It’s time we had a local authority sandbox
Local government faces a dilemma. A dilemma that the sector – and any future national government wishing to help it – needs to respond to.
In this blog, I’d like to sketch out that dilemma and its associated problems, and then – lest that feels too much like doom and gloom – share an idea for what I think we can do about it.
As you may have guessed from the title, that idea is to create a local authority sandbox.
The innovation dilemma
After more than a decade of budget cuts, combined with new social pressures (COVID-19, cost of living crisis, etc) that have vastly increased demand for services, local government has no choice but to innovate – and to innovate quite radically. The status quo is simply not sustainable. The costs of adult social care alone are projected to break most local authority budgets within a few years.
The dilemma is that these self-same pressures make it almost impossible for local government to innovate as radically as it needs to.
Imagine the typical Director of Adult Social Care, desperately trying to keep the lights on while meeting spiralling demand for their service with a diminishing pool of carers. When in the day do we imagine they’ll find the time, resources and staff capacity to spin up a new, more efficient service model to transition to?
The conclusion I have reluctantly reached is that the sector is currently not equipped to design, test, evaluate, adopt and scale the better, more effective and efficient service models (and the technologies that can enable them) on which its very future depends.
In its place, we’re condemned to incrementalism. And incremental improvements, while always important, are sadly no longer sufficient.
What stops innovation?
So why are more radical forms of innovation so hard to implement in local government? I see barriers both for councils and the external innovators (think universities, social enterprises, tech companies, design agencies, etc) wishing to help them. In very broad-brush terms…
- Due to the pressures outlined above, they lack the funding and staff time to be able to run and properly evaluate experiments of new service models.
- Chief Digital and Innovation Officers (CDIOs) and Directors of Service lack the capacity to get involved in early market engagement sessions to connect with innovative organisations and suppliers whose solutions could enable significant efficiencies or improvements in service.
- Councils understandably wish to – or are legally obligated to – avoid taking risks in service areas that support vulnerable individuals.
- In the absence of being able to test new service models and technologies themselves, councils are left trying to evaluate potential innovations based solely on suppliers’ or consultants’ pitch decks. Inevitably, these fail to be convincing or provide the assurances needed to put the ideas into action.
Meanwhile, innovators wishing to help the sector also feel frustrated:
- They find it almost impossible to get time with decision makers in local authorities who could help them refine their idea, product or service, or find opportunities to implement it (because council staff don’t have the time – see above).
- To manage risk, councils often require that new products, services and technologies have been tried and tested by several other local authorities before they can consider procuring them. This makes it incredibly challenging for start-ups, SMEs and other innovators to enter the market, or for the sector to seriously test and shape emerging technologies like genAI.
As a result of all this:
- Councils cannot afford to test and invest in new ideas, service models and technologies, yet they also cannot afford not to.
- Local government is stuck with a rather dysfunctional relationship with the technology sector, leaving both sides feeling dissatisfied, and resulting in councils struggling to identify and adopt the best innovations the market can provide.
- Councils are left with only making incremental changes which are not sufficient to meet the scale of the challenges they face.
This can’t go on.
The local authority sandbox
So what can we do about this? I propose setting up a Local Authority Sandbox (LAS). The LAS would be a physical space, or even better: a travelling, pop-up space hosted by different councils in turn, where new service models and (where relevant) technologies can be tested and evaluated on realistic mock-ups of key local government service areas without risk. The concept combines service design, technology, open innovation and even theatre to rapidly find answers to key challenge areas facing local government.
My pitch is that LOTI and willing partners could trial an LAS in London, where we have a highly motivated and talented group of council colleagues wanting to find new solutions – but a similar approach might benefit the whole sector. Here’s how it might work:
1 – Identify service challenges
LOTI would run an engagement process (interviews and workshops etc) with its member boroughs and London’s policy leads to identify key service challenges that need to be addressed. This process would result in the creation of a longlist of service challenges that can then be prioritised based on criteria such as: 1) collective need across multiple authorities, 2) likely positive impact 3) feasibility 4) aptitude for benefiting from innovation, 5) willingness of at least 3 councils to act as “owners” of the challenge. Being challenge owners means they agree to feed into the process, as described below. A shortlist of challenges would be taken to the next stage.
2 – Map current processes and technologies
For each challenge area identified, LOTI would send service designers, user researchers and a technology assessor to visit 3-5 councils (and any partners involved in the current service, such as GP surgeries) to understand and document the way things currently work, which technologies are used and how data supports the process. The reason for doing this with several local authorities is to ensure that any solutions developed as part of the process address the needs of a wide number of councils so they can be scaled. Back at the LAS, LOTI would then map out those end-to-end processes, and the technologies and data flows that support them, on a wall using simple paper templates to create a gallery. Staff from participating local authorities (especially the challenge owners) would be invited to visit the gallery to validate the process.
3 – Physical mock-up of current processes and technologies
Having mapped and validated the process on paper, LOTI would mock it up more physically. Imagine, for example, the service challenge selected was Hospital Discharge. In one part of the LAS, a doctor / patient room would be set up, with props representing that environment, and examples of the actual forms and information provided to patients. Wireframe versions of the software used in the process, together with synthetic datasets, would be visible on a large screen. In another part of the room, a mock-up of the patient’s home would be created. Based on testimonies from the user research and input from the professionals involved, the whole process would be played out and workshopped using volunteers or freelance actors. The idea is for those involved in the service (and this might also include users of the service itself, who could be compensated with vouchers) to be able to take a step back and experience the current process objectively: to watch and observe what happens, noting pain points, inefficiencies, gaps, potential misunderstandings and room for improvement. The process would be re-run many times to account for different interactions or service paths until the service professionals and users are satisfied it is an accurate reflection of the real thing.
4 – Performance of the current model
LOTI would invite public, third and private sector innovators who either have, or could help develop, relevant solutions to visit the LAS to see a “performance” of the current service model, performed by actors or volunteers. The performance would include running several different scenarios, highlighting the pain points and impacts identified in the previous step. This would be less rigid and more interactive than a theatre performance. There would be the opportunity for the audience to ask for specific scenarios to be stopped and replayed and to ask questions. The challenge owners would be on hand to answer questions about the process and its identified pain points.
The reason for making this experiential is to ensure that any organisations proposing solutions in the next step have a nuanced understanding of the problems councils want to solve. Councils often complain that new solutions don’t address their specific needs; external innovators often complain that they don’t have enough visibility of the local government challenge to cater their solutions effectively. Bringing the whole process alive, and off paper or a screen, also helps everyone better understand the human impact of the current ways of working.
5 – Open call for solutions
Following the performance, LOTI would launch an open call for innovations that can facilitate improvements – or radical changes – to all or part of the current service model. Not all proposed solutions would have a tech element, but if they did, LOTI would set clear conditions on them, insisting that they provide unlimited access to system data, are interoperable via APIs and allow for transparent pricing. After an online application process judged by a panel composed of Challenge Owners, LOTI member CDIOs and the LOTI team, a shortlist of innovators would be invited to come to the LAS to demonstrate their solution in situ and explain how they think it addresses the service challenge. That shortlist would then be further refined to a selection of 3 finalists who would be invited to the next stage.
6 – Design and testing
Over an intensive period of 2 to 12 weeks (depending on the complexity of the service area and number of solutions to be tested), LOTI and its partners would work with the finalists to trial their solutions on the service mock-up. This would entail both exploring the impact of the innovation and, vitally, working to improve or fundamentally redesign the service model itself to address the issues identified in steps 1-4.
As part of this step, LOTI would provide:
- Service designers to ensure that any new technologies are accompanied by improvements or more radical changes to the service models.
- Synthetic data to test the processes
- Technical expertise to ensure interoperability between any systems involved
- Access to service staff from challenge owner councils (LOTI would pay for their time to engage in this process)
- Evaluation expertise
- Procurement support
7 – Performance of new solutions
Once refined, the challenge owners, local authority leads from across London (and perhaps across the whole country) and other key partners would be invited to a Show & Tell in which both the old and the new service models are performed (again with mock-ups and actors) to show the difference and the impact of the new solutions. Details of the evaluation conducted in the previous step would be shared, and once again the audience could ask any questions they wish and ask for the service model to be performed in different ways to account for different scenarios. This provides local government colleagues with a much deeper insight into what works and how they could incorporate the solutions into their own organisations.
8 – Procurement and implementation support
Toolkits offering advice on how to implement the new tools and service innovations would be created by LOTI. Where multiple local authorities would like help procuring the solutions tested during the process outlined above, LOTI would work with expert procurement partners to help the companies access the relevant procurement frameworks, and put in place call-off contracts that enable councils to achieve better prices through economies of scale.
Why do this?
The LAS would have benefits for different audiences:
- It completely de-risks the trialling of new service models and technologies by removing the testing process from live local authority environments.
- It enables the testing of a more innovative and expansive range of solutions at far greater speed than would be possible in real local authority environments, accelerating councils’ learning journey.
- It ensures that any tech-enabled solutions are accompanied by deep and thoughtful re-engineering of the services themselves. This is explicitly not about bolting on new tech to old ways of working.
- It could bring in investment from the private sector to help fund trials of innovative approaches while saving money by testing solutions once on behalf of all.
- It enables local authority staff and their partners to come and see, feel and experience solutions themselves rather than trying to imagine them based on a slide deck. I’m a firm believer that for innovation to be compelling, it needs to be experiential.
- The insistence on only testing technologies that enable free access to system data and interoperability would help drive desired behaviours from the supplier market.
For external innovators
- It provides a tangible means to connect with local government to demonstrate and test new approaches and solutions.
- Procurement support helps smaller suppliers gain access to the local government market.
- Councils far beyond London could be invited to the Performance of Solutions stage, helping companies connect with the wider local government market.
For central government
- If central government could support this sort of initiative, it would provide a tangible means to spur and scale the kind of service innovation all major parties say they want to see across the sector.
- Creating a compelling means to test more financially viable service models is a prerequisite of fulfilling key policy promises in areas like adult social care.
At LOTI we’re completely driven by wanting to help our amazing colleagues across London local government deliver great services and tackle the capital’s biggest challenges together. We can’t preach innovation without innovating ourselves. I offer this proposal in that spirit.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for giving this idea some of your attention. At this stage I have two questions for you: What do you think? And – if you think the idea has any merit – can you help? Get in touch.