21 February 2019

The role of digital leadership

Local authorities provide some of the most critical public services that exist in our country. In many cases these support the most vulnerable in our society and are deeply important to the wellbeing and state of our nation as a whole. Set against the context of an aging population and unprecedented social change, it’s now a very challenging situation for local authorities to provide such services against all of the social and financial headwinds in play.

How can high quality services be provided in an ever-more challenging environment at an ever reducing cost? That was the theme of The MJ Future Forum North held in December 2018 in Manchester.

It was an event that brought together chief executives and key experts from across both the public and private sectors to discuss the scale of the problem and what could be done differently to tackle it. Although the location for the event might have been the historic Midland Hotel in Central Manchester there was nothing glamorous about the discussion. The question posed time and time again during two days of lively debate revolved around the scale of the challenge and possible ways forward.

So, what did it conclude?

The core insight I took away seemed to suggest a three-pronged approach to drive local public services forward against all of the social and financial challenges that exist today.

The first was a clearer representation for local government services into central government. There was much consensus about that – to put the debate about the future of local public services front and center in the nation’s dialogue once again – not easy with Brexit filling the airspace.

The second was radically improved collaboration. Not just inside the local authority sector but outside it too. I presented a slot specifically on how solutions in other sectors could provide a shortcut to better local public services at lower cost. At BT we regularly bring together complete sectors to run innovation ‘hot houses’. The most common interest raised at these events is insight gained from other sectors – put simply, those attending wish to learn from others and the solutions they have used. Cross-sector collaboration is also a wonderful vehicle to deliver fully joined up services – something citizens desperately seek. I call it a ‘lifetime experience’ – where all services are integrated around the individual in a joined-up way.

Cross-sector collaboration is fundamental to deliver that. Although wider collaboration has started across areas like health and social care, I sensed from the event that much more could and should be done. After all, it makes no financial sense to build every solution in isolation or worse still, build the same solution differently many times over.

There was a sense that we have to start building capability on which the whole country can run. In reality, that’s as much about fixing UK productivity as delivering the best public services possible. Those things go hand-in-hand.

For my part, we’ll be looking to drive more BT cross-sector events as a result to help share knowledge, solutions and innovation. We have a large amount of dedicated expertise in local government but there’s no reason we can’t enrich that expertise further with learning from across the other sectors we serve.

The third key conclusion was about promoting the strength of social value ecosystems. This means broader valuedriven collaboration around common objectives with shared social value outcomes. You can only move faster if everyone is genuinely rowing to the same destination – with a common purpose. Sometimes services can be fragmented, designed, procured and delivered with piecemeal outcomes.

Manchester is a great example of having a strong social value message, one where no one will be left behind. The proof is to put social value at the heart of delivering all local public service solutions required by our citizens. The test for success is whether other measures still act as the primary drivers of decisions or the social value becomes the key North Star for all decision making.

As someone who works with their head in the private sector, my heart remains firmly in the public sector. I see a different way of working as the best way forward – call it a different operating model for delivering local public services: from how we join forces across public and private sector; to lobbying government together; to how we share knowledge and innovation across sectors. We must build solutions to our big problems as a country and not in lots of silos differently across sectors.

I have three young children. I want them to grow up in country with the best public services possible where every penny spent delivers the best outcomes for everyone so no one is left behind. To achieve this we will have to work differently and together, we can achieve a smarter digital future.

Phil Baulch is CIO, major business and public sector, at BT

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