One day, back in 2005, council worker Dominic Campbell found an unsolicited email in his inbox. The email was inviting him to a business breakfast on ‘customer insight’. The breakfast was at Mosimann’s and it was free, so Dominic thought ‘why not?’
At the time, Dominic was working in a back office for the IT department of the local council in Barnet, one of London’s leafier outer boroughs. He had been there for five years (since graduating in Geography from Manchester University), and was relatively happy with his lot.
Then, at the breakfast, he met James Governor from the UK consultancy, Redmonk.
“He was just completely bananas and brilliant. He said there was this thing called del.icio.us and this thing called salesforce. And we were just nowhere [in terms of using these new tools].
“I tried to get James in to the council to open them up and get them to understand this stuff. I completely failed…but James did enough to inspire me to leave and set up on my own.”
Dominic is sitting with me (ironically enough), in the walled garden of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington. He’s clearly relieved that he took the chance to set up Futuregov because, three years on, things have come full circle.
Dominic is now back at Barnet Council, but working as a consultant, and implementing the kind of IT solutions he only dreamt of as an employee.
A bit of background: Barnet Council is led by Councillor Mike Freer, who blogs at www.leaderlistens.com. Outside Barnet, not many people in the UK have heard of Mike, but he may be about to become a bit more of a household name. He’s due to stand in Margaret Thatcher’s old constituency, East Finchley, in the next election and is tipped for the Cabinet if David Cameron wins.
Ever since Webcameron, the Tories have been upping the ante to Labour over which party does new media best. So it’s in Freer’s interests to look web 2.0 savvy. In fact, he’s done such a good job, that even Labour are keen to get involved in his work (the DCCG recently invested a significant amount in ‘social marketing’ for Barnet council).
All in all, a good time for Dominic to be around, then?
“Barnet is at the vanguard of redefining what a council is. They’re trying to work out how they can become an enabler [for the people] in their area. They’re trying to do something better than sending out Surveymonkey surveys. They’re trying to open up the policy-making process.”
I tried to get James in to the council to open them up and get them to understand this stuff. I completely failed…but James did enough to inspire me to leave and set up on my own.”
Barnet runs a project called ‘The Future Shape of Barnet’ in which it attempts to redefine the role of the local authority, and how it should work.
As part of this project, the council is engaging with residents and crowdsourcing ideas from staff and residents alike using web 2.0 technologies (with the help of Futuregov). Barnet now uses wikis on its intranet, and has got a page on Facebook.
“OK, so there’s only 25 fans at the moment, and they’re all council employees, but the very fact Barnet is on Facebook moves it to a different place.”
All well and good, but the fact that Barnet is so unusual says a lot about the state of play in the IT systems of local government.
“Anything freewear or open source is seen as flakey or dangerous. There’s a saying that you won’t get fired for buying Microsoft. All these people are Microsoft certified and Microsoft is flooding local government. Almost every time I go into a council I walk past a SharePoint salesman.”
Isolation is another problem:
“For people working in councils, the only contact they get with the outside world is when someone visits from SAP, Logica or Microsoft. This person tells them that whatever they’re selling is cutting edge, and they’ll hand over £1 million.”
So what are the chances of all this changing?
“Putting organisations like that into a network instead of running them as walled hierarchies is a massive step. At the moment it’s only beginning to happen, and that’s just in marketing.
“It’s gotta be another twenty years [until things really start to change]. The people in their twenties now who’ve grown up with computers, they’re the ones who are going to do all this [web 2.0] stuff naturally.”
But for Dominic, the future for genuine social change should really be outside the hands of local government altogether:
“To be honest, I’d rather government step back and let the social innovators [private entrepreneurs] do stuff. Local government should actually worry about little else than being a series of listening posts, keeping an ear to the ground on what people really need and want.”
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