The London problem (a #ukgc16 post)






Photo of house by river with the house and the plants on the bank reflected in the water

Tech city?

London

London’s great right?

It is.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to live there but I love visiting.

Which is good because I have to visit it a lot.

Because London is where everything happens. Or, if not everything, a massive proportion of everything.

Take the explosion of interest in and recruitment of digital talent in government.

That’s great too. But it seems to be heavily focused on London. If you want to be part of making it all happen, you’ve got to be in the capital.

And this seems, to me, to be a problem.

A problem

It’s a problem in a couple of ways:

  • I think it will be hard for people based in London to build tech that meets the needs of people living in places very different to London*
  • I think it will suck talent out of the rest of the country

But what do I know?

Govcampers will know

So I pitched a session on this at UKCG16. It was merged with a session Jessica Figueras had pitched about creating sustainable and stable digital teams. This was a very good thing. Without it it would probably have been a bunch of us from the sticks talking about how crap London was.

There is agreement that there is a problem in this general though different people see different aspects of the problem.

The things people think are problems

A presenting problem at the moment is recruitment and retention of digital/tech staff. At least with some skills. At least in some areas.

The reasons for this are complex and intertwined but they seem to include:

  • shortage of some key skills
  • competition within the London market (fishing in the same pool as many private sector organisations and, increasingly, other government departments)
  • internal civil service recruitment and development processes may not be attractive to tech workers

There are also system inertia or resistance problems which include:

  • government as a whole is London-focused so it isn’t surprising that tech in government would have the same bias and, in some cases, it may be deliberate since tech is about transformation it must be visible to senior decision makers
  • tech in government is about delivering things now. So pragmatic decisions are taken to live with problems (like fishing in the same pool) because the sort of changes that would tackle them would delay delivery (or require several years to pay off)
  • since so many organisations are fishing in the London pool, London is an attractive place to base yourself as a potential employee or contractor so there are, in fact, many skilled staff available in London
  • working practices are (often) configured based on physical co-location. A tour round Aviation House reveals a cornucopia of post-it notes on walls. Attempting to bolt distributed working onto this culture will be hard. In contrast it is possible to deliver real projects via completely distributed teams, assuming that is the way the process is designed. Shifting from one to the other would be non-trivial.

It’s also worth highlighting (and it was highlighted) that some departments already have significant numbers of staff based outside London and DWP and HMRC (for example) are developing “digital hubs” in Leeds, Newcastle and other places.

London goggles

One other aspect I picked-up from the discussion was a certain sense of how people who live and work in London frame this sort of issue. This was not explicit in the discussion and, accordingly, might be entirely me projecting my own prejudices but these were some of the implicit assumptions that seemed to run through the discussion:

  • ambitious, talented people will seek the opportunities presented in London, ergo outside London people lack talent and ambition
  • a normal career path is to move to London and work hard when young and then to move to rural areas (though within easy access of London) to raise a family: ergo rural areas serve and are dependent on urban areas: they aren’t economies of their own
  • the value of being in London is so high that no solutions that would involve significant change to London focus are worth considering (you might as well discuss moving to the moon)

We didn’t really explore the question of whether London bias would lead to less appropriate solutions for other parts of the country. Though there was a general sense that this could be a problem.

Solutions

I wasn’t too worried about exploring solutions. I was really keen to see if we could define what (if any) problems there might be. But you can’t stop digital folk trying to fix things.

It was highlighted that there are things in the system trying to address at least some of these problems.

  • Work on recruitment and retention is trying to make a civil service career more attractive to tech-types
  • As I mentioned, digital hubs are being developed outside the capital (and we heard a nice example of where DWP in Leeds is working with other employers to demonstrate to undergrads that there are high quality opportunities if they stay in Yorkshire)
  • Developments like the Digital Services Framework are intended to make it easier for government to buy specialist services from SMEs and, we were told, these suppliers are widely geographically spread
  • Flexible working (hot-desking etc) initiatives are spreading through the civil service

It would be great if we could shift working practices to entirely virtual working. Though this discussion was about digital there is no reason, in principle, why the whole civil service should not operate virtually.

This was UKGovCamp and so we were focused on the public sector but any solution would have to see the whole economy rebalancing to spread skills across the UK. The much vaunted Northern Powerhouse is probably the right sort of idea.

Success metric

I live in Herefordshire (gold star if you have *any* idea where that is). A brand new university is planned to open in the county in 2017. It will focus on STEM subjects. My dream is that someone graduating from there in 2020 could join the civil service and pursue their career to become, in due course, Permanent Secretary while still being based in Herefordshire. Contributing to our economy, being part of our society, making sure the government has a fuller sense of the country it governs.

Is that realistic?

About UKGovCamp

UKGovCamp is an extraordinary thing really. You can find out more about it here http://www.ukgovcamp.com/ukgc2016/

An edited version of the session Jessica and I pitched appears on the UKGovGamp special natteron podcast People collaborated on notetaking during the session.

Photo credit

Autumn River Wye Reflections #Hereford #dailyshoot by Les Haines used under CC BY 2.0.

*by way of example, while at Herefordshire Council we were constantly trying to improve our public transport information. We looked at some simple integrations to a suitable looking API: like the “give me the time of the next bus on this service” request. Unfortunately if there was no bus within 24hrs it returned “no bus”. If you don’t understand why this is a problem have a go at moving around the Welsh borders by bus.

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