Public Services > Local Government

How digital drives a business mindset in the public sector

Published 01 August 2017

James Collingridge, partnership manager at Peterborough City Council, discusses two key issues from the recent annual Local Government Association conference: commercialisation and innovation


While I was at this year’s annual Local Government Association conference I heard a lot of the usual chatter around “tight budget cuts putting pressure on local authorities to innovate”.

But as you would expect the level to which councils have implemented innovation within their organisation varies, especially for digital services.

This is reflected in this year’s International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) which found that out of 31 countries, the UK came out top in terms of policymaking but was only in the top 5 in terms of digital delivery.

From the show floor, there was one theme that kept cropping up again and again: with the snap election collapsing the Local Government Finance Bill, the future funding of councils is as questionable as ever.

As a result, commercialisation is moving from being considered an interesting opportunity to an essential strategy in many eyes. This is an area where my team and I have forged ahead in recent years, and had many conversations about our own journey and examples.

For example:

Empower Peterborough is a project that benefits the Council and the wider Peterborough community as they receive free solar panels and save on their energy with surplus revenues shared between the Council and a Local Community Fund. This project is not only run in Peterborough but has led to more than 5,000 social homes in the UK receiving free panels which generates further income to protect services in the city.

Garden Waste collection -- in this case, we were able to save over £800k by moving garden waste collection to a commercial model. Key to this was implementing features like payment in the least frustrating way possible, leading us to use GoCardless digital direct debit.

At the recent conference we also heard how other commercially-minded councils were using their assets, trading services with others across the public and private sectors, and selling commodities to generate income. This included Cllr Peter Fleming at Sevenoaks District Council,  the first council to be financially self-sufficient as a result of their income generation activities.

Innovation impacting incentives 

An interesting element of commercialisation is how it transforms the incentives in the public sector. Instead of supply of public money and the pressure of deciding how to use it, the characteristics are much more like the private sector. If you can create services that people want, and market them effectively, the funds arrive in payment.

This requires public sector organisations to go beyond the “citizen = customer” rhetoric and really double down on experiences and innovations that are competitive with any others out there.

We expect we may see an increasingly tiered nature to the public sector, with the councils who are able to innovate reinvesting income to protect services and in future innovation, and these lessons cascading down to the rest of the ecosystem.

In this way, the trickle down effect can improve public services for all.

How can you take your organisation into the tier of proper commercialisation?

Here are the key areas we recommend to start with:

Payment: if you make it painful to pay for a service, especially if it used to be free, then it’s a non-starter. Payment doesn’t have to be difficult -- you can provide well designed native options like Stripe or GoCardless for direct debit, that are competitive with any startup out there.

Digital: In 2017 it should go without saying, but citizens value digital experiences highly. They also come with general refinements including the ability to learn from data and improve the service over time.

Marketing: Here, you have to think about what you can achieve with zero budget, through your existing channels. Again, this is an area where startups think all the time, trying to build a community and work up advocates who can pass the message on on their behalf. These communities are already your core demographic, and you should not underestimate how quickly word spreads.

Pushing things forward

From our perspective, upcoming projects include a “city lottery”, which is on the cusp of a green light and a closer look at technology to assist adult social care, a perennial and growing challenge.

Perhaps the real value of shows like this is in spreading awareness of what other councils are doing at the edge of commercialisation. Perhaps if they bring together the second tier of councils still learning, their purpose can be to accelerate dispersion of these new ways of thinking.

I imagine those who attend again next year will be able to find out for sure.

Related articles:

Digital initiatives: looking beyond the technology


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