The (long term (ish)) future of local government

Breaking vows

I start every govcamp with a vow to be quieter and more reflective. This time, I say I will not pitch a session and I’ll keep quiet in sessions and listen more to others.

This typically lasts about 3 1/2 minutes. And so at #localgovcamp last Saturday I pitched a session on scenario planning for local government.

Now scenario planning is a fairly sophisticated practice undertaken by many serious organisations. It involves looking at the data we have now and developing compelling and coherent scenarios about how the world might change. It’s not saying the world will be this way. It’s saying the world could be this way if these things we see now carried on.

It is a tool to assist with planning, especially planning investments that will pay back over a long period.

Good scenario planning is thoughtful, lengthy and evidence based. Ideal in fact for a 45 minute slot at a govcamp (irony there- or is it sarcasm?)

We gave it a go.

Short or long term

I suggested that we look over a fifty year period. I find that as I get older (I’m 43) fifty years doesn’t seem like such a huge expanse of time. Looking over 50 years frees you from having to consider shorter term cyclical issues (like funding cuts following a financial crisis) and to consider bigger, wider changes. On the other hand technology drives change at such a rate that it might be unhelpful to try to look that far into the future.

We settled on a 10-20 year horizon.


The first trend that the group identified which is obviously at the forefront of local government thinking was the ageing population in the UK. People are getting older, potentially staying healthier older but that then means that carers are ageing too. Potentially, over our 20 year timescale the people who are ageing will have less money to contribute to their own care.

This is likely to increase and change demand on local government, other public services and the wider community.

But it may also widen something at least some of us perceived which is intergenerational inequity as a greater proportion of local resources are focused on older people it inevitably follows that these resources are taken from younger people.


The subject of intergenerational inequity dominated our discussion for quite a while. There is a coherent narrative that says:

as public resources are concentrated on older people (who are more likely to vote) and away from younger people who are less likely to vote this will create a vicious circle whereby local government will tend to more and more focus on the needs and interests of older people at the expense of local people.

Housing was raised in the same context. You can argue that the lack of availability of affordable housing in many parts of the UK is a process whereby older people are becoming more wealthy because they own property funded by young people who do not own property.

We didn’t see it likely that access to affordable decent housing would be radically improved over our twenty year window.

It’s also worth stressing that we were trying to develop coherent narratives, we didn’t make judgements (well most of us didn’t) or try to find solutions. We only had 45 minutes.

Devolution and structures

Will local government be reorganised over our 20year window?

If past performance is any guide then that would be a definite yes. Personally I’ve worked through reorganisation in local government in Wales in the early 90s, Herefordshire in ’97/98 and Shropshire in 08/9. I’m not THAT old.

Whatever the result of the independence referendum in Scotland this year devolution to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London seems to be a one-way street. There was a consensus in our workshop that England will be affected by this though it’s not clear exactly how. We settled on a concept of “differential devolution” which is inline with devolution so far. So powers and expenditure might be released to different “city regions” as they make separate cases with different governance models. We thought that was easier to see than an English Parliament or regional assemblies.

I tried to argue for a scenario in which there is no local government: where social care is handed to the NHS, highways and regulation handed to national agencies and education and child protection handed to local children’s commissioners. And it was pointed out to me that children’s commissioners would, in fact, be local government (as police and crime commissioners are). So we developed a narrative that suggests that local democratic oversight is likely to be persistent. Though the specific role and structure will change. Local bodies seem increasingly likely to be scrutinising, influencing, maybe commissioning rather than doing.

Network society

This discussion seemed to link very closely with a workshop Catherine Howe had pitched about different forms of democracy. I didn’t attend that workshop so I’ll need to look to others to join this up.

This is all very well but…

I know. Scenario planning might be an diverting way to pass an hour at an unconference but does it have application in the real world?

I would argue that it does. When we plan, when we invest, when we draw up strategies and try to do the stuff we used to call Place Shaping, we are making assumptions about how the world will be. All too often these assumptions are tacit. Scenario planning helps, if nothing else, to make those assumptions explicit. That in and of itself is of benefit. It could even lead us to (whisper it) make better investments and lay more effective plans.

And we don’t have to do that much work. Lots of people do scenario planning. Many of them publish it. So at the very least we could just look at the work others have done and ask how our plans would look in the world they are imagining.

I’m going to try to compile a list of scenario planning resources here (or somewhere else if there’s a better place). Any links, let me know.

First reflections on BlueLightCamp 2014

Had a great day at BlueLightCamp. Met some old friends, made some new friends, put some faces to Twitter handles. Got inspired. Thought about old things in new ways and thought about new things. Great job by Sasha, Clare, Christine, Mark, Simon and loads of others. The OS building is great. Here are some random bullets of my take aways.

Drones are here. They are cheap and accessible. They will get cheaper and more frequent. They clearly have significant public service benefits, there are legitimate concerns about their potential uses by the state (and companies) and there are real opportunities for their malicious uses. These are not hypothetical issues for some scientific future they are live, presenting issues. In a world where we are not reliably factoring social networking into our emergency plans are we, in fact, ready for the drones that are with us.

Robots next. We didn’t get into this but robotics is making rapid and interesting strides accelerated by an open source community and additive manufacturing. Drones and robots and 3d printers. I want that job.

We are making progress. Two years ago VOST felt like a solution in search of a problem. This time it seemed to be an answer to some real questions people were asking.

What is it legitimate for the state to do using open source intelligence? @wobable’s session was really thought provoking. Here’s how I see it. We haven’t agreed as a society what we want the state to do with the information we make public. What we regard as a legitimate use of our public conversations probably varies depends on who we are, what the circumstances are and which bit of the state is looking. A police force scanning Twitter for keywords during a public order policing operation probably feels more legitimate than a local authority drilling through Facebook to see who might have been dropping litter in a park. I’m making a set of assumptions here. On the other hand if the state stays out of these rich public environments then citizens might have a right to regard them as failing in their civic duty to engage with the people where the people are. The author of a Demos report into this a couple of years again says a reasonable expectation of privacy is a good way to start. It feels to me that a statement of policy with regards to open source intelligence would be a close second. Maybe we could crowd source something?

Terence Eden is a very clever and engaging man. I am not doing enough to disrupt my organisation. I am not encouraging and enabling innovation. We are not doing enough paper prototyping. We need a 3d printer. And a drone. And a robot. My team is pretty rapid though. 6 weeks to build new things. Pshaw!

I want to do more with Public-I.

We have so far to go with open data. And with data generally. And with helping the leaders of our organisations understand digital, and data, and networked society.

Your Chief Constable does not need to understand Twitter. I truly believe this. I’m not saying she shouldn’t understand Twitter. I’d be happy if she did. But Twitter is not a strategic issue. Twitter is a symptom of a strategic issue. The relationship between citizens and the state is changing. Power is becoming differently distributed as is legitimacy. Many of the assumptions upon which our democratic society is based are shifting. These are the things your Chief Constable (chief exec, Leader, CFO etc) should be concerned with. Not Twitter. They have you for Twitter.

Picture a Silver meeting. Serious folk are gathered around screens and maps. On a wall quiet and professional folk are updating the COmmonly Recognised Information Pictues (or whiteboard you might call it). Information is being shared rapidly and effectively between agencies. Joint decisions are reached and tasks are passed out to organisations. There is an atmosphere of urgency, seriousness and focus. Got that? Now imagine that you take out one of the walls and a bunch of your citizens are standing there. They want to join in. They want to see the CRIP. They want to give you data. They want to collaborate. This is a growing expectation. People do not want to get in, stay in and tune in. They want to join in. Not all of them and not always or to the same extend. But they do want to join in. We have the technology to make this happen. So what’s stopping us?

It’s a long way to Southampton but it is really important to get out of the day job and look at things from a different perspective with different people. Really important.

Transport Committee winter resilience report highlights

I’m experimenting with Ghost. This is a cross-post from a Ghost installation I’m playing with.

The House of Commons Transport Committee has published a “Ready and waiting? Transport preparations for winter weather”.

It is quite succinct and worth a skim if this is an area that interests you.

To save you even that slight trouble I have picked out what I see as the highlights.

Keep it up everyone

Essentially the report has a message of “keep up the good work”.

For example

We welcome the progress made in improving the winter resilience of the third rail network south of the Thames.


It is widely acknowledged that the problem of insufficient salt stocks has been addressed.

The Committee wants transport operators and agencies to keep their noses to the grindstone though.

Continuous improvement must remain a priority for both Government and the transport sector, even if the weather this winter, and in the next few, is not severe. There is a risk that a few years of mild winter weather could lead to a false sense of security and reduce the sector’s preparedness over the longer term.

Messages for communicators

There are some recommendations that should be of particular interest to communicators in agencies and transport operators.

The committee has reviewed the response to the St Jude storm, in particular it is pleased that rail operators took the decision to announce that trains would not run until the storm had passed.

If used effectively, this approach will provide greater certainty to passengers and minimise the risk of passengers getting stranded away from home during severe winter weather.

This is no doubt correct but it will create significant communications pressures. As the report points out

In the aftermath of the storm, there were reports in
the media of passengers accusing the rail industry of overreacting.

Drivers need better and more timely information too says the committee (and has the Highways Agency in its sights for this one)

…there is a need for greater emphasis on the provision of accessible real-time information about road conditions and disruption. Such information is essential to prevent motorists getting stranded in their vehicles.

And community resilience gets a boost (though that term is not used).

The Government should more actively publicise its Snow Code at the start of each winter, for example through a national advertising campaign highlighting that the public can clear snow and ice from outside their homes without fear of legal action
and should consider doing so.

Local authorities are woven into the report and the LGA has already issued a response. Well done Brighton and Hove though for getting a specific mention

We also recommend that the Government promote examples of good practice and innovation, such as the use by Brighton and Hove City Council of a sit-on vehicle for clearing pavements.

Where it happens: a trip to the FCO crisis response centre

Emergency cupboard

When I first took over emergency planning for a local authority my emergency control centre consisted of a cupboard housing two VHF radios and a 60 watt light bulb.

We also had a back up generator.

For the light bulb.

I did manage to negotiate a small office with resilient telecoms, PCs and the inevitable VHF radios. It was a constant battle to stop people occupying the tantalisingly empty desks. But it paid dividends when actual emergencies occurred. Everyone knew where to go, we didn’t disrupt normal operations too much, and we had the tools we needed to hand.

Which is the thinking behind the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Crisis Response Centre.

The centre

Essentially this is a massive office, with 110 desks. It is ready to go if a significant incident occurs that will affect British citizens or interests. I was lucky enough to get a tour round from Shane Dillon, Crisis Technology and Communications Officer. For security reasons I couldn’t take photos and I agreed to submit this post to the FCO before publication.

The Foreign Office is pretty unusual. It has to respond to war, political challenge and natural disasters across the globe. It has staff stationed in dangerous and unpredictable environments. How much can the rest of us really learn from how they structure their crisis response? Quite a lot I think.

Things that struck me (in no particular order)

The centre is dominated by a huge wall screen which can display rolling TV news, social media feeds, mapping or any combination of the above. The FCO monitors social networks alongside conventional media and old fashoned sources of intelligence once a crisis is declared.

The centre has a series of islands intended to be staffed by various teams in a pre-planned arrangement but with flexibility to respond to the distinct nature of specific incidents.

They use Bronze, Silver and Gold nomenclature. I find that these labels are in no way consistently applied between organisations. In this case the Gold Commander is running the crisis response. They will be in the crisis centre and clearly labeled as such. There are bronze teams. Some of these seemed a little more like the STAC concept we have in civil contingencies rather than the operational tier.

There is none of the raking, or tiering I have seen in some control centres. In fact the facility is notably flat. It’s clearly a really flexible space. I think it would be interesting, at least as a thought experiement, to consider whether an LRF could use a similar facility. Rather than having silvers in local police stations and gold in the HQ, why not use one large space. Everyone on tap, everyone sighted on the same issues. Some of the logistical issues would be non-trivial of course.

Each desk has a phone, a PC (on the FCO network) and a monitor. Each workstation also has a small TV screen. You can see how useful that would be to a team monitoring local media while the main screens showed the global news output. There is also the facility for non-FCO staff to bring their own devices and get online, though there is no wifi. That surprised me, I wasn’t allowed to bring my mobile phone in, but presumably partners would bring mobile equipment and expect to use it.

Though the majority of people working in the centre would be FCO staff there would be likely to be staff from other departments and even outside agencies depending on the nature of the crisis. They’ve clearly thought through the implications of this in terms of technology. At a local level we are very bad at this and it presents an ever increasing risk to multi—agency response.

A second, smaller room allows more than one incident to be managed in parallel (which has happened recently). There is also the facility to hold smaller meetings (really for the gold commander) and an attached call centre that can be spun up to handle in-bound enquiries. We couldn’t visit the obligatory boardroom but I am assured it was there.

There is a kitchen and a small staff room. In some ways this is totally unremarkable but the moment I saw it it struck me that I can’t recall the last time I saw a local control centre or silver facility with an appropriate level of welfare space immediately adjacent. It’s really important. We, and presumably the FCO, ask staff to work under considerable pressure and to make rapid decisions with far reaching consequences based on imperfect information. Space to step away from that and clear your head makes a huge difference. Though this does mean that the piece of resilience tech I got most excited about was a fridge.

The crisis response team is based in the centre. This is a pragmatic allocation of space but I imagine it normalises the centre and encourages the team to think about small changes. We tend to lock our response centres away and when we open them in anger we often reveal the things we wish we had remembered to change. They also run exercises in the centre. This makes sense for use makes master.

I asked about the resilience of the facility but any detail on those issues clearly would have security implications. Shane did assure me that they have the plans and procedures you would expect them to have.

In summary

I took up a surprising amount of civil servant time asking questions about what is, at heart, a large open plan office. It’s more than that though, it is a space that has been well thought through and designed, not just for the purpose to which it will be put but with a recognition that every incident is different and flexibility must be designed in.

Thanks to Shane and his colleagues for their warm welcome and being so generous with their time.

Photo is The new FCO Crisis Response Centre by HM Government and used under CC BY-ND 2.0

20 thoughts from #ukgc12

Photo of a toy dragon wearing headphones

On Friday and Saturday I went to the UK Gov Camp in London. Along with about 300 other, fairly geeky, people. It’s an annual unconference full of energy, ideas and a lot of typing. The excellent Dan Slee has floated the idea of noting down 20 things that struck one after the event. These, for better or worse, are my 20.

I have more to write, in particular about open data in housing, housing benefit apps and Ushahidi. But for now:

1. My netbook running Ubuntu Linux is way cooler than your Macbook Air

2. Many of the issues relating to open data relate to the way organisations perceive and use data rather than openness

3. If anyone asks you to show the ROI of social media you should explain to them that they know nothing about communications

4. The public sector is massive, complex and messy. And it’s only one part of public services

5. We must not lose sight of accountability, governance and power issues in the quest for excellent services

6. When do we move the open data debate out of the state and into corporates?

7. The Ushahidi community and the wider crisis mapping communities are a bit wonderful

8. It’s really healthy to ask why we do this thing (or that thing, or a third thing)  at all

9. Talking is great, doing is better, doing without talking first is a waste

10. We maybe don’t have as many models of mutuality as we could do

11. Open data is a governance issue for every organisation. Or should be.

12. QR Codes are so much more wonderful than I had imagined

13. Brompton riders rule

14. While Sharepoint may not be evil, it is a pig. Still, properly wrangled, it’s amazing what a pig can achieve

15. Putting things on maps is cool. Giving others the power to put things on maps is disruptive

16. Shropshire leads the world in Jelly (the foolishly named co-working movement rather than the trifle ingredient). Jelly shows how economic development could be really different

17. We need leaders who understand networks

18. We need to understand networks

19. I am very tired

20. This year will be all about Ushahidi.

Photo is by David J Pearson and depicts one of the delegates (Puffles). Used under CC BY-SA-2.0.