged as one of the leading flag wavers for digital in local government, and articulated many of the opportunities and obstacles in a report, The start of the possible, published last month by the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) think tank.

It was based on a survey that produced some encouraging findings: 70% of councillors believed technology would have a positive impact over the next 10 years; 62% saw benefits in more automation; and 70% favoured an increased use of big data in public services. In most cases most of the remainder were reserving judgement, but there was also “a small, vociferous cohort” highly resistant to the trends.

The problem from Blackwell’s perspective is that, despite being a minority and usually on the backbenches of council chambers, these cohorts are standing in the way of change in many authorities.

“It often inhibits councillors with a positive view from doing more and doing things faster,” he says. “They were not armed with all the arguments that digital inclusion is an essential part of progress, and that people are not going to be left behind. I think that’s quite a big barrier. We could be going faster and doing more if we resolved some of those residual arguments.

“The positive view has been counterbalanced by a lack of confidence in putting forward the case."

Betrayal

He believes the resistance is driven by some fundamental perspectives on the nature of public services.

“Essentially we’re talking about a change in the way the service is delivered, with an onus on self-service rather than dealing with a council officer. Some people feel that’s not what they were elected to do and they are there to support the most vulnerable 10% of society, and that it’s almost a betrayal of why they got involved in public service. There are some strong emotional arguments.

“But the counter-argument is if you can make savings from using technology you can balance the budget, avoid further cuts, and re-invest the money into things that help the most vulnerable.”

In short, he believes the emotional resistance is no excuse for councils to shy away from transformation efforts, and says there are steps that can make a positive difference. They include developing stronger leadership at political and officer level, enabling the digital champions to reach out to everybody in the organisations.

He cites the example of the London Borough of Ealing, which has launched a scrutiny exercise for its digital services, going beyond the internal processes to take in issues such as internet access, digital inclusion and connectivity in town centres, and looking at how technology could make the area better.

“Every council has a scrutiny function that can investigate new issues, and I’m surprised that councils have not used that function to make people understand and ask questions about how things can develop,” Blackwell says.

Inclusion essential

In addition, digital inclusion should be regarded as an essential element of transformation – a step towards nullifying the objections, and supporting the more vulnerable people in a community. “The technology is there to help people,” he says. “The question is at what pace you do it.”

One of the issues to emerge from the survey was a sharp difference between the councils that are cracking on with the change and those that lag behind, and which would benefit from some external support.

Blackwell welcomes the signs of the Government Digital Service making training programmes for digital leaders available, but sees the solution more in councils helping each other than relying on central government. He points to iStand and iNetwork, both hosted by Tameside Council, as examples of how can councils can collaborate and share best practice, and sees the devolution agenda, with the creation of combined city authorities, as a big positive.

“In every region there are councils you can describe as leaders, and working within their region or combined authority they can bring other councils along,” he says. “Devolution is a real opportunity, and it’s in everybody’s interest as it allows you to procure, collaborate, design services together, and meet common challenges, so there’s a financial imperative beneath all this.”

One of the issues they will have to address is the appropriate use of data. The report pointed to a split in attitudes on the private sector’s use of public data to solve problems, and Blackwell says the opposition is reinforced by an element of fear. This is partly down to limited understanding of the relevant laws and is another obstacle to innovation.

“The next chapter of digital leadership will be around the discussions on what is appropriate,” he says.

“I think private sector digital services are fundamental to digital transformation in the public sector and openness of data is the fuel that makes them able to do things. The sign of a leading authority is that they work with an open data platform that is regularly updated and used, in a common standards framework.”

Pioneer borough

His own borough has been one of the pioneers in the field, with the recent creation of an open data platform that currently holds more than 300 datasets. He says it has been heavily used by people wanting to know more about parking and planning, and by community groups looking to establish planning forums; and there have been a few developers of parking apps testing the platform.

It is due to expand as people request new datasets, reflecting Camden’s adoption of an open data charter.

The council has also harnessed its data along with business intelligence tools to build up about 30 performance dashboards as a step towards redesigning its operations. The biggest element of this has been using the data to support a move to outcomes based budgets, in which spending is split between what is needed for specified outcomes rather than departments.

“To do that you need a huge amount of data on which to discover the most effective intervention,” Blackwell says. “It has enabled us to reduce duplication. The council has run a number of apprenticeship schemes to meet the outcome of getting young people into work, and this has enabled us to work out which are the most effective, whether we should do it in-house or commission it, and challenge the way we have been spending. It has been a real boon to our process.”

London effort

Camden’s other digital priorities lay around the development of its shared ICT service with the neighbouring boroughs of Islington and Haringey, and its role in efforts to develop more London-wide initiatives. Blackwell is enthusiastic about the plans for a chief digital officer for the capital and an office for technology and innovation, and says Camden wants to play a leading role in shaping their agendas.

“The next step is around how authorities in London act in concert to buy better, share information better, save money and make public services more effective,” he says.

“London has a particular challenge and Camden and a number of authorities want to lead the charge; a coalition of the willing and able in which there are seven or eight could really make a difference. We see shared digital as a major driver for innovation across London.”