Category: localgov


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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Better dead than red

I keep seeing this now, and so I’m just going to put it down here and walk away.

What I keep seeing is the “better dead than red” thing, but about all kinds of business model patterns.

Public sector. Private sector. Civil/third sector. Social Enterprise. B2B. B2C. Subscription models. Having a job. Being a freelancer. Having a temporary contract. Running your own business. Being grant funded. Being an outsourcer. Commissioning. Providing….

These are all business model patterns. Some people think that in certain cases some of these shouldn’t be applied because of a variety of reasons, usually because they are less efficient. Often a moral tone is adopted in these discussions, as if one choice of business model pattern is morally superior to another.

This culminates in the “better dead than red” perspective where two tribes pushed the world to the brink of utter destruction over their preferences for different business model patterns.

It’s just a pattern. It doesn’t matter more than a few percentage points of efficiency. Harder, and more important, is the value that’s actually being provided.

Taking the C out of RACI

RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) is a pretty standard way of dividing up people’s roles in any sort of task set.

The “Consulted” role is defined as “Those whose opinions are sought, typically subject matter experts; and with whom there is two-way communication” on the wiki page.

A modest proposal: remove the “C” from your RACI matrices. If someone is consulted, they assume responsibility (defined as “those who do the work to achieve the task”).

Giving your opinion and then sitting back is rarely helpful. That’s my opinion, anyway.

 

This issue was raised earlier today on Twitter by Mark Craddock:

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To be honest, at first I didn’t really understand why Mark might be right (or not). What do we even mean by a “cloud brokerage team” and what are the arguments for and against one?

I’m certainly not in a position to answer the question, but I feel it’s important enough for me to unpack it here and now.

So what does cloud brokerage do? According to this GCN article, we are really talking about two separate (but related things):

  1. ‘an entity (person or organization) that provides intermediary-type services between a cloud consumer and multiple cloud providers….. akin to a stock broker or commodity broker, where an intermediary assists a customer [to] navigate through a complex environment of many options. A better name for this may be “cloud agent.” ‘
  2. “a new type of software that sits on top of cloud providers to abstract, simplify and map various cloud offerings to your environment. Cloud broker software assists organizations in creating solutions in the cloud, migrating solutions to the cloud and moving solutions between clouds.”

Option 2 here is quite intriguing to me and worth digging into a little (without going completely down the rabbit hole). It seems that there is a similarity to the sort of brokers that are used in (for example) desktop virtualisation environments. A desktop machine might have the capability to link to virtual machine images, virtual applications, or virtual storage of many different kinds through the use of broker software.

I don’t think this is what Mark meant: I think he was referring to the first interpretation. The example he quotes, JANET cloud services, exist to “help research and education institutions move to cloud and data centre services through guidance, collaborative purchasing power, and due diligence.” This manifests itself in a small set of services around the provision of a purchasing framework of assured suppliers, advice and consultancy, help with the financial analysis around cloud services, “due diligence” on common cloud services contracts, and shared data centre space.

Sounds helpful. The value of this is that it can guide Local Government IT departments (and others) through the transition to cloud services that seems inevitable over the coming years. It should result in fewer disasters, faster uptake of cloud services, reduced costs etc and so on.

On the other hand, there are those that think the cloud broker model is broken. That link is to a US-based article, and not everything translates, but the fundamental objections seem to be

  1. using a commercial brokerage would reduce transparency in the purchase of cloud services (not a problem if the brokerage is not commercial but subject to public transparency rules)
  2. Cloud services require a trusted partnership between an agency and its cloud service provider; a broker adds no value and gets in the way. Certainly this is ultimately true: the question is if local government has the expertise right now to make such a partnership.
  3. “…cloud broker concept represents a substantial change in how government agencies would procure cloud services.” This may be true in the US but in the UK the G-Cloud Cloudstore is already well-established.

When I look at the IT expertise available in my own organization I don’t doubt that we have the technical chops to find and implement cloud services. My own worries are mainly about things like security compliance, financial management (especially the switch from capital to revenue-dominant budgeting), application performance and single sign-on.

Could a brokerage service help others solve these problems? Almost certainly.

How much value would it add? I don’t know. What do others think?

 

 

Induction Checklist

One of my favourite Twitter followees is Jackie Rafferty and yesterday she posted a series of tweets oultining some of the key “benchmarks” when inducting new staff. I reproduce them here for convenience with some limited commentary.

(Update 17:32. Note: Jackie emphasised these were not in any particular order. Obviously some things are more important than others. #9 obviously ought to be the highest priority 🙂 )

  1. How long does it take to get the login details sorted?
  2. Introductions to essential people in support service areas like Admin, Finance, HR etc
  3. Does someone take you to lunch on day 1?
  4. What do you do when the computer goes down, the printer or the loo run out of paper? (it’s the small things that trip you up)
  5. If it is a hot desk environment what are the unspoken rules? (this led to an exchange between myself and Jackie that will be part of a future blog post)
  6. Some should be expecting you and will give you time to go through this stuff
  7. There is an induction process 😉
  8. You are told what the job is really about and relevant policies, guidelines & accountabilities are discussed with you
  9. Which mug belongs to whom? Hot drink etiquette. Process for sharing/BYO coffee/tea. Who gets the fresh milk?
  10. Discussion on the organisation’s social media policy (far fetched hope in most I suspect)
  11. (Update 10:30am) Induction is a process, not a one-off event.

Jackie said herself that these were a set of thoughts rather than a rigorous list, so please feel free to add your own in the comments and I’ll update the list.

Two conferences

Last week I attended two conferences. This in itself is unusual for me as my office workload (and meeting schedule) don’t often allow me to get out, and the cost of many good conferences is prohibitive. So going to conferences is rare unless there are bonus items involved, or if the conference is local.

On Thursday I attended “Efficient ICT” which was organised and run by Gov.NET and was staged at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in the middle of London. We heard from the CIO and Deputy CIO of HMRC, the folks running the Kent PSN, the main sponsors and a raft of seminars from people such as Ubuntu, Suse, HP/Autonomy, and lots more.

This event followed a now quite standard design pattern: the main lobby is full of sponsors’ stands and you have to go through it to get anywhere or to get coffee. You are herded back and forth between pre-planned sessions designed to maximise the time you spend with suppliers.

And the main presentations? Well, the guy behind me fell asleep and started snoring. He had the right idea. I have no clue how people get to the top of public sector ICT (both on the supply and the demand side) without being able to deliver a passionate, lively presentation. Dull, monochrome stuff and mostly missing the point from where I am sitting (more on that in another post, hopefully).

This event was free, thankfully, and I am fortunate in that I have some good friends in central London who kindly put me up for the night so the impact on the public purse was limited to an advance train ticket and my time. I also took the opportunity to meet up with some interesting people who are London-based: I would have had more value from just spending the day in and around central London just going to see different people and buying them coffee. Next time that is what I will do instead!

On Friday I was back in Devon for Open Space South West which was hosted by my employer and organised by my friend and colleague Carl Haggerty.

There were sponsors and one or two of them spoke, but there was no selling opportunity for them. The event had low overheads. All the breakout sessions were devised on the day by attendees. And all the programme speakers were up for it – passionate, lively, prepared. They had all done their homework specifically for the event, from Redfront’s ad-hoc research about what people wanted from public services all the way through to RIPFA’s analysis of the audience.

Technical problems meant one presenter couldn’t use the presentation she had prepared so she did it – without missing a beat – from memory. The whole thing just had a level of energy about it that had been completely missing the previous day.

So what am I saying? There seems to be an inverse relationship between quality and money, which is not directly causal. Events put on by the sector, for the sector, work better than events put on by, and for, people selling to the sector.

And hierarchy has a tendency to converge on mediocrity. That is all.