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