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Mr Preview with Morecambe & Wise

There may be dark clouds hanging over the future of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the national indicator set may be facing a spring-clean, but there appears to be a political consensus that the total place initiative is a good thing. 

True, total place hasn’t found favour with John Seddon who describes it as ‘total bollocks’ but from what Caroline Spelman has been saying, it seems increasingly likely that something like total place will continue beyond the general election.  So there’s a growing interest in what total place means for us all. 

On Monday afternoon I participated in a seminar organised by the New Local Government Network, part of a research project the NLGN is doing exploring what total place has achieved so far and its potential in the future. 

The official line is that total place is a new initiative that looks at how a ‘whole area’ approach to public services can lead to better services at less cost. It seeks to identify and avoid overlap and duplication between organisations – delivering a step change in both service improvement and efficiency at the local level, as well as across Whitehall. There are 13 pilot areas participating in the scheme. 

Local government practitioners could be forgiven for feeling a bit jaded and seeing total place as just the latest new solve-all initiative – there has been a constant stream of them from BVPIs to NIs, LPSAs and LAAs, CPA and CAA. 

(Looking back, it’s often been the same letters in the acronym but in a different  order. Perhaps we should have responded to Whitehall as Eric Morecambe did to Andre Previn when told he was playing all the wrong notes – I’m playing all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.) 

I remember that on his first day as the Communities Secretary, David Miliband, travelled to Maidstone to meet the then leader and chief executive of Kent County Council.  Kent has maintained an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of most of the new initiatives in local government in recent years and is one of the total place pilot authorities. Its chief executive, Peter Gilroy, spoke at the NLGN seminar about Kent’s experiences to date. 

He spoke very enthusiastically about the potential the internet offers to the public sector and the ways in which it can fundamentally shift approaches and behaviours.  Total Place must understand, he said, that Web 2.0 is part of the transformational agenda.  One example he gave was the spiralling costs of needs assessment, where he said new technology would need to be used to cut costs.  Peter suggested that the UK public sector is significantly behind the pace when it comes to making the most of web-based technology and highlighted our low level of ambition on extending broadband capacity compared with other European countries. 

The key thing, he suggested, about total place is that it seeks to reconfigure services based on customer profiling rather organisational functions and forms. Perhaps recognising local government’s predilection for structural changes, Peter argued that, ‘restructuring is a killer of innovation.’  Innovation, he said, is about being obsessed with people’s experience of public services and Peter referenced the use that Kent has made of Terry Leahy’s work on customer profiling. 

Based on Kent’s experience of being a pilot, Peter highlighted the following issues: 

  • councils don’t need new powers, we can get on and do things and then wait to see if you get challenged;
  • There have to be benefits and incentives for people to share
  • Imagination is key

Molly Lewis, Capgemini’s Head of Local Government Consulting, then spoke about the work that Capgemini is doing on total place.  She outlined Capgemini’s four routes into total place: 

  • Customer perceptive – as Peter Gilroy had emphasised, transforming the customers’ experience for a particular market segment.  This work starts with the customer and supports joining up at the front line to deliver better outcomes for less cost;
  • Partnership Operating Model – creating the governance and operating model for the public sector partnership for the place;
  • Counting a different way – financial modelling to support evidence-based investment decisions;
  • Cost efficiency – taking money out of the system.

While statistics don’t always tell the whole story, sometimes they can be compelling.  Molly outlined work that Capgemini is doing with four pilot authorities on offending and explained that within the UK, 65% of offenders re-offend within two years and 65% of children with parents in prison go on to offend.  As with so many of the social problems that we seek to tackle, the cyclical nature, from generation to generation (highlighted in recent reports emphasising a lack of social mobility in the UK compared with other countries) points to the need to find new approaches and interventions. 

Amongst a number of factors that need to be in place for successful total place projects, Molly emphasised the need to avoid making assumptions about what customers value and to create community support by engaging directly with them.  She also said that being focused on something specific rather than trying to transform everything was key to success. 

During the subsequent discussion and workshop session, one of the issues that cropped up a number of times was the effectiveness of local strategic partnerships.  It was acknowledged that there are lots of issues that get in the way of partnership delivery.  Some colleagues from other authorities questioned the added value from partnerships and how they can become more business-like, less discursive. 

While I acknowledge Peter Gilroy’s point about the need for councils to get on with things rather than seek new powers, my personal view is that it is a challenge for ‘partial’ councillors to deliver ‘total’ place.  If local councillors were directly accountable for schools, policing and primary health care, then surely that would enormously simplify total place.  Rather than forever being locked into the competing agendas and different work practices of local councils and national Whitehall departments, re-invigorated unitary ‘total councils’ would be making the key decisions that shape the local community.  The old arguments about local administration instead of local governance could finally be laid to rest. 

The Office of Public Management published last year a report entitled, Lessons Learnt from Total Place so far.  The report is based upon interviews with the great and the good – the likes of Sir Michael Bichard, Lucy de Groot, Gerry Stocker and two London borough chief executives. 

One of the points that the report makes is that over time, processes tend to harden.  Good dialogue is replaced by process monitoring.  In a telling phrase the report suggests, ‘localities need continuing permission to develop local solutions.’ 

Most people’s experiences of local strategic partnerships would be that the introduction of the Local Area Agreement has tended to shift focus away from talking about local issues to monitoring delivery against national indicators.  But I don’t believe we generally feel we need permission to develop local solutions. 

The report comments that underlying mind-sets are based on programme delivery – monitoring progress using our beloved, red, amber and green traffic lights.  But how well does this work in tackling difficult social problems, particularly where there are unrealistic timescales?  

Linked to this, is it going to be helpful or counter-productive if total place becomes totally synonymous with saving money.  Experience to date seems to point to the need to build relationships, spend time really understanding the customer perspective and having the freedom to think laterally.  Faced with the need to find cashable savings fast, will those elements of total place which can most contribute to the kind of transformational changes described by Peter Gilroy be pushed aside and lose out to the counting?  Will the metrics vanquish the magic?  

‘Imagination is everything, it is the preview of life’s coming attractions,’ was the uplifting note upon which Peter Gilroy, quoting Einstein, concluded his presentation.  The challenge is, despite the cuts, to keep imagining a better future and to value creativity more than compliance and process.

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I spent an interesting evening last night in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall, listening to a debate on whether technology or policy would determine the outcome of this year’s general election.  The debate was organised by Delib and the panel of speakers including Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC, Bruce Anderson (The Independent), Rishi Saha (Conservatives), Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour) and Julie Meyer.

For me it was Rory Cellan-Jones whose contribution to the debate was the most telling.  While pointing out that this year’s election would be the first in which twitter, facebook et al would be a feature, he said that the televised debates between the party leaders was the innovation which would have the greater impact.  This point chimed with a later one by Rishi Saha who pointed out that most of the money which the Obama campaign raised through on-line donations was used to fund TV adverts.  TV remains the crucial medium for getting your message across as a politician.  The political bloggers and tweeters are merely new players in a minority sport, so far at least, virtual settlers in the Westminster village, Rory Cellan-Jones suggested.

Bruce Anderson questioned the significance of election campaigns on the outcome.  True, he said, Barak Obama ran an effective campaign but would the Democrats have won anyway?  He suggested that 1992 aside, all of the UK election results since 1979 were not determined by the parties’ election campaigns.  The Tories big advantage in 2010, he argued, was that there was a pervasive public feeling that it is ‘time for a change’.

Rishi Saha emphasised how the barriers to entry in the political debate have been lowered by new technology.  We can all be Nick Robinsons now and for the political parties, social media enables them to mobilise their supporters much more cheaply.

In a contribution from the floor, Lord Harris, suggested that the key issue was how will politicians respond to social media, to the speed of response, which is something new.  Citizen journalists have changed the accountability framework – it’s a change in the way the game is played, he said, but not a change in the game.

It was an interesting discussion but less interesting to me than a debate about real policy issues.  It is easy to become wide-eyed about new technology and the way it is changing how we lead our lives.  But we shouldn’t forget it’s a tool with which to make something.  You have to know what it is you’re trying to build and why.

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President ObamaI’m grateful to my colleague, Ben Unsworth, who gave me a copy of a briefing paper by Chris Quigley of Delib Ltd on how President Obama has been using the web to facilitate a more participative approach to governance. 

Chris explains how Open for Questions encouraged citizens to submit questions on line, via text or video, as well as to rate questions submitted by others.  President Obama then responded to the top questions via an online town hall meeting held at the White House and streamed live on line. Recovery Dialogue enabled the public to contribute their ideas on how to ensure transparency about the way funds provided through the Recovery Act are spent.  As Chris points out the Recovery Dialogue demonstrated a new way of running policy roundtable ideas-sharing events- it enabled 20,000 people to be involved in the policy-making process.

It seems to me that there are a number of things that we can learn from the approach that the Obama administration is taking.

1. the aim is to generate ideas and collaboration.  It is about participation not technology.  So, to take a current example from UK local government, if we want to encourage e-petitioning it needs to be because it’s an effective form of participation rather than because technology now enables us to do on-line what we’ve done for centuries off-line.

2. the way to do this is by trialing specific projects and learning from them.  There are always a lot of unknowns when it comes to participation so piloting different approaches for specific purposes makes sense.

3. if you get this right the rewards in terms of the extent and quality of the participation are high – much higher perhaps than could be achieved through more traditional mechanisms for the money involved.

4. we need to move on from our pre-occupation with surveys – there are other more participative ways of engaging residents in ongoing conversations about the key issues affecting local communities.

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Amongst the latest blogs to be posted at the bloggers’ circle, I was particularly interested in a piece by Blog for Prestolee on social intimacy and twitter. Prestolee outlines how the intimacy of regular contacts between ordinary people has been eroded in today’s increasingly dislocated society and as a consequence, the quality of our daily lives has been diminished. How far, Prestolee, asks can Twitter go in re-introducing intimacy?

My gut instinct is to say, not very far. The relationship between social media and real-life face-to-face interaction is an issue highlighted in the excellent Us Now film which explores a number of web 2.0 innovations. One example – Directionless Enquiries – seemed to me to encapsulate the problem. Directionless Enquiries connects lost people looking for help with knowledgeable locals who would like to help, using mobile phones. Nothing wrong in that. Except, would it not be better if you could just ask a passer-by? Do we want the kind of communities where we co-operate through web-based interactions or spontaneous face-to-face contact? Do things like Twitter and Directionless Enquiries make us feel more or less isolated in the long run?

I’m conscious that there is a danger in over-stating the contrast between the way we interact and the way we’ve interacted in the past. Is Twitter simply the modern equivalent of sending telegrams? We are social creatures, we have always wanted to communicate and our lives have always been a mixture of first and second-hand experiences.

The Victorian postal service was in its way a precursor of the web. In London, it’s said, you could mail an invite in the morning, receive a response in the afternoon and still have time to make preparations for dinner that same evening. The postal service enabled Charles Darwin from his home in Kent to maintain a dialogue with scientists and naturalists from all over Britain and further afield. That flow of information and ideas helped him develop his theory of natural selection. Would Darwin have developed his ideas without the first-hand stimulus of his journey on the Beagle? Probably not, but even still we shouldn’t under-estimate the part played by remote collaboration.

There’s another aspect to all this that interests me. Does our seemingly insatiable need to be connected say something about us? In public spaces people are more and more enclosed in their private worlds of mobiles and ipods (but, again, is that different from having your head in a book?) In Herzog, Saul Bellow’s eponymous protagonist is a neurotic who is constantly composing unsent letters to the great and good of past and present times. When Stephen Fry tweets to his 55,000 followers about England’s win at Lords (Joy. Bliss. Divinity. Excellence. Radiant effulgence. Rapture. Content. Yards and yards of fine, fresh, fragrant happiness. All is good) I wonder if we’ve somehow entered the fun but mad world of Herzog’s compulsive letter writing with the one difference being that that we all now have send and receive buttons.

By the end of the novel when Herzog finds a measure of equilibrium, we are told that ‘at this time he had no messages for anyone.’  Today, most of us always seem to have a text or a tweet or a blog up our sleeves.

The last word on all this, at least for the moment, should go I think to Rohan Gunatillake of NESTA who has coined the phrase, ‘ungeeking’ to describe what happens when behaviours developed online make their way into areas of our lives independent of the technology through which we learnt them. He suggests that the great prize is the ungeeking of social networking – in other words to translate the radical connectivity between individuals and the communities of shared interest being developed on-line into increased social glue in our towns and cities. That seems to me a worthy aspiration.  In the meantime you can follow Rohan on Twitter.

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