LOTI’s Covid Innovation Fund – an experiment in collaboration

In common with the rest of the local government world, 2021 is proving to be a very busy year for LOTI. Our current work spans creating digital, data and innovation capability models; designing data skills programmes; exploring how boroughs can collaborate on cyber security; running assistive technology pilots and much else besides. 

In this article, I want to focus on one specific initiative: our Covid Innovation Fund.

Launched in December 2021, the fund allocates £150K from LOTI’s budget to help boroughs work together to address Covid-related challenges. Our aim was to fund two projects, with half the money going towards an idea that involves making smarter use of data, and the other for a digitally-enabled initiative.

Why hold a fund?

LOTI is just over 18months old and we’re still on a journey of figuring out how this collaborative model of public sector innovation works best. Almost everything we do is therefore an experiment and a learning experience. 

Based on everything we’ve observed and learned so far, we had three goals for this initiative.

First, we wanted to focus our financial resources and relationships on the most important areas of borough activity. Nothing is more vital right now than helping with Covid Recovery. In particular, our year 2 strategy hones in on how boroughs can support vulnerable Londoners whose needs have grown as a result of the pandemic. We hoped the fund would help concentrate minds on specific, tangible projects that can further the whole LOTI community’s progress in this field.

Second, the initiative was intended to help us rehearse some of the new behaviours and ways of working we’ve designed with our community. Top of the list is using LOTI’s outcomes-based methodology, an extension of the Design Council’s Double Diamond approach. The methodology helps ensure that all projects start by defining the real-world outcomes they wish to achieve, and treats technology and data as enablers, not the end goal.

More specifically, the reason we designed the fund to support at least one data-enabled project is that we wanted to practice using the six measures we have encouraged boroughs to adopt to make data sharing easier in London. Those include sharing data via the London Datastore and adopting common tools and approaches for handling Information Governance: the process by which we check that data projects are legal, ethical and secure. One thing we’ve learned is that encouraging boroughs to adopt such measures because we believe they’re better ways of working is a really hard sell. Far better if we can point to specific, local examples of how they deliver benefits in practice. We hope the data project selected as part of this fund will do just that.

The third reason is that we’re trying to identify the best means to get boroughs not just designing, but actively working on common projects together. LOTI was explicitly established to catalyse collaboration between boroughs; not to be a delivery organisation or consultancy itself. However, with the immense pressure that has come from the Covid experience – on top of a decade of austerity measures – we’ve realised that many boroughs do want LOTI to have delivery capacity. As a result, there have been plenty of areas where several boroughs have helped us design a project, but we’ve then worked on it with a single borough on behalf of all, or hired external help to design resources. (On which note, check out our resources library!)

That’s a legitimate model and is likely to be a growing part of our future work. However, we don’t want to relinquish the ambition of seeing groups of boroughs actively working together on projects right from design to execution and evaluation. Everything we have seen has confirmed that collaboration brings so much value, from having a broader range of perspectives and resources, to help share the risk of trialling more experimental approaches. Yet we know it can be tough for staff in participating organisations if collaborative work feels like it’s in addition to the day job.

All these considerations led to the design of the Covid Innovation Fund. Our hypothesis was that by offering a specific budget for project work (£75k each); inviting boroughs to work together in groups to propose project ideas; offering wrap-around support and insisting that all projects are designed to be replicated by others, it would help encourage and enable the collaborative working we all wish to see. 

The results?

The evidence so far is that the approach has worked really well. We were delighted to receive eight, very strong, submissions from boroughs. You can read them here. It’s obvious that a huge amount of time, thought and effort went into producing them; a testament to how urgently and seriously boroughs wish to support their residents.

We wish we could have supported all the ideas – and there will opportunity to revisit several of them as part of LOTI’s work on the Digital Access for All Mission, which will start in May. After much debate, we decided to select the following two (which are covered in a London Councils’ press release):

Tackling digital exclusion by developing a rich data picture through an innovative interactive demographic map of user needs. 

This project was put forward by Barnet, Brent, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Westminster, and has interest from Kingston and Sutton as well. The project seeks to build on work by the participating boroughs to create and validate much richer data models that aim to understand the distribution and extent of different forms of digital inclusion.

Developing and delivering new approaches to preventative support for vulnerable residents in partnership between Councils and local voluntary sector organisations.

This project was put forward by Newham and Hackney. The project aims to design and put in place more preventative measures to help ensure residents whose vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic avoid reaching crisis point. We think the lessons will support some of the new ways of working boroughs have stated they want to pursue as a result of dealing with the pandemic. 

Further blogs will be written in due course to share much richer details on the design and intended outcomes of each.

The work of collaboration is never done

Like all aspects of public sector innovation, work to design effective models of collaboration never finishes. It’s a process of continuous trial and improvement. There’s much we hope we’ll learn both from the projects outlined above and the process that’s supporting them. We’ll be sure to keep reporting back on their progress and the lessons we learn.

Eddie Copeland
17 February 2021 ·
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