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I went to Local GovCamp in Birmingham on the 20/21st June 2014. While I was there I picked up a framework for reflective practise from Esko Reinikainen and so I’ve decided to use that to order my thoughts.

Here’s @reinikainen‘s list of reflective practice questions #localgovcamp pic.twitter.com/EFbdvsbqpw

1. What did I learn?

Too much to fit into one post. The plans some people have, the ideas that are floating around, the reading-between-the-lines of certain people in the sector, the way I react to pressure, the layout of Birmingham city centre, some of our industrial heritage, and much much much more. In fact you learn so much in a short space of time that you get what I call “govcamp lag” – your mind has moved so quickly it takes your body a couple of days to catch up with it.

2. How will I behave differently?

Early evidence suggests I’ll be slightly more focussed and a bit more impatient. I hope I’ll be more effective on multiple levels and more confident as a result of my experiences but this is not a certainty just yet.

3. What held me back?

Not much. I’m much more wholehearted than I used to be although lack of certainty over the direction things are taking occasionally surfaces – but this is part and parcel of working with a strategy label. I need to lose the worry of what might happen and make things happen instead.

4. What surprised me?

My confidence at handling the Open Data session – I couldn’t have done that in the way I did a few months ago. Probably the PS Launchpad prepared me well for this (and in general, there were similarities in feel between the two experiences).

5. What got in my way?

The usual local government tendency of talking rather than action exists even at a govcamp, and we tend to broaden conversations rather than narrow and focus them into action. I need to do better at this and probably need to recite something to myself mantra-like on an hourly basis until my thick skull gets the frigging message.

6. What happened today that gave me a glimpse of the future?

I pitched an idea at a complete stranger and they didn’t ignore me or walk away. This happened more than once. If I am to be effective, stating my ideas confidently must be the cornerstone of my approach or I should just go back to putting the lids on gateaux on a factory production line (which was my first proper job).

7. What frustrated me?

I still pussy-foot around too much.  See #5.

8. What did I do today that I do every day?

Woke up at 5am,  argued pointlessly once or twice, and didn’t produce anything.

9. What did I let go of today?

The untouchability of certain individuals. There is no-one in our sector with all the answers, I don’t think it’s mathematically possible.

10. What will I do tomorrow?

I have a plan but I don’t want to talk about it just yet.

 

Narcissitecture

People who retweet all their mentions. Who only follow you if you follow them back. Who only like your blog post if it mentions them.  Who set up second accounts so they can retweet and recommend themselves. Who only read something if it affects them directly. Who only vote for their tribe, their interests, their ideology. Who retweet their Follow Friday mentions. People who wrestle everything into their agenda. Who ignore anything they can’t relate to their agenda. Who care more about what they are doing for you than for you.

People like me (and, statistically, probably like you as well). I recently listened to an entire hour of a podcast because I was told I got a mention in it. It was bollocks. Not sure why I did that, or why I care. I’m probably only curious about myself.

Narcissism seems completely part of the fabric of society now. Maybe it always has been, but social media amplifies its visibility: the default tabs on the standard Twitter client – Home, Notifications, Messages, Me – reinforce the use of the platform as a narcissistic tool. If you follow more than a couple hundred people, “Home” overflows so you are more likely to see your notifications than you are to see tweets from others. Using lists aggressively, as I do, is the only way to follow more people and keep sane, but this isn’t a prominent feature of the platform. So we are gradually enticed to track our notifications more than the “content tweets” of others.

Blog like no-one’s reading. Because, you know, they probably aren’t.

It was almost a throwaway line in a previous post about how the PS Launchpad accelerator compared to other types of learning and development that councils might benefit from. However, one of the biggest things that this process has done is in terms of what it has done to me as an individual and (perhaps) as a manager.

Obviously reflection takes time – proper time – and so particularly the things around management and leadership skills will need the feedback from my team to help me accurately gauge, so I’ll gloss over those for the time being. Suffice to say I think its been quite game-changing in a number of ways.

Cloche

Proper professionals. No, really.

Originally I wrote a load of stuff about me here, but I’ve decided largely to keep that to myself. Suffice to say that all the crazy stuff you read on the Internet about self-development is true – but you have to live it, not just read about it, to fully absorb the learning.

So this post is instead about my network: both the people I met – the crew, founders, mentors, and others – and the people I already knew who helped us on the way, it’s no exaggeration to say that a person’s network is the difference between success and failure in any context. You genuinely can’t do everything yourself, no matter how awesome you are, because the modern world rewards specialization. I discovered that some people I already knew were shockingly good at what they did, way above anything I could comprehend, and I met some amazing people who will hopefully remain friends for a long time. So in no particular order…

All the other founders on the programme – this group of amazing people provided me with laughter, support and benchmarking throughout. All of them will go on to great things, and some of them are there already. They all helped in some way or another so I won’t single anyone out publically.

The crew – Marc, Lucy, Daniel and Alison – these were the people who made the programme happen on the ground. Whether mediating in a crisis between founders, organising around the changing requirements we all kept having, chasing up partners or suppliers who weren’t delivering, using their networks to give us the edge through access to influential people, keeping our spirits up through setbacks – these guys did it all. They were coaches, mentors, surrogate parents, organisers and plenty more besides.

Dom Potter from Solve, and Carrie and Dom from FutureGov – I never worked out the relationship between the two organisations but that didn’t matter in the end. These were the prime movers of the programme (as far as I could tell) and we got a lot of support, especially around fitting the programme ideas into a local government context.

Everyone who delivered a session as part of the taught programme – I don’t think we were an especially easy group of people to teach although we were all motivated to learn. :) Also a special mention for Mary McKenna, who spoke at our dinner one week and who helped our project out immensely and is continuing to do so.

All the mentors – some are mentioned on this page, but by no means all (and I think some of the mentors on that page also dropped out). We had particularly good help from Zoe Cunningham, Ben Unsworth, Simon Parker, David McNulty and Laurence McCahill as well as good insights from Indy Johar and Joost Beunderman.

Some people who weren’t affiliated with the programme but helped us get our heads straight or introduced us to yet more interesting people include Dave Briggs, Liz Stevenson, Francine Bennett, Richard Sage, Matt Leach, Lior Smith, Simon Gough, Ann Kempster, Mark Braggins, Steve Peters, Mike Thacker, and the LGA LG-Inform team.

We had solid, professional, practical help from the developers at Cosmic, as well as world class branding consulting by Anne McCrossan, graphics by Jane Skelton, and some project management challenge from Hannah Tucker – most of the work of these people has yet to see the light of day, which is a tantalising thought :)

The support I’ve had from the mothership has been exceptional, especially from my team – Marisa Smyth, Diane Demeger, David Murch, John Higgs and Vicky Forbes-Perry – and peers Chris Outram, Carl Haggerty and Sara Cretney. Senior management – Richard Carter, Rob Parkhouse, John Smith and Phil Norrey – have been pretty cool too.

I may have missed some people off. Ping me and I’ll add you :)

There is a Twitter list containing founders, mentors and associated people from the programme – all the people on that list and those mentioned in this post are definitely worth a follow.

lucypresent

Finally, working with Lucy has been a lot of fun. Long may it continue :)

And that is all my blogging from the Public Service Launchpad Accelerator. I hope it’s been useful and/or entertaining. To find out what happens next, follow our project on Twitter. Or the website. Although that’s all the blogging for now, this isn’t about an end but a beginning. Once you start a “thing” it sticks to you forever.

In the introductory post about our experiences on the Public Service Launchpad Accelerator I said that a startup is designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, (actually a quote from Steve Blank). Here I just want to outline why I think this is important for local government and how an accelerator programme might facilitate some of the change we need.

It won’t be news to anyone reading this in 2014 that local councils are in the grip of a funding squeeze. I’m not going to get into politics – it’s worth mentioning that the squeeze is as much demographic as it is political – but the fact is that all councils are losing a significant proportion of their budgets over the term of this, and next, parliaments – but that demand for the services they provide is rising.

Previously, councils have responded to this by getting more efficient, but there are limits to how far this can go. We had already had annual efficiency targets under previous governments for several years and local government was already running pretty lean in my experience, especially compared to central government. So the current round of funding reductions looks set to mean that front-line services will be cut and consultations are already in place where I live to make this happen.

So far, so not good. But two things are not always in the equation at times like this – the outcomes that are intended to result from the service (as distinct from the service itself), and the capacity that already exists outside of the council to make those same outcomes happen. If we were to take a large step back and ask

  • what is the problem we are trying to solve
  • who are we trying to solve it for
  • what resources do we already have
  • what resources do our communities already have
  • who benefits from a solution and how might that benefit be shared
  • who else might be involved in creating a solution

and then try some different, small-scale, things using completely different patterns – well then, we might discover ways to reduce the demand on local government services and improve lives for more people overall.

Under our accelerator programme our initial idea got tested and we were challenged about both whether the idea itself was any good (and this challenge led to us changing our idea more than once) and about how we were going about executing on it. This led us to validate, adapt and flex the different possible business models around the idea, to try different things and see if they stuck, to canvas completely external viewpoints. We explored different ways to fund the idea such as crowdfunding, and we were challenged to find alternatives to managing the demand that we perceived the idea was based on.

In other words, all of the above, and quite efficiently too. Of course, there are lots of programmes that try to do this already. We have things like systems thinking which have exactly the same aims, and these approaches are all good – this is just another way of tackling it.

So if I was a Chief Exec of a local council right now I might be asking all my service areas to test their services through a process like this, and I would bring in outside viewpoints as much as I could – some expert and some lay – and I would hope to see MVPs that looked very different from the current service offerings and really did offer some fresh thinking. The details of the programme might look very different in a purely council context but the fundamentals – build, test, learn, repeat – would remain unchanged.

There is undoubtedly a tension between existing Council culture and the sort of thinking and process that accelerators typify. I don’t personally believe that there will be another PS Launchpad that involves local government in the same way. I think we are more likely to see a specifically local government version of it instead and this is something I would strongly advocate and be keen to be involved with in some capacity.

Next: personal reflections

I think it’s probably fair to say that when we started on the Public Sector Launchpad programme we didn’t know what the end looked like. We knew we wanted to have a go at it and see what happened and we knew that we wanted to create a successful “thing”, whatever that turned out to be.

As far as we knew, this was the first accelerator programme to feature local government teams (there were 4 in total on PS Launchpad) and so we didn’t have any existing practice to copy. Quite early on, we had a conversation with each other and made a pact that we would just see how it went and do whatever we could to get the programme to yield up as much value as possible for our sector.bizcards

The first hurdles were internal and centred around carving out enough time and space to attend the programme. For me, this meant my long-suffering team got the dubious benefit of a load of work delegated to them and the promise that I would largely leave them alone to get on with it. I was always at the other end of the phone but to their immense credit they seem to have risen to the challenge superbly and I was hardly ever interrupted outside of the Mondays and Fridays I was still spending in the office. I also put in a load of extra hours to get right on top of email (I used a variant of Owen Barder’s system with an addition which basically involved turning my work into projects and then delegating them all) before the programme started.

The second – and biggest – challenge was around the business model. We had been asked by the Launchpad team to set up a company, which would then receive seed funding in the form of a loan. There was immediate concern back at the mothership that the council would be liable for any losses the company incurred, but this was clearly not the case so swiftly dealt with. Of more concern were three things: the potential conflicts of interest between the company and the council (we remain full-time employees), the prospect of one or both of us leaving to run the company full-time (and the council having basically subsidised that), and the reputation of the council in terms of what it was allowing its staff to do.

We could, of course, have dealt with these issues by simply not doing the programme, but we looked at those risks and felt that they were manageable:

  • Local Government has mature ways of handling potential conflicts of interest where council officers (or members) have interests in external companies, and any deviation from the code of conduct is a disciplinary offence
  • We gave assurances that we wouldn’t be leaving the council. Our main concern was that other council staff would be able to have similar opportunities in the future and we felt that if we left then those opportunities would be closed off to others
  • Since the programme was effectively externally funded the only contribution being made by the council was in the form of our time. As such it compares well with other career development activities in terms of cost and crams an incredible amount of learning into a short space of time.
  • In addition, the council gets a tangible, tested idea that may be commercially viable and produce a financial return on its investment, a way of doing something better, or some other kind of social impact.
  • At the very least, it produces a new way of looking at an existing council problem (more on this in a later post).

Despite the obvious ways of managing these risks, it’s still a bit nerve-wracking to do something as novel as this and take full responsibility for it. I lost count of the restless nights I spent worrying about whether I’d done the right thing. In the final analysis, though, I believe deeply that local government needs ways to change and ways to help its officers become more commercially minded and this is possibly one of the best, quickest, and cheapest way of doing it. To be honest I’m even a bit cautious about saying this publicly but it’s the truth and if others want to do similar programmes, which I hope is the case, they need to know the facts.

If you happen to be reading this as someone who has the chance to do one of these programmes in future, I strongly recommend you don’t let this derail you, but definitely start with the end in mind – ask what do your exit models look like? About half way through the programme we drew up a matrix showing what would be the various options for continuing with the project (or dropping it) once the accelerator programme finished. A simplified version is shown below.

the various exit business models (click for bigger version or contact me to talk about it)

The various exit business models (click for bigger version or contact me to talk about it)

To a large extent producing a successful idea gives you more options and takes the pressure off your host council as there is less risk.

The final reflection I’d make as a local government person on this programme is that focus is everything. Too often in my professional life as a council employee I have witnessed scope or mission creep and seen how some in the sector (completely inadvertently) have a tendency to water down your vision or broaden conversations out. On a programme like this those sorts of conversations are lethal – it’s a narrowing and execution space, not one for wide-ranging discussions. Seeing when these things are happening and giving them both their allotted space – and no more – is a massively critical success factor.

Next: wider lessons for local government from accelerator programmes

The thing that really differentiates the Public Service Launchpad from other accelerator programmes is that teams are required to be building things that have a social purpose. As local government officers, we already have lots of that – it goes with the territory – but as with the product development there was a process of focusing that we went through to allow the specific social purpose of our project to emerge.

Partly this mirrors some of the steps we took in product development and is about understanding what is not happening that should be. And partly it is about taking a deliberately different view of something you already know about to challenge the way it is being done now. Both of these things happened to us – largely unconsciously – as we worked away on our product development. When we looked at existing data products, for example, it was immediately clear that applications for people without high levels of IT literacy were quite thin on the ground, and that the open data movement had a focus on creating and releasing data sets without necessarily worrying too much what they were being used for.

Just as traditional business development had a “build it and they will come” mentality and traditional software development has a top-down “waterfall” ethos, so our initial approaches to open data seemed very traditional. We seemed to want Government to just release its data and surely some clever people out there would do great things with it.

About half way through the programme my co-founder Lucy was involved with a hackathon that the council provided some data sets to. A lot of effort had gone into persuading the data custodian to open the data, it was good quality and – we thought – valuable. But the developers weren’t interested in it. Similarly, I don’t know the statistics but I feel sure that too few of the data sets on data.gov.uk are used for public benefit (and how are we tracking this anyway?).

There are two problems with this: firstly that there is a lot of waste (as people open data sets that never get used), and secondly that it skews the use cases of open data in favour of business (as only data sets that can be monetised get used, and only then by people who already have money). We aren’t against open data at all on any level: we just think that we aren’t making the best of it.

In a nutshell, we think that something more like a design approach (understanding what communities need, opening the data in a way that they can use it, testing this with them and iterating for continuous improvement) would result in more relevant data sets being opened for higher levels of benefit all round.

Around week 9 of the accelerator programme we started the Plain Data Campaign and, with the help of some of the programme mentors, began to think through what this meant. Crucially we needed to test it against what was already happening and ensure it was complementary to the great work that is already being done by organisations like the Open Data Institute – and lots more still needs to be done.

We’re now convinced that more effort needs to be made to work with the people we are trying to benefit to understand whether opening particular datasets is worth the trouble. We think that open datasets need to have purpose and that purpose ought to be regularly tested – otherwise the stories told by open data will be determined by those with the skills or funding – and we think that is dangerous. We think this is crucial if everyone is to benefit from the potential of data science and not just those with the brains or the money.

On our campaign blog you will find some further explanations and a sign-up form. Please sign up and help us shape the campaign for better, not just more, public data.

Next: how does a local gov team get accelerated

The previous post set out the process we used to make the product. If you did, indeed, check out the prototype you’ll undoubtedly agree with us that it needs a lot of work. Hopefully you’ll also agree that something in this area is needed because councillors are the poor relations when it comes to local government software. We also know that a lot of energy goes into supporting councillors’ information needs, and that they have a broad range of IT and data literacy which is why we are trying to create something as simple as possible.

screencapSo what comes next for the product? Well, firstly both Lucy and I go back to our day jobs now but we will still have scope to ring-fence some time to drive the idea forward. Secondly, we still have some seed funding left and we are going to use that to build the front end of a beta version of the product. We’re currently working on what we think that this will look like but we think it will be much more fully-featured than it is currently.

We want to explore links the product might be able to exploit with other software on the market like LG Inform and Citizenscape (from Public-i), and use public data stores like Socrata Open Data. I’d love to think that we could utilise a number of different other things, in fact, but the core thing that has to be understood is the “user journey” – the jobs the user needs to get done, where they need them done, when they need them done, and how.

userjourneyWe think that the concept of branding is critical to this: one of the big things I took away from the programme was the extent to which marketing drives modern businesses and how that’s not such a bad thing as I previously thought. Our product and message must promise what it delivers and deliver on its promises: this is what distinguishes successful products from also-rans. We’ve already started looking at that and will develop it further over the next few weeks.

The project is not just the product, however. During the course of the project we didn’t just create a prototype – we also were able to have a look at what was going on with the whole open data scene generally, and a significant strand of our project was thinking about ways we can tweak existing open data repositories to make them more human-friendly. We think there’s a bit of a problem with the open data movement, in fact, and I’ll talk much more about that subject in the next post.

Next: the campaign

So far we’ve covered what the PS Launchpad programme was and what the content of it was. In this post I’m going to start to go into the details of our idea and how we developed it through the course of the 14 weeks of the programme.

Initially the brief that Lucy clobbered us with was that we needed to “do something about all our data”. Our first conversation, as you might expect, was all about where we were now and some of the challenges we faced as a council around the subject – so we covered our business intelligence / data warehousing programmes, our open data initiative, and our new standards around system procurement that mandate open APIs for releasingdata. These things are all good but Lucy wondered if we weren’t missing the point with all this technical stuff, and my instinct was to agree (because technical people usually miss the point of technology, in my experience).

And it’s true – the council has an enormous amount of data but doesn’t do much that’s useful with it, considering. Why was that?

the5ws

The 5Ws. Source: http://elliotvolkman.com

So the first few weeks of the project – codenamed Cloche – basically involved us exploring the entire supply chain around council data and asking who really needed the insights it might yield and how might we provide it to them. We spoke to as many relevant people as we could (although there were lots of people we didn’t get round to or couldn’t get access to in the limited time available) and quite quickly started to position our project in relation to what everyone else was doing – after all, no-one wants to be reinventing the wheel. All through this time the crew cajoled us into focusing on the problem statement – what was the problem our project was supposed to be solving and did potential users or customers recognise that as being a real problem?

At this point we were also being encouraged to create what is known as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is basically the smallest, cheapest and most basic thing you can make that demonstrates what a product will do and allows you to demonstrate it to potential users or customers to see if they would use or buy it. The importance of this concept cannot be overestimated – we were testing our idea, not trying to build a finished product, and the whole point was to see if the idea had traction. The two things together – the problem statement and the MVP – are a kit for testing the idea on an unsuspecting world, and once you’ve tested it you need to change it and test it again until the data shows that you have enough traction.

So we reduced our idea down to the smallest thing we could – and settled on targeting local councillors as they are not particularly well-served with data products at the moment but they nevertheless have some quite urgent requirements in terms of what council data could do to help them.

Each week we pitched the latest version of our idea at a group of peers and mentors, and we did our level best to get as much feedback from real users and customers as we could – and all this plus our own reflections got fed back into the next iteration of the idea. Overall we created 14 distinct versions of the product in the 14 weeks of the accelerator programme.

To be honest, though, this sounds purer than it was in reality. Our product iterations show quite a lot of gradual improvements and tweaking rather than representing radically different and new ideas to test each week. I think that we moved from a more general thing to a more specific one as we gradually got our heads around the idea of what an MVP should do and it isn’t until the last couple of iterations that feedback becomes a prominent thing. Nevertheless, I’m pretty pleased with how far we got considering we started with a) such vague ideas, and b) a heavily local government oriented mindset :)

At the same time as developing the product in this way were talking to potential users and trying to get a feel for what the demand for the product would be like and how much value it would add. All of this feedback ended up back in the pot for subsequent iterations of the product, of course, but we also had to look at how development could be funded going forward – and nothing was off the table, including commercial models.

The long and short of those conversations and analysis was that there are a number of valid business models for the idea, and that a commercial model would be achievable if we could actually get funded to build and ship the first version. At this point the Local Government bits of our brains kicked in and so we didn’t go as far as actually trying to sell it for real – I’ll say much more on this in a later post in this series.

At the time of writing our MVP is live and you are welcome to check it out and leave feedback. Please bear in mind the definition of the MVP as stated above – “ the smallest, cheapest and most basic thing you can make that demonstrates what a product will do…”. Now that we have the basic thing, we need to use our testing and feedback to work out what to do next…..

Next: next steps for the product

As I said in the introductory post, an accelerator programme provides a mixture of office space, seed funding for a business, mentoring, seminars, and a network of contacts. In this post I want to summarise what we got in the way of all these things and what we gave back in return.

Office space

We were based at Hub Westminsterhub, a co-working space just off Trafalgar Square on the first floor of New Zealand House. I love New Zealand and it was great to see the touristy promo pictures everywhere on the way in. Also, the space itself is very shiny.

The desks we occupied were on the right-hand side of the picture. If you’ve never been to the Hub, there are a couple of seminar spaces (dubbed the “Strategy Lab” and “Stage” respectively) which is where all our presentations happened.

BTW the picture shown is taken first thing in the morning. For some reason Londoners start work very late. Let’s hope we aren’t relying on them to kick-start the country out of recession, eh? :)

Routine

The first week was entirely organised for us, but after that we got into a routine: Tuesdays (all day) and Thursday mornings were mostly filled with relevant seminars, we had Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons free to pursue our ideas, and we did a pitch every Wednesday afternoon in front of a small group of peers and mentors.

We were both working in our day jobs on Mondays and Fridays for the 14-week duration of the programme (and occasionally handling issues back at the mothership whilst in sessions, but this was kept to an absolute minimum) and I traveled up on Monday evenings and back late Thursday afternoons. Lucy had regular digs, but I stayed in a variety of AirBnB places to see a bit of London, meet some new people and keep costs down.

Seed funding

Each team founder received £9600 in seed funding (in the form of a loan) and this was released in 3 tranches – after 6 weeks, 12 weeks and the rest at the end. In order to receive this funding each team had to set up a company. The programme was funded by Cabinet Office and Capita.

Even though we were still employed by the Council for the duration of the programme, we opted to take the seed funding as, amongst other reasons, we were conscious we were taking a chance on the programme and we didn’t want the council budget to be affected. There’s an entire blog post on this topic coming up later.

Mentoring

I literally lost count of the interesting and knowledgable people the crew wheeled out for us on a regular basis to help us improve on our idea. Mentors came from public, private and third sectors and some listened to and fed back on our weekly pitches whereas others gave us an hour here or there to help us firm up particular aspects of our idea.

In addition to this the teams were paired up to provide peer mentoring to each other, to encourage more open working between the teams. I was given to understand this was unusual for an accelerator but maybe someone out there can comment on that.

Seminars

We had regular seminars on every topic relevant to starting a new venture you could ever wish for. The first week had a lot of orientation stuff in it but included a day of introducing teams to the Lean Startup methodology.

In subsequent weeks there were also sessions on:

  • the Business Model Canvas
  • Company formation and legal issues
  • Ethnography
  • Coming up with company names
  • Customer journey mapping
  • Ethics
  • Handling difficult conversations
  • Marketing and communications
  • Business law
  • Evaluating impact
  • Presentation coaching
  • Finance
  • Designing services in local government
  • Team dynamics
  • Agile methodology
  • Social investing
  • Selling to the public sector
  • Navigating external politics
  • Working with politicians
  • Negotiating
  • Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding
  • Managing external stakeholders
  • Thinking bigger
  • Turning user research into user journeys
  • Cash flow forecasting
  • Customer Service
  • Local authority finance and procurement
  • Lean startup (revisited)
  • Service Design Canvas
  • Meet the investors
  • Meet the buyers
  • Using social media to create a social movement

We made pretty well all of these sessions except for one or two where we had clashes with other meetings or travel arrangements got the better of us.Public-Service-Launchpad-Cohort_Showcase-Day

Cohort

There were 15 teams on the programme ranging between 1 and 4 people in size. 4 of these (including us) came from local government and one was based in a local charity with the others being a range of straight commercial and social enterprises. These are just labels, though, as even the commercial teams were very social-purpose driven.

Dinner

Each Wednesday all the teams had dinner together and between us and the crew we managed to rope in an after-dinner speaker.

Our contribution

Apart from my prodigiously talented co-founder Lucy Knight producing sketchnotes of most of the sessions and of the after-dinner speakers too (they are all here on one of our Pinterest pages) we, like all of the groups, were encouraged to provide ad-hoc mentoring and feedback on the other teams’ pitches on Wednesday afternoons. As one of the few Local Government teams we felt a certain responsibility to ensure that the programme as a whole actually delivered results for our sector and our knowledge about what life is really like inside local councils was certainly sought after by some of the other teams, especially those with ventures that might end up selling into local government.

In summary, we crammed a lot into the 14 weeks of the programme. All fantastic, amazing, shiny stuff. So how did we use all that (and where did we find the time) to turn our idea from concept to reality?

Next: our project

For the last 14 weeks my colleague Lucy Knight and I have been lucky enough to be on the Public Service Launchpad Accelerator. It’s been a massive revelation and I want to just take some space to blog about what it is, how I’ve found it, what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, and what we can take away from it to help us in our day jobs and benefit local government as a whole. Since that is quite a big chunk of stuff I’m splitting it up into several posts.

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So what is an accelerator programme? Well, the concept has come from the private sector world and started out as a way for startup businesses, usually in technology-related fields, to get over some of the initial obstacles of getting started and refining their product and market thinking. They provide a mixture of seed funding for a business, mentoring, office space, taught programmes, and a network of contacts in exchange for some part of the growing business. The people who run these programmes calculate that enough of the businesses that go through their programmes will become successful that their stake in them (either equity or a revenue share) becomes more valuable than their initial seed investment.

These startups – small, early stage businesses that may not have discovered their ideal product or market niche yet – benefit from an intensive programme that is designed to help them get oriented. In fact the idea that a business might not know what it’s doing is considered a bonus in some areas as it encourages experimentation: in the words of Steve Blank, a startup is “.. essentially an organization built to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Not every freshly-formed business is a startup, however – they are characterised by having the potential to scale rapidly and so the companies on these programmes tend to be digital ones.

Businesses that have “graduated” from accelerators and gone on to become wildly successful include some very large companies like Reddit, Dropbox, and AirBnB as well as a multitude of smaller outfits.

Here’s a list of the top 15 accelerator programmes in the US and another one of programmes in the UK. There are similar features to most of these programmes, centred around a routine that aims to keep the teams on the path to finding their business model. (Here’s a good Mashable article on the subject if you are looking for another view.)

That sounds – and is – a million miles away from anything that might ever happen in local government in the UK, right? I mean, local government services are the very definition of “established” and have a very long history. So how do you bridge the gap between these types of programme, and why would the likes of Cabinet Office, Capita and FutureGov ask Solve to run a public service accelerator and canvas local government types like me and Lucy to join it? And more importantly, for me anyway, is this in any way compatible with having a day job at the council and is it a good use of my time as a council employee?

Lots of valid questions to be asked here, and it took most of the programme to answer most of them. That’s partly because as far as I know this is the first accelerator programme to actively pursue local government teams, partly because this was the first cohort of those teams, and partly because the PS Launchpad programme is itself a startup and still searching for the best way to structure itself and its programme.

yolo

But one thing was clear from the outset – here was a startup wanting to try and coach startups in a local government space where there had never been startups done before.

I couldn’t resist that. When Lucy first stood by my desk and asked me if I wanted a shot at it, there was only ever going to be one answer. It’s not been without its risks and hazards, but they’ve been outweighed by all the positives.

Next: what’s in the PS Launchpad programme

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