#LocalGovCamp session about Service Birmingham

LocalGovCamp is an unconference about local government. The 2015 event was held at The Studio, Leeds on 12 September. It was organised by LocalGov Digital.

I pitched a session about Service Birmingham (SB), which is a partnership between Birmingham City Council (BCC) and Capita UK.

In the 5 years I spent at BCC I was rarely impressed by the digital, data and technology offerings from SB, for example:

  • it would 15 minutes from switching my machine on to it being ready to use
  • the main browser was Internet Explorer 6 which stifled innovation
  • internet access required a business case and managerial sign-off
  • social media access required another business case and sign-off

The day after I left BCC I started at the Government Digital Service where:

  • my laptop took less then a minute from switching on to be ready to use
  • the latest versions of both Google Chrome and Apple Safari were installed
  • internet and social media access were enabled by default

Hopefully things in BCC have moved on since I left in September 2012.

So I split my LocalGovCamp session into 2 halves – issues and solutions.



I opened the 1st part of the session by briefly describing my experiences in BCC. Then I asked the people present to describe experiences in their local authorities (LA). British Telecom (BT) was mentioned several times, with people saying partnerships were either defunct (Liverpool), didn’t get off the ground (Lancashire) or elected members had “kicked off” (Cornwall) about the outputs.

Someone from Cornwall said, “All my skilled staff are gone”. Skills drain and gaps being mentioned several times. “Part of the problem is the strategy teams have been lost to the partnership”, was stated by one person. “Staff had transferred to the partnership and knowledge was lost from the LA”, was another comment. To me this isn’t a partnership. Whether you work in, for or with a LA you should still be empowered to speak up and be taken seriously. “Its an abusive relationship”, was a sad comment.

Money figured highly in the discussion. “We procured these [partnerships] because we didn’t have any money left”, stated someone. “These deals are always about money”, said another. Someone else said their partnership felt like a payday loan, ie it was the only option they had and was now costing them. “The savings didn’t materialise”, was said of the West Berks / AMEY partnership. One person said their LA had forgotten why their got into partnership with a big supplier. “It needs to be a real partnership”, said another.

“Everyone knows about the reputation of these organisations, yet they continue to use them”, was a telling comment.

Towards the end of the “issues” part of the session, some rays of hope started to materialise. “I work in a public / public partnership”, said someone whose organisation was working with a neighbouring organisation. They continued, “[It] works because both parts of the partnership have a vested interest in making money”.



The 2nd part of the discussion was about solutions.

Becoming “Smart clients” and “…smarter organisations”, were the opening comments. “It comes down to smart procurement. Know what you want”, was a useful comment. One person asked, “Who is managing the contract? It needs to be a cross-organisation, multidisciplinary team”. “We need people with digital skills in organisations”, said Vicky Sargent.

“Smaller contracts”, were mentioned several times. Only buying stuff that can be re-used, buying smaller chunks and short term contacts was mentioned by Ben Cheetham. He continued, “It is gonna work? Is it the right product? Does it meet a user need?”.

Total cost of ownership (TCO) was mentioned with one person stating, “Its [all about] TCO”. One telling comment was, “We need to work out the total cost, ie people’s time using shit products”.

Setting the right targets and monitoring performance was mentioned. Several people thought this required better consultation with the public and an open, honest conversation. Basically “Be transparent”, as one person put it. Having good governance seemed to chime with most people, which required keeping skills and people inside LAs, which again made we think that these partnerships aren’t really partnerships.

The session felt cathartic. People aired concerns about their LAs. One great comment was, “I find [unconferences] a useful way to find solutions”.

After the session I had a chat with Catherine Howe and Jonathan Flowers, both of whom work at Capita. I apologised for pitching a negative session against their organisation. This is because I’d realised that LAs are mostly to blame for getting into partnerships they didn’t understand. Catherine mentioned she was setting up innovation labs in several cities, which really interested me. I left thinking that one way to change my home City of Birmingham is to fight from within, ie go work for Capita.

I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you think thats the right idea. Please tweet me at @jaCattell with your comments.