Tuesday 12 October 2010

Butterflies and Hurricanes

Working in public sector is a challenge. At the moment, it is a massive challenge. The political, financial, economic and cohesive challenges are each massive issues in their own right. To be subject to each of these vagaries on a daily basis can be disheartening, can sap anyones relentless enthusiasm and determination.
Change everything you are
And everything you were
Your number has been called
Numbers up. Funding's gone. Grants pulled. Questions asked. Relentless questions asked. Quangos abolished, rules of the game spun 180 on us in the space of 6 months. Workloads doubling, will be tripled, eventually quadrupled? Who knows. Hatches battened and posts left empty, hanging swinging in the wind. A service on pause while those who are in power decide our futures, our funding, our frameworks and our hopes to deliver a service which is fit for purpose but also efficient; inspiring and innovative but also locked down to a tight budget.

Change. Change everything? Do you want to be a player in the digital future? Do you want your service to be accessible and relevant to the people you serve, who you were elected by? Can you conceive of a world where eyeball time is precious and reserved for those who are family and friends, where paying the bill is a slice of time carefully allocated, something to be whizzed through painlessly in 30 seconds, as easily as purchasing the weekly shop at Sainsburys or the aquisition of a new pair of shoes from Asos?

This country is going digital whether you like it or not. Your protestations that people use it only for fun and chatter are becoming akin to the sound of the last dinosaurs roaring as the meteorites came cascading down. Facebook brings people with similar concerns together, allows people to express the frustrations that previously were expressed across a garden fence. Except now there are 3000 garden fences and all the chatter becomes frustration becomes action and movement. Letters are written digitally through 38 Degrees. Potholes are reported through Fix My Street. People are connected through hashtags on Twitter. Connected. Digitally. Armies of people who care, who want to contribute, who have the time, who are asking the question repeatedly and relentlessly 'how can I contribute, how can I make a difference, how can I fix a problem, where can I give this time I have spare, I want to help, how do I help?'

If it isn't your job to convene these people, if it isn't your job to talk to these people, if it isn't your remit to engage with these people, then whose job is it?

No more talking. No more waiting for the floodgates to open. They are opening. The avalanche will drown you if you do not put into place the systems and workflows to deal with all of this. If you don't happen to have a friendly geek in your orgnisation who can and will explain all of this to you in words of one syllable, put a call out on Twitter, ask one of the many Heads of Service and Directors who you know who are digitally aware. Ask them the questions - if they can't answer the question, they will know someone who can. There'll be an innovator, a changer, an enthusiast, a geek - whatever you want to call us - near you who will come and speak to you and explain. There are conferences online and offline. Make the effort. Oftentime, all it will take is one question to the right person. If you don't know who the right person is, find someone who does. We'll help. This isn't some exclusive club. This is a patchwork of assistance and patience waiting on tap for you to call.
Best, you've got to be the best
You've got to change the world
And use this chance to be heard
Your time is now
Bridges have to be built. Someone has to stand in the middle. The external understanding of the challenges and directives that the public sector is subject to is limited. A few, a very few, understand because they left before the aspirations and shine could be pummelled out of them. The internal understanding of how digital will and can change is growing. Public sector has an image, it appears, of the antithesis of incubation of ideas, innovation, doing things differently and flying by the seat of the pants.


The challenge of the public sector where digital is concerned is to only understand this. Innovation happens in the wriggle room we all find in the spaces around the barriers. Great things are happening in little pockets of the country, ordinary people stepping up to the plate and doing extraordinary things. I am trying to be someone who finds the wriggle room, who remains relentlessly positive, who doesn't think about 'we can't' but instead thinks 'how can we?'. It's not an attitude I've always had in the public sector and it's a new feeling, I suspect, for quite a few people. It's as if a generation of leaders and inspirations were holding their breath, and the time to let it out and get to work has come and is finally here.

I don't want to be better than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone else. I have to be the best I can be. If that means brainstorming 100 ideas and only 1 of them being viable, only one of them having the capability to wriggle under the barriers, then so be it. If I am told no, then I will simply come back with a different idea, shaped differently, phrased differently. Public sector life doesn't have to be about being mediocre, it doesn't have to be about the bad pay cheque and the dwindling pension. It can be about forgetting all about that and simply seeing the challenge, focusing on the challenge and trying the best you can to do the best with what you are given, no matter how little that might be.

It is easy to innovate with endless cash. It is easy to imagine the world redrawn with funding streams and grants. Now the challenge is for us, all of us, in cities, towns and villages, in schools and in hospitals, to try and think of ways to allow us to deliver more for less. Digital has to be part of the answer. To ignore it entirely is to miss the bus. There will be no thanks for doing this, there will be no recognition. There's no credit or fame or glory in working in the public sector.

All there is is a challenge. A problem to be solved. A barrier to be wriggled under. A digital option to be considered.

Your time is now.


  1. brilliant.
    wish there were more like you out there... perhaps there may be, perhaps you are a butterfly who hatched early? or perhaps you are the hurricane that blows away all the dross and shows us the shiny centre of the public sector?
    wish you worked in effin whitehall hun.

  2. There's an army. Honestly. Some are on Twitter, some are not, some are at Solace 2010 right now, some are not. Some came to City Camp London and some did not but they're there. I just shout a little louder cos I'm gobby as all hell. This is aimed at the Councils on pause, the ones who know their residents are digital already and aren't serving them in that way and sadly, they are out there too. They'll get there. I get the distinct feeling that now is when the pause button gets released. Now is when we have to start helping, enabling and being patient with the barrage of questions which will inevitably come.
    Whitehall. Well. I wonder how gobby they could deal with. Not so sure.