Sell people problems

See that guy over there, the one running the bike shop ((push bikes or bicycles not motorbikes, that’s the shop round the corner, don’t mess with him, he’s got some very tough friends)). He’s working hard, trying to keep his customers happy, keep his staff motivated, keep his cash flowing. He’s a busy guy, too busy for the likes of you.

And yet, you need him to pay attention. You have needs yourself, an accountant to feed, kids to send to the cinema, food to buy, a car to tax. You need him to stop for a moment and take seriously what you’re trying to sell him.

You know what you should do?

You should scare him ((I seriously dare you to dress up in a Halloween costume and jump out at him)).

Because scaring people ALWAYS makes them more likely to buy your product ((if you agree with this you are TOTALLY missing the point of this blog)).

So sit down and draft a marketing email ((or maybe a cold calling script: see “Cold calling is a waste of time and people will be mean to you”))

Dear customer, did you know that 25% of bike shops go bust because they don’t have

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets (delete as appropriate ((obv)).

Your shop will be next unless you buy my

really great insurance / accreditation scheme / training programme / really truly awesome widgets

Call me now ((this is a call to action. Don’t use these if you want to fail at freelancing)) to save your business

But he doesn’t call.

Reason? He’s not scared enough.

Off to Mailchimp again ((other email packages are available but they lack the cutesy messages about bananas))

Dear customer

I was recently volunteering at a prison where I ran into Dave. Dave used to run a bike shop like you but he didn’t take my advice with regards to

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning ((I know nothing about this but it comes up a lot in American drama series and I’m trying to broaden my appeal. Howdy American freelancers))

And it cost him his business, his marriage, his family and eventually his freedom.

This is REALLY IMPORTANT you should be quaking in fear right now.

Call me now and I might consider selling you

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / advice on city zoning stuff

But he still doesn’t call

Now across the street you see one of your competitors (you know, the idiots ((see “Your competitors are idiots))) nipping in to the bakery.


they say ((once again after the American audience, next week this blog will be in French, then German))

I was just wondering how business is going”.


says the baker

but I am a bit worried about

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning / the new boulangerie tax” ((let’s reach out to France shall we?))


says your idiot competitor

I can help you with that

Cold calling is a waste of time and people will be mean to you

If you have a real job, especially if you have some sort of management position and it looks like you might have a budget people will call you and try to sell you things.


“Hi. This is Lisa calling from Can I just ask what sort of content management system Hertfordshire County Council uses?”

“I have no idea I say. I work for Herefordshire Council ((That’s Herefordshire Council not Herefordshire County Council. The full name of the local authority is The County of Herefordshire District Council. Dull but true.)) . We have fewer stockbrokers and more cattle. (( I came up with that line at a panel discussion the other week. I’m quite proud of it. This entire blog post is just an excuse to rehearse it for a new audience.))

“Sorry. Anyway we’ve got the greatest content management system in the world. Would you like to see it?”

“No thanks, we’re quite happy with our current content management system”

“OK. When shall I call you back to check whether you’ve got bored with your content management system?”


It’s annoying, it’s intrusive, it’s inconvenient and you find yourself vowing that, when you go freelance, you will not cold call anyone.


Which is laudable ((Apart from the part of you that is avoiding it because you are scared of rejection. Wimp.)) but not the greatest business decision you’ve ever made.


You see companies aren’t cold calling you in order to annoy you. In fact most of them recognise that annoying their customers is likely to lower rather than increase sales.


The problem is that customers tend to be a bit rubbish and they really don’t care about the convenience of their suppliers. Often customers don’t make buying decisions based on a thorough and objective assessment of the market. Often they go with the people they’ve heard of, or from, or the people who called them last week.


And your competitors will cold call.


So, in order to avoid penury, starvation and the slow decline into pressing f5 every 60 seconds to see if anyone’s sent you an email you probably are going to have to cold call people.


But you might try to minimise the pain on both sides ((The both sides thing is important. A couple of Martinis will reduce the pain on your side but will increase the pain on theirs.)) :

– do some research and call people who might actually be interested in your product

– don’t be pushy and do be brief

– if it’s not working, stop it

– listen to what you’re being told and use it to improve your product


Though some people will be mean to you ((Mind they don’t have your advantages. They aren’t freelancing for a start.)) .


A local GDS could probably add value but is it the right thing to do?

Should there be a GDS for local government?

I’m instinctively resistant to the discourse around a GDS for local government.

Of course my instant reactions to such things have much to do with what’s going on inside my head and little to do with a balanced assessment of the arguments.

I don’t much like being told what to do. I resent the narrative that I perceive within parts of Whitehall which says local government would be much better if it would just do what it was told by the civil service.

On the other hand sensible people I respect who understand and love local government are arguing for a local GDS of some sort.

The arguments in favour

The GDS is achieving impressive things in central government. is to be admired, the cloudstore is genuinely exciting. A relentless focus on user needs and iterative, agile ways of working is invigorating and depressingly innovative.

And as I recently heard from DCLG

What GDS has managed to do is de-risk technological innovation and save departments lots of money

We really some more of that need that across the public sector.

And having a single government digital service has delivered a lot of benefits for central government. They have REALLY good people working there, they back each other up, they drive each other on, they have a swagger, a confidence that they really know what they are doing. They get people’s backs up but that’s OK because they have a mandate and, crucially, they really are doing the right thing.

Who would not want this in local government?

For a much more detailed (and very interesting) argument in favour do read Ben Welby’s five (that’s right five!) posts on this.

The arguments against

Local government is not the local branch of central government.

It isn’t even, really, a thing at all. It’s 468 different things (according to the LGIU) though they have some similar responsibilities and a surprisingly consistent culture. Crucially we are controlled by politicians with their own mandates derived independently of the politicians the GDS works for.

We can (and in my case, do with gusto) copy and adapt tools published by the GDS. To go further and mandate the way local government designs and delivers services is to take another step away from local decision making. Mike Bracken is a top chap but should he really be able to over-rule the (elected) leader of a local authority?

Well up to a point Lord Copper

Actually central government tells local government how to do things quite a lot. There are inspection regimes, codes of practice, actual legislation, funding streams and bidding rounds which constrain, influence and mandate approaches across all sorts of areas of public service.

Seen against that backdrop it’s actually a bit weird that this area of work, which is so important and so codified at national level, is left to the (widely varying) discretion of local administrations.

What has the GDS ever done for you?

Let’s imagine that a GDS for local government has been created. What sort of model would really help the people who live in my county (Herefordshire). What could a local GDS do that would really add value:

1. Mandate things that need mandating.

There are some things that it might be really helpful if they were required: domain naming conventions, CMS selections, open standards. If these were required of local government we wouldn’t have to re-invent them and we could drive efficiencies.

Specifying a small menu of open source CMS platforms that local government must select from could be really transformative. It would disrupt the business model of some suppliers but we could really develop effective communities around these platforms.

2. Provide APIs for local government to hook into.

For example local authorities administer council tax and housing benefits locally and though there is some local discretion round the edges it’s really a national framework. A GDS for local government could usefully provide a service that local authorities could consume locally. There may be real benefits to be derived in social care (care passport anyone?). It wouldn’t work for all local services. A national platform for leisure services would have little value for example.

3. Properly drive improvement.

How about an inspection regime for local digital service provision? I think there could be real value here. If not that then, at least, a local GDS could work with other inspection bodies to make sure they really understand how digital can and should be transforming the services they inspect. And in either case setting frameworks which could be used for rigorous peer reviews would have value (for the councils that take this stuff seriously)

4. System leadership.

Already I find we can make progress just by saying that

this is the way the civil service does it.

How much more progress if we say

this is the way the local GDS says to do it.

We need more though.

The leaders of our organisations (political and nonpolitical) need to understand what good looks like, they need to aspire to transform services through focusing on user needs, they need to understand how much this should be costing them. They need to be able to ask for help from some people who really know what they are talking about.

And people working across local government need the skills and the tools necessary to really get hold of these new ways of thinking, not just but certainly, in digital and ICT teams.

It’s politics innit?

There is a political judgement to be made here. Ultimately local councils are accountable to councillors and if local people don’t like what the councillors have been doing they can sack them. Local government has got itself into a position where it probably does need some central intervention as a result of decisions for which those councillors are accountable. To decide that those decisions are wrong and to impose something else is, clearly, profoundly political.

And some might argue (with validity I would say) that the solution isn’t to tell local government what to do around (digital) service design. It’s to give local government more to do. We (in England certainly) live in an extremely centralised state. It is the centralised system (directly or indirectly) that brought us to this point.

Is the solution really more centralisation?