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