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Prioritise collaboration and getting things done

INVEST £240M IN 12 REGIONAL AND NATIONAL OFFICES OF TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION

Technology roll-out cannot be achieved by hoping that digital services developed in Whitehall and Westminster will trickle down to the rest of the county.

The hard work of operationalising innovation does not just need technology infrastructure, it also requires a culture of collaboration between central, devolved and local governments, with each taking on the role they are best equipped to play. This is not a problem for innovation task forces, but for collaboration networks.

The current state of play is one in which limited resources are not effectively distributed. One local government expert shared that:

The Local Government Authority estimates that, due to political spending decisions, 1 in 5 of England’s 317 councils are at risk of bankruptcy while almost half fear they will not have enough money to deliver essential services in 2024–5. While the Scottish and Welsh governments have prioritised public sector collaboration, the Institute for Government notes that England has “pursued more top-down techniques”, and patterns for digital reform have followed suit. Meanwhile the adoption of “Internet era ways of working” can mean collaboration across contexts is deprioritised in favour of focus on a single delivery team.

This tendency to centralise and cascade creates issues at different levels of scale. Sometimes the ambition is too big or monolithic to be realisable, sometimes the available resources are too small, and sometimes the political and policy ambitions do not usefully relate to what is actually happening on the ground.

Transformation across NHS England is a case in point. On the one hand, the NHS is an agglomeration of hundreds of differently shaped and sized organisations that deliver thousands of services to millions of people; it is also the largest employer in Europe, wrestling with thousands of legacy systems. On the other it is construed by some to be a single service – a perception that encourages some senior leaders to “ask for things that are impossible to deliver” while “ignoring things that could be readily delivered and easily provide benefit, but are not deemed sufficiently exciting.” This “leap-frogging” means that creating new things, such as the National Covid-19 Chest Imaging Database, is often prioritised above rolling out basic-but-essential universal services like electronic prescribing, which would deliver instant efficiencies for GPs and patients alike.

Meanwhile, smaller local government bodies are often faced with a very different problem – that the issues they face are not quite big enough to make digitisation efficient:


Almost everyone who has contributed to these recommendations has flagged frustrations around how difficult it is to collaborate and get things done. One contributor commented that “central government does not understand how the rest of the public sector operates in terms of digital/data”, highlighting the wasted efficiencies from initiatives such as the Crown Commercial Services frameworks, which do not currently reflect how procurement works beyond Whitehall. Another addressed the fact that some issues – such as legacy technologies – need a combination of national coordination and local delivery. Different kinds of collaboration infrastructures are required for getting different kinds of things done at different scales, but this flexibility is almost impossible to spin up.

One example of an effective network is Local Gov Drupal, the publishing network that aims to reduce the cost of building a new council website by 80%. This was originally funded by the MHCLG Local Digital Fund, brought to life by signatories to the Local Digital Declaration, and has since become a cooperatively owned organisation with 42 partners. This empowering, cost-saving programme has outlived the central government initiative that gave rise to it, and shows the possibility of sharing resources. As Neil Williams, former Chief Digital Officer at Croydon Council, says, Local Gov Drupal offers, “A single platform where everyone gets the benefits of each other's investment for free. Solving problems once, together.”

Different levels of digital maturity have been cited as a blocker for cross-government collaboration but it is possible this is also a symptom of assuming collaboration needs to be organised centrally and happen at national scale. The recent Brown Commission report A New Future explores the British state’s tendency to centralisation in some detail and concludes:


Recent evaluation by the GLA shows that the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) has been effective in increasing collaboration across London, working with the London boroughs to deliver more than 60 projects in areas including adult social care and homelessness. Eddie Copeland, CEO of LOTI, has recently called for local authority sandboxes to support local innovation as a means of managing risk, building better supplier relationships and moving beyond incremental improvements; other regions might identify other challenges as paramount, and wish to prioritise issues such as collaborative working on data standards or deprecating legacy technologies.

While the next government may wish to reform the machinery of government at scale, there must be rapid improvements in funding and capabilities for local and regional governments. As such, we recommend establishing 12 regional and national Offices of Technology and Innovation across the UK, governed locally rather than at arm’s length from Westminster, and with a remit to develop and deliver inline with regional requirements rather than according to a one-size-fits-all approach. £200m in funding from UKRI across five years would cover the costs of each Office of Technology Innovation while also providing investment for the delivery of local, regional and national projects.


WRITTEN BY DR NATALIE BYROM, RACHEL COLDICUTT OBE AND SARAH GOLD


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