At a recent service design event in London, I was in a discussion about service design and local authorities, where I heard about the great work that Waltham Forest Council is doing in that area. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, specifically about what was so different about the approach the service design teams were taking. I came to the conclusion that what they were doing was reframing the role of the local authority from an authority to a facilitator. This was happening both in the community but also inside the council.
Reframing the role of the local authority
In our modern world, it’s hard to imagine a world without institutionalised government, and it means that it’s also hard to remember the reasons why they were set up. When too many humans live together, problems cannot be resolved by everyone coming together, these collective problems were given to a government institution to solve. We elect officials to decide on our behalf what needs to be done, we pay our taxes to give them money. That way, we don’t have to think about where our rubbish goes or how high the flood defences should be. The local authority does it for us.
But at the same time, by not having to think about it, we’ve also developed a sort of apathy towards what the council does, only concerned by the amount of council tax we have to pay. We no longer feel empowered to lead or participate in the change we want to see in our community.
I see two drivers as to why this has to change:
1 – Local authorities are under increasing financial pressures due to continuing austerity measures and budget cuts. Now, more than ever, they are having to make sure that they are investing in the right things and will be seeking for quick-wins and cost-reduction strategies. Also, by involving the community in developing your services, you also develop buy-in from the start and reduce up-take costs, especially where you can tap into community influencers.
2 – The idea that government services have to first of all meet users needs, and be built together with the user, has become a standard at central government level, and is increasingly adopted across local authorities, who are signing the local digital declaration to commit to the principles set by the Government Digital Service.
Changing perceptions of the council
The team at Waltham Forest Council told us about the work they had to do ahead of actually being able to start their co-design and user research process. When the designers first approached people in the local community, the team found that a lot of people associated the council with either bin collections, council tax or parking permits. They often saw the council as a sort of punishing authority, rather than an institution that served the community. The designers had to do a lot of work to change that perception and win people over little by little, by explaining their service design approach, showing them how their input would lead to change in the community.
The distance between the local authority and its community could also be felt amongst people working in the council. Especially those that saw themselves as experts able to solve the problems faced by the community without ever talking to the local people. The service design team had to do a lot of internal influencing to get other parts of the council on-board with their approach. Particularly regulated areas such as procurement and finance were hard to convince of working in agile and iterative ways, but increasingly, these more traditional areas are equally being transformed, with more and more people championing approaches to agile procurement for example.
Working together with the community and doing so in an agile approach, where you’re iteratively working to solve a problem, rather than implementing a solution, is key to transforming local government services. It means that councils will be able to provide services that better meet the needs of the community, and will be able to save costs by de-risking investment in new projects and focusing on the problems most important to the community. So what I would like to see is for the local authority to become the local facilitator of change, giving the community back the ownership of change.