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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.


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.


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

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.


Last week I participated in the only UK instance of the Global GovJam. The group I was in made a prototype “Bridge of Fear” to help people come to a better understanding of their own fears. More on that anon. Since this is the first time I’ve attended a service design jam I wanted to share some of my impressions and thoughts, in no particular order.

  1. Jams reward teamwork over awesomeness.
  2. People love to talk and give their opinions. Jamming, however, requires we curtail that habit and build a model of some kind of something instead. It took me 44 of the 48 hours on offer to arrive at this understanding. The last 4 hours were very productive.
  3. Having fun is a serious business. Our facilitators were very skilled at knowing when and how to intervene.
  4. It was tiring. Next time I will not get up, do 1hr college coursework, then go to the office and spend 1.5hrs processing email before finally going to the jam. It needs your full attention and high levels of energy.
  5. We produced a number of artifacts and I think they vary in their value. Some are going to be useful if/when we take the idea to the next level of production. Others are just shiny ways to show off the idea. Unless (most probably) I’m missing the point again.
  6. There were some similarities with the Launch48 weekend I attended earlier this year, as well as Hackathons. I’m wondering if a combination of the three could get a product actually out in the market in, say, 144 hrs. It would be grossly awesome.
  7. I tend to work independently. This is a problem for me and I got grumpy at my team mates quite quickly when I didn’t get my way. I’ll need to do something about that if I want to work in any kind of team again.
  8. It was great fun and I learned a lot about myself.
  9. Will our Bridge of Fear idea take off? Not in its current form. But that’s ok.
  10. I now want to seek out more jams and participate in them until I get good at it.

My friends Carl Haggerty and Lucy Knight have also both blogged about the experience. They turned their blog posts around faster which means they win.

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








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?



How will digital teams and initiatives in Local Government support growth and wellbeing whilst the levels of funding are dropping off so steeply?

I’ve been having quite a few conversations recently about what Local digital strategies (ie the digital strategy for a place) would look like and some of these conversations resulted in a recent post by Carl Haggerty on a Framework for Digital Local Public Services which is a good thing to read if you haven’t already. This is because we are both involved with the #localgovdigital group that the LGA is sponsoring.

For my money the biggest departure that this work has with anything that has gone before it in digital local government is that we are focusing outside of the organisational perimeter and looking at joining up everything around a place for maximum benefit to the people that use it – even if that doesn’t involve us directly. In this post I want to talk a bit about what we might mean by “value” as applied to places and then this can be a building block for guiding the sorts of digital interventions we might make to those places.

So the headline: places have intrinsic value and we need to understand what that value is before we go about enhancing that value with digital transformations. I think it’s really important that we understand the value of what we have before we change it, or otherwise how will we know it’s been an improvement? A good starting point is that a place might be giving us value in one of two categories: well-being or growth.

By this I mean that people will access different kinds of benefit from a place and we might be able to map out those benefits in order to target our digital strategies better. For example, I’m lucky enough to live near Dartmoor: it is absolutely beautiful and people will go there  to recuperate, disconnect and go hiking or gaze at the scenery, buy cream teas etc. Dartmoor therefore has a value in terms of bringing wellbeing to people and this would not be enhanced by stonking great communications towers littering the landscape and it also has an economic value in terms of the money it brings in by virtue of being unspoilt. This also wouldn’t be improved by having stonking great communications towers. However, people do sometimes get lost when wandering over the North moor and being able to get a mobile phone signal (or similar) could be a life-saver.

Contrast this with the centre of the city where I live, where faster comms mean business growth, social value, and better public services and straight away, we can start to see that different places need different kinds of digital intervention to maximise their values to different groups of people.

Modelling this formally should enable us to design and plan digital interventions that maximise the value returned by places.  One way to do this is by using a business value framework such as the Value Proposition Canvas. It is a tool that was developed to help with understanding the benefits of products or services.

Working this through we could tackle it one of two ways: we could start on the left hand side with a place and consider what sort of “assets” it has, then deduce what kinds of gains (or pain relievers) the place has, or we could start on the right with the sort of problems, jobs to be done or opportunities that  people might have that a place would address.

The classic VPC approach would indicate that we need to start with our citizens and ask what sort of value places might enable for them. However, places don’t just exist because people do – they would be perfectly happy without anyone. So we can’t start on the right of the canvas, then, asking what functional, social, or emotional jobs might people be trying to achieve: we need to be place-centric and look at what products or services a place offers as a starting point and then map that to demand. A trunk road, for example, offers transport infrastructure comprising road surfaces, traffic regulation services (speed limits, traffic lights, surveillance cameras), and traffic information services (street furniture, variable message signs, etc); whereas an area of outstanding natural beauty might offer scenery, refreshments, gifts, or other recreation.

We also need to consider which other products or services might be needed for people to consume the products or services a place offers (for example, people might need transport to get to some AONB’s and will require vehicles to use a road). Digital transformations might act on the place itself or on ancillary products.

Next we look at the gain creators. Does the place do something that saves people time, effort, or money? Does it meet or exceed people’s expectations?

Finally we need to look at the “pain relievers”. Is there something about this place that solves a problem for people or produce a saving? Does this place make people feel better?

Of course, these are just categories and a bit of framework. We will need to actually get out there and listen to people if we are to deduce what value a place really has for the people that use it. This post has gone on too long already so I’ll save that for the next one. Without wanting to create a hostage to fortune, we also need to look at both the way that places will respond to environmental factors and a taxonomy of digital interventions that we might make so all being well I’ll tackle those topics shortly too.

Localgov is dying

It is now official. Netcraft has confirmed: local government is dying.

One more crippling bombshell hit the already beleaguered local government community when IDC confirmed that local government market share has dropped yet again, now down to less than a fraction of 1 percent of all services. Coming on the heels of a recent Netcraft survey which plainly states that local government has lost more market share, this news serves to reinforce what we’ve known all along. Local government is collapsing in complete disarray, as fittingly exemplified by failing dead last [] in the recent Sys Admin comprehensive networking test.

You don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict local government’s future. The hand writing is on the wall: local government faces a bleak future. In fact there won’t be any future at all for local government because local government is dying. Things are looking very bad for local government. As many of us are already aware, local government continues to lose market share. Red ink flows like a river of blood.

Municipal local government is the most endangered of them all, having lost 93% of its core developers. The sudden and unpleasant departures of long time developers G4S and Serco only serve to underscore the point more clearly. There can no longer be any doubt: city councils are dying.

Let’s keep to the facts and look at the numbers.
OpenlyLocal leader Chris states that there are 11939 councillors on OpenlyLocal. How many users of GovNet are there? Let’s see. The number of OpenlyLocal versus GovNet posts on Usenet is roughly in ratio of 5 to 1. Therefore there are about 11939/5 = 2387 GovNet users. OpenlyLocal posts on Usenet are about half of the volume of GovNet posts. Therefore there are about 1200 users of OpenlyLocal. A recent article put FreeGov at about 80 percent of the Local Government market. Therefore there are (7000+2387+1200)*4 = 42348 FreeGov users. This is consistent with the number of FreeGov Usenet posts.

Due to the troubles of West Somerset, abysmal council tax collection and so on, FreeGov went out of business and was taken over by SouthWest ONE who sell another troubled OS. Now SouthWest ONE is also dead, its corpse turned over to yet another charnel house.

All major surveys show that Local Government has steadily declined in market share. Local Government is very sick and its long term survival prospects are very dim. If Local Government is to survive at all it will be among localist dilettante dabblers. Local Government continues to decay. Nothing short of a miracle could save it at this point in time. For all practical purposes, Local Government is dead.

(with thanks to Uncyclopedia)

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.

CitizenState: heuristic democracy


Since I work in the public sector I have a strange relationship with politics. Of course, I have political views on specific issues and I do my civic duty by voting every once in a while but at the same time I’m involved in a small way with implementing policy, most of which I didn’t vote for or agree with. I have to detach from my political opinion and do a professional job, and in the process of doing that I find that my original views get challenged, sometimes strongly, and so my opinions change over time.

I consider myself fortunate that I get to experience the effects of policy from this sort of vantage point. The people on the sharp end often don’t get the opportunity to go on such a “journey”. People in receipt of public services are often (but not always) the most vulnerable and the least able to advocate for themselves.

But nevertheless it’s important to realise that our ideologies are often disconnected from reality. Policies that are demonised by some occasionally turn out ok: stuff that seemed like a great idea to everyone often goes completely wrong. This is because “policy” in a political sense is heuristic: it’s a mental shortcut to help build consensus around the effect of a principle. This is “fast” thinking and is optimised for communication, pithy soundbites, 140-character tweets and for broad brush statements on complex topics.

I’m no expert on political theory and I don’t have much time for party politics, so let’s cut to the chase. The link above suggests we do one or more of three things:

  1. Share a link to a good project that delivers a public service outside the State.
  2. Share a thought about how we could deliver a public service outside the State (maybe write a blog post about it).
  3. Share a thought about how democracy could be redesigned.

The first should be easy: any social enterprise should be able to demonstrate social impact and simultaneously have a sustainable business model. A great example is Pluss (, a social enterprise that helps people find work. I’ve chosen them because they used to be run by the local council and now they are owned by a consortium but independent. In the digital arena, microfinance organisations such as Kiva ( or Grameen ( probably do more for local economic growth than the governments in the areas they operate (and driving growth and wellbeing are the two main pillars of government policy).

As for services that could be run from outside the state apparatus, I think that we need to distinguish between things that might just be privatised (and for example we have private health care) and things that can be genuinely run by citizens for citizens. Social care is an example of services for the most vulnerable that could be run at least partly outside the state system if we could find the reserves of skill, time and compassion that are needed and I think it would be cynical to think that those reserves aren’t actually there.

Finally, I think democracy could use a refresh for the networked age. We could easily participate in decision-making for our street or local community on a much more regular basis than we currently do and this would drive engagement at a larger level – for towns, cities, counties, or regions. Making this happen could be as straightforward as writing an app and creating ways that the digitally excluded could participate.

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.


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