Local Digital UK Gov London Roadshow

(This is cross-posted from my Medium account, so if you read it there, it’s pretty much the same!)

Last week I attended the London Roadshow for Local Digital UK Gov (part of the MHCLG). These are my notes and thoughts on the day.

Introduction to the day

The start of the day was a number of talks from staff at the MHCLG and those working on projects with them. It was a good introduction to what was going on in the department and how local authorities are getting involved.

The overarching sense was that the MHCLG team are trying to help get councils into an open multi-disciplinary movement and avoid any ‘Us V Them’ feeling. It’s about developing shared understandings and getting us out of the ‘contracts and culture’ hard box many of us are in.

So far there are around 20 project teams and 16 funded projects. The applications for all of these are online to look through.

We also got some good insight into the goals of the collaboration unit:

  • they are trying to be the missing glue
  • they want to create reusable goals (I wrote goals in my notes, but I’m not sure I meant goals. Perhaps this should have been products?)
  • all work output to a wiki with a common language for re-use
  • learn how to document the reusable stuff

The units ambitions for quarter four are:

  • nurturing the projects and observe and learn from them
  • Pipeline
  • 4 roadshows
  • more GDS academy training (4 credits per signed up council)

Monitoring the projects

Sam Villis spoke about how they are monitoring the funded projects and all the ways they are working in the open to foster collaboration. There was a lot here that’s going on and they are looking for examples of best practice. Hopefully once these are found, we’ll get some information on the best practice!

New for local gov from GDS

GDS are trying to support local gov and their intention is to listen and adapt to council needs. A part of this is looking at the tech codes of practice and making sure it addresses local authority needs. The service standards will also be changed to address the public sector, rather than the language of central government.

Other bits of interest:

  • the GDS Academy is working to develop local authority training, such as how to retrain staff to avoid digital displacement
  • Notify and Pay to be web services
  • new accessibility laws — GDS will be the kind of regulator (it would be so helpful to actually know what this means though!)

Following the more general talks were a couple of presentations of work that is currently going on with two projects. I didn’t take so many notes here but it looks like lots is going on!

Unconference sessions

Sessions on the wall with dot voting
My sessions on the wall.

The main bulk of the day was a number of unconference style sessions. These were pitched in advance, and on the day. I do like the ability to move around in a conference! There is nothing worse than being sat in one spot all day! I also really liked the dot voting approach and not having to explain a pitch out loud! That said, perhaps in in-advance crib sheet of all the sessions might help explain the topic more as without the 30 second pitch, it’s hard to gauge quite what will be discussed.

Session 1: web content — let’s talk

This was the session I pitched once I realised not one of the topics available was on content. For me, content is fundamental to the digital experience so needs to be considered and talked about.

I probably could have written a more specific question to discuss, but I didn’t want to limit it. This meant that the first part of the session was defining the conversation. Lots of different points of interest in the room, from chat bots and single sources of the truth for all types of content delivery, to standards guidance and finding out what our users want and how we can deliver it.

The conversation was quite varied but we had one big question: what should a local authority website do? Whilst I think most of us in the room are clear that council sites exist to help customers transact in some way, be that reporting a missed bin or booking onto an event, there are still a lot of councils with news focused sites. It would be a fascinating bit of research to look into this more and see how many sites are still pushing news over services and the customer satisfaction ratings for this. What exactly do customers want?

There was a sense that there needs to be more of an understanding that customers don’t necessarily want the best face of the council, they just want to be able to do something. Therefore the conversation needs to look at removing the friction of getting processes done. The service blueprint has to be from the point of view of the customer.

The question was also asked around how do we as professionals have better conversations with teams? Some of the advice that was given was to benchmark, to evidence and to look at all the journeys, online and offline.

There also needs to be more support for user research. This isn’t valued in many councils though and if this is something you can’t get support for, then one way is try to tap into the call centre. There were some good ideas:

  • get the call centre to ask customers on the phone if they used the website first, and if they did, what went wrong
  • sit and listen to calls for a day and find out pain points

These are things that can probably be arranged in short order, and don’t cost more than some time. Definitely something that I will be trying to arrange over the coming weeks.

Session 2: To do or not to do digital accessibility

One topic hitting close to home for local authorities right now is accessibility. Thankfully Melanie from Kent raised the topic and we all got to have a group therapy session on the difficulties the new legislation is presenting.

Kent have managed to get it into processes that nothing goes live without it being WCAG 2.0 but this hasn’t solved all the problems. They were still facing issues with suppliers saying they were compliant, but on review, were not.More to the point, suppliers didn’t even understand many of the accessibility issues that needed solving. There was some concern that we will have to resort to up-skilling the private sector in order to be compliant.

There was also a lot of discussion around training and issues with getting council staff involved. We thought a cliff notes to accessibility and mandatory training would be useful. A GDPR like push in understanding may also be necessary.

A couple of takeaways that others are doing that I want to investigate:

  • use the GDS accessibility personas
  • run lunchtime ‘accessibility lab’ sessions with tools mimicking disabilities to show the necessity of being accessible
  • review the Ofcom 2019 report to get managers more aware of the impact of NOT doing these things

I also had a chat with Sam later in the day around concerns about local authorities being able to meet accessibility rules, especially when it came to PDFs and tables (one of the things I am currently working on). She mentioned taking a look at:

Session 3: Pipeline

Sailboat exercise on the wall
Explaining the sailboat exercise

During this session we did the sailboat exercise to find out how to keep people using Pipeline after initial excitement dies down. I don’t really know much about Pipeline right now, but as an exercise it was a useful tool for finding out a range of information quickly. Even when the topic is not familiar it’s a great experience to run through new research exercises like this.

Session 4: What if the senior manager says no?

We ended up rephrasing this session as ‘how do we get senior manger buy in?’ which worked better and was more positive. There was some moaning, of course, but attendees also shared how to get things done. Highlights included:

  • work with the willing
  • ask ‘how can we help you?’ and try and fit digital in with existing priorities
  • look at the cost of not doing a thing — sell the return of investment!
  • customer services can be your biggest allies so work with them.
  • give services more responsibility to engage them


Hackney Marsh
Time for some reflection

At the end of the conference we were led through a 1–2–4-all liberating structure. This was a really nice end to the day as it allowed a bit of reflection and decompression before heading home.

It also meant reviewing a little what I got out of the day whilst still engaged. It’s often all too easy to just switch off after long days.

My biggest thought was that it is so good to get together with other local authority colleagues. A lot of it was the therapy of talking with others in a similar situation. Sharing our problems in a safe space is helpful and will hopefully, in time, lead to more shared action.

Finishing editing this early on Saturday morning in a car ride to Cardiff, I can’t help but keep reflecting on the day and all the ideas it produced. My brain is buzzing and full with thoughts on research opportunities, on the challenges to come and of the support we can get once we are signed up to the declaration.

The positive possibilities for the future of digital in local authorities are there. We just need to embrace it.