What can SME tech companies do to help Local Government keep the show on the road and protect vulnerable people?
UnConferences are about the attendees setting the agenda – fluid, democratic, informal, uninhibited, trusting and at times improvisational.
A short blog on LinkedIn about legacy systems suppliers back in March attracted a great deal of interest amongst local government and Small and Medium-sized software companies.
We decided to organise an UnConference to start unpack the issues, chaired by our founder Hilary Simpson and Jos Creese.
The informal setting of an UnConference meant the day was focused on open and honest insight into the issues whilst providing valuable networking opportunities.
About 50 people attended during the day – we’ll try for more in future – with such a short period of time to get people on board we were pleased with the numbers – more so because almost nobody dropped out on the day.
The University of Birmingham Business School CityREDI offered a free venue and 5 suppliers kindly sponsored the event.
A summary of the day, taken from "The Hitchhikers guide to Engaging SMEs and Local Government in Innovation" - a Medium blog by Hilary Simpson
Under “Actions" we have suggested some ways forward – if you think we have missed something please do get in touch.
Who are the customers?
Our conclusion during the day was that the prime customers are the service design business specialists rather than ICT – although obviously, a range of stakeholders need to be involved.
There was a feeling that Local Government may not know what they are missing with regards to solutions and the benefits that SMEs bring – and that leads to specifications which just hard code legacy functionality rather than changing the way that services are delivered.
The attendees of our unConference want to change the nature of engagement so that there is more informal dialogue. The issue of the complexity of Local Government Services (700+ lines of business) means that it is hard to find the right people to talk to.
The speed of change of technology is an issue for local government business people to keep up with.
One group addressed specifically the issue of ‘solving today’s challenges with today’s solutions’ (rather than yesterday’s).
Showcasing needs to be a combination of face to face e.g.
- Traditional conference stands – although it is harder and harder for hard-pressed Local Government staff to attend
- Dragons Dens and ring-fenced innovation budgets
- And virtual – but still retaining the personal touch.
Short videos which are addressed to service leads and explain the benefits of a particular product in plain English are useful – an up-to-date set of interactions similar to the experience of speaking to an SME supplier at a conference stand. We made 5 such videos for the sponsors during the day of the UnConference and once edited, you can review the sort of thing we had in mind.
Local Government now need the skills and capacity to orchestrate the full range of small and large software suppliers into one platform. In the past – bigger players may have offered the illusion of taking away all the complexity with a single solution. Local Authorities now need to be able to manage interchangeable components – what matters is the data – not the table that the data is held in.
Today’s legacy systems were yesterday’s innovative solutions – we concluded that blending components is now the way forward – in such a way that when we ‘cut the strings’ of legacy systems nobody will even notice. Long contracts (15 years plus) may stifle innovation but blending and squeezing out systems and modules will make cliff edge contract end dates a thing of the past.
A number of SMEs find that they are more successful reselling their services through bigger consultancies but are concerned that it represents poor value for money to Local Government because of the on-costs / mark up.
Surprisingly little time was spent talking about process at the UnConference. The view was that even if an SME is on a Framework like GCloud – there are still an overwhelming number of suppliers – how can a Local Authority put a face to an SME company name?
Tendering against outcome based briefs may well be more accessible for SMEs and result in a greater business share – particularly for lower value contracts under say £25k.
There is still in person face to face time needed (see Actions).
Building trust – helping to de-risk innovation
Local Government obviously still has a need to be transparent about how they spend public money. There are still lots of failed IT projects – probably more than construction or infrastructure projects. We don’t have a great legacy reputation as an industry. SME’s are being judged by Local Governments experience of what has gone before.
It’s important to develop Business case templates alongside a product or solution – and then plug in local data. This can then address the issue that Local Authorities functions are 80% the same but there is 20% local demographic nuance which is also important to feed in – so that the ROI is genuine, open and honest and not oversold.
The majority of attendees do have working solutions in a few Local Authorities and are trying to build fast. Their tried and tested products are not the same level of risk as start-ups, for example, but Local Government may bracket them in the same category.
Some innovations are an order of magnitude better than their legacy precursors. They seem too good to be true – but are true. For example ‘software built in 15% of the time’.
An interesting idea was to attend open Council and Cabinet meetings – get to know the business and pain points of a council and get face time with elected members.
There was discussion about testbeds – innovation and incubation – even mock up virtual councils with test data? This references back to business case templates.
Motivated Leadership and a culture that breaks the mold
Due to time constraints, many Local Government Service leads are inevitably ‘heads down’ and perhaps overwhelmed by the variety of technology on offer. It can be hard to team up with neighbouring boroughs because that adds complexity and may slow things down through collaborative decision making. They need more ‘heads up’ time to reflect and review what is going on elsewhere, and try to be open-minded and consider wider options – we as SMEs, on the other hand, need to present our products in terms of their benefits, in plain English, not as a technology offer.
So collectively we need to help them filter what is relevant for their service redesign.
We have picked up an appetite for more informal and uninhibited unconferences – we have an offer of a barn in the Bristol / Bath area for September which we have taken up (thank you, William Heath).
We will have longer to plan so will try to get attendance of say 70 – 100.
We also have an offer from one of the SMEs for a Central London venue which we at Sleuth will follow up.
Secondly, we believe that an online catalogue of short plain English videos which can be searched by service will be of benefit to Local Government service leads. The idea would be that they could search and review up to 50 videos in a day and be up to speed with a wide range of innovative products that are relevant to their service redesign. The videos would be cross-referenced against the Local Government Association Services list and have contact details of existing customers for instance. A quantitative and qualitative data-informed approach to innovative solutions. We are sounding out a number of Local Government innovation leads about whether this would be useful to them.
Early indications are that this is just what they are after.
We are talking with Jos Creese and a number of individual SMEs that attended the unconference about specific marketing help post GDPR. It feels like more face to face contact will be needed rather than cold calling or emailing because of the marketing and opt-in issues – so again the unconferences seem to be a good way forward.
Your feedback on the above suggestions (and others) is very welcome.