Giles K Bailey Dr Ali Ahmad 08 July 2020

Fostering innovation in UK local councils

In the winter of 2019/20 the UK was already facing a number of transitional issues and challenges in order to provide contemporary and effective public services. Austerity earlier in the decade has significantly reduced the ability to local councils to use discretionary funds to provide enhanced services, let alone maintain current provision. Focus on service delivery by local officers had reduced the ability of staff to look beyond day to day delivery and consider radical service innovation, new business models or incorporate ideas from other industries.

Then COVID-19 arrived, and we are now facing unprecedented changes in the economic outlook, but as well in societal attitudes to service delivery, mobility, family circumstances, home and locality, and person life goals. These are radical times and the challenges to local authorities are immense.

Much innovation is underway in the country and we would particularly highlight the ongoing work by InnovateUK to encourage SMEs and larger businesses to collaborate and seek domestic and export opportunities, particularly in emerging technology sectors. Much has been written about and is published regarding these schemes.

However, this article focuses on a particular gap we see in how local councils in the UK are using the available resources around them to bring the brightest and best minds together in order to develop creative solutions to the challenges that they face.

The UK has some of the most respected and sought out universities in the world. Students from across the globe come to the UK to complete their higher education, and learn within our business, legal, cultural, as well as linguistic context. The overseas talent increases the pool of capability in which our domestic students learn and expand their academic horizons. The higher education sector has developed an, up to now, successful and robust global business model that has served them well.

Our global academic reach, in particular however, offers us students who have a wealth of international perspectives, connections and experience from every continent and context on earth. While they are here they observe and use our domestic services but can also use their perspectives to challenge and suggest, or develop innovative solutions for the UK context. This is a huge advantage for the UK.

However, while many small and large businesses in the UK are benefiting from this talent as well as public bodies such as research councils, how are typical local councils using this pool of young expertise to reinvent themselves to deal with the complex range of challenges that they are facing?

Most UK local councils are not far away from a leading academic institution but many are not typically engaging and 'pitching' their specific needs and contexts to these students and asking for advice and, in particular, new business innovation to address their challenges. This is particularly at the graduate and postgraduate level.

With a population of just over 300,000 people, Coventry City Council, for example, has been leading the way in collaborative 'ideation' of concepts with the active participation of local citizens. To map out a strategy to guide the development of the city over the next three decades, the council wanted to hold rich conversations with a whole variety of stakeholders about the future of their city in the areas of council responsibility. To get the conversations going they have worked with IBM and their 'Jam' solution and University of Warwick. A Jam is a focused online conversation usually lasting a few days – the case of 'CoVJam', it was over three days. What was the result? Several hundred citizen stakeholders engaged in debate in an interactive online forum, generating a mass of innovative ideas. After the event, IBM organised this unstructured information, and helped identify patterns and trends, giving the council an idea of the particular citizen concerns and their magnitude.

What happened to all of that hard work and ideation outputs by Coventry’s citizens, did anything come off of them, did improvements actually happen, were existing services modified or improved in some way, were new ones launched? These are legitimate questions anyone putting their labour over three days to help their local government would have. Sadly, there is little clarity on prioritisation, proofing, trialling and, in short: execution.

What Coventry City Council, and many other local councils, are missing out on is the suitable talent with the available job bandwidth that could take ideas generated through exercises such as the above mentioned Jams and deliver new or revised services. Clearly, not all ideas would be viable, some are only theoretically robust, or pose financial or service delivery risks at scale. However, this is the inherent risk in any organisation and a necessary part of the innovation cycle that has led to so many overall successful innovations in the private as well as public sectors.

Council employees have stretched targets and are inundated with urgent and time sensitive day-to-day workloads; therefore, it would be unfair to expect them to take on additional and frankly risky work for which they are most likely not even trained. The opportunity for UK local councils is to utilise the capability, global expertise, skills and enthusiasm of locally available postgraduate and postgraduate research students involved as execution champions, researchers and expertise advisors. A personal reflection is to time as an MSc student at the University of Oxford; my department had just undertaken a bit of ethnographic research on their own initiative to help their local council figure out why Oxford in 2005-6 was UK’s worst city for recycling.

Warwick and other UK universities would be keen to collaborate with local governments. What needs to happen is the creation of a repository of prioritised and viable ‘projects’ by councils which universities could help them with, and then opening up access to students for data collection, a commitment to meet with student teams a few times and finally challenging them on their proposals in a final presentation. If the proposals are somewhat viable, then, once again through student teams taking lead and under the university’s guidance, funding could be sought to further proof and trial the validated innovation.

In summary, UK local councils are under significant stress due to funding reductions, social and environmental pressures, increasing customer expectation and now the COVID-19 shock. A low cost, but highly realistic route to tackle some of these challenges is to engage more proactively and directly with the substantial resources in UK universities. To enable this opportunity, we need to see:

1. Awareness of the opportunity at the council as well as at the university level that they can assist in local service development – communication. In some ways the national funding competition process and research councils create a narrative of growing global UK businesses and research excellence, which is beyond the more practical needs of local council services and creates a disconnect in local council needs. Perhaps more usefully, keep it simple, local and practical for council needs;

2. Explanation of the needs of UK local councils – what they do, how they work, what are their challenges and the routes to engage regarding innovative thinking. So many larger UK organisations and global businesses are now participating in the accelerator, hackathon, innovation scene in the UK and developing productive partnerships and learnings to develop their own businesses – from TfL, Network Rail, HS2, Telefonica, Bosch, JLR, Ford. So often who are not seen at these events are UK local councils or a representative body of them; and

3. A support and communication process that channels the new ideas and disseminates them across the local council eco-system. Bringing the right people together. There are national bodies representing local councils but across their remit, this innovation agenda has yet to be prioritised amongst the range of challenges and issues that they are facing. This is unfortunate, but more should be done.

There is an untapped set of resources available to improve local services in the UK and make better use of some of the brightest young talent in the world that is distributed across the UK in the tertiary academic sector. By realising and seizing this opportunity much can be done to improve local services across the country in this time of challenging service delivery.

Giles K Bailey: Stratageeb Limited and Dr Ali Ahmad: University of Warwick WMGroup

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