This is a post about an Old Testament prophet, but it’s not about theology.
It’s also a post about local government, but it’s not about a local Government Digital Service (GDS).
Last week I sat and watched as one of my colleagues showed off government’s digital wares. Not wares built in the GDS offices in Holborn but the work of people elsewhere in government. It’s going on in almost every department. It’s happening across the country. And it’s happening at pace.
It’s a great party. But it’s invite only, and local government hasn’t been included on the guest list.
And it doesn’t look like local government is going to organise one itself.
There’s a consensus that a radically different approach to local government IT/digital delivery is not just a nice to have but something of an immediate imperative and there’s been a lot of debate about what that might look like and who might start that fire.
One of the organisations that local government looks to for leadership is the Society of Internet Technology Managers (Socitm). Last week I joined my GDS colleagues Tom Loosemore and James Cattell at Old Trafford for their annual conference and it was there that I saw Tom proudly highlight the paradigm shift in central government.
Not every local authority has Socitm membership anymore; there are some doubts about their supplier-led model and I’ve seen Better Connected, their flagship annual survey of local authority websites, come in for some criticism over the last few years. But this two day event should be a valuable resource for IT managers around the country to come together and share their successes, inspired to return to their desks confident that they can play the transformative role that their jobs offer. To hold these roles given the possibilities of the 21st century is an opportunity to cherish.
Sadly, it didn’t seem like that’s the case. James has written up his experience of the event and I’d have to echo his disquiet at the number of delegates who had been at a conference paid for by their local citizens for membership of a group that doesn’t always get the most positive reviews and who had chosen to leave early:
…350 delegates came to the conference. Only 55 were left for the panel discussion. That means 295 people missed the most inspiring part of day 2…
Eleven years ago I had a very profound conversation with my friend Dave. We were sat at the university library cafe talking about a particular institution and how the associated baggage meant you might as well tear it down and start from scratch.
And then Dave dropped Ezekiel into the conversation.
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
In his vision Ezekiel is told by God to prophesy tendons, flesh, skin and life over those bones, he does and the valley is transformed. In that context it’s a message of hope for his people.
In my conversation with Dave it was a check to our enthusiasm for imagining what a new institution might do if it was free from history.
And in the context of last week it’s a relevant observation about the value of existing networks, of active relationships and of institutions that might otherwise be past their best.
As Carrie said to those delegates who were left:
once upon a time this room was full of rebels
Can they roll up their sleeves and get stuck in so that those bones can change by themselves? Failing that there needs to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that’s willing to flatten some mountains or straighten some paths.
Either way, local government, and the public sector as a whole, need to get past the navel gazing and crack on with delivering.
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
Ezekiel does as he’s told and that valley of bones is transformed with life. I wonder what the next year will bring for localgov and its digital journey. I’ve got my own opinions. And I’ve got some hope. But something has got to give, and give soon?