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Embracing failure, and what it means to be connected: an interview with Cllr Peter Fleming, chair of LGA Improvement and Innovation Board

7 min

c. Google Alphabet Inc.

The latest Digital Connectivity Programme from the Local Government Association (LGA) seeks to build on successful – and failed – projects of digital connectivity in local governments’ past. But what does it mean to be truly connected? And what can be learned by the private sector? Quadrant sits down with Cllr Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council and chair of the LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board, to find out more

Although the Coronavirus pandemic has lead local governments to rely more than ever before on connectivity and connected infrastructure, being ‘digital’ has long been an aspiration at the Local Government Association (LGA).

Cllr Peter Fleming, leader, Sevenoaks District Council, and chair of LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board

In 2014, the LGA launched the Digital Experts funding programme, supporting 42 councils to build digital skills in staff; the Digital Transformation programme, in 2016, funded councils to support the wider use of emerging technologies in health and social care, public health, and welfare reform, amongst other sectors; the Digital Channel Shift programme, launched last year, then sought to make sure council services were digitally accessible: “Instead of it being the same way but just digitally, thinking about different ways of delivering this services in a completely different way, albeit on a digital platform,” says Cllr Peter Fleming OBE, chairman of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board.

For the leader of Sevenoaks District Council, the varying projects highlight how the intention to share best practice in going digital “was always there,” but the rampant and virulent effects of the pandemic have highlighted how connectivity – not just in physical infrastructure, but using digital to be emotionally connected to the residents of the area – is important now more than ever.

If you can’t even get online, then you’ve got an issue

“We’re really wanting to be about the widest possible meaning of the word connectivity: not just to mean the sort of technical ‘I’ve got poor WiFi’, or ‘I can’t get a mobile signal’ and instead thinking about the wider context of connectivity,” Peter explained to Quadrant. “I think clearly [connectivity] is now a much greater focus, because people who may, in the past, would swear and curse at their mobile or their digital connectivity – are now screaming, because that is now a major part of all of our lives. People rely on it, if they’ve been asked to shield for example, or the reliance on home delivery of food. If you can’t even get online, then you’ve got an issue.”

Embracing innovation with The Digital Connectivity Programme

The latest iteration in building a digital local government infrastructure, the Digital Connectivity Programme, is a £130k LGA scheme, inviting local councils to apply for £20,000 in funding for six projects around England. “Really, it’s about councils coming forward with proposals about how they are looking to solve their particular connectivity programme,” Cllr Fleming said.

Torbay Council’s public services platform from a previous LGA digital connectivity programme c. LGA

“Whether that’s a rural council looking at what their opportunities are to solve issues that might be around mobile connectivity, or rural businesses, all the way up to our core cities, and what they’re trying to do around connectivity.” Whilst £20,000 may be a humble sum to major cities around the UK, Peter noted how the funding could be used to kick-start a project or get one over the line.

Managers of the programme are in particular looking for a confluence of local councils – joint two-tiered approaches, public-private partnerships, a mix of sizes and make-ups of local authorities around the country, and a buy-in from that council’s leadership team – to “improve connectivity potential,” and encourage digital inclusion and reduce the digital divide in their area.

There’s often great work going on, and it may be of value to the council where that work is ongoing, but it may not necessarily benefit the whole of the sector

Applicants will need to showcase how the project will improve connectivity experienced by communities, as well as breaking down projected spending, and how the wider learning will be transferrable to other councils around the nation. “I think the great thing about the LGA,” proudly claimed Peter. “There’s often great work going on, and it may be of value to the council where that work is ongoing, but it may not necessarily benefit the whole of the sector.

“What these programmes do is get projects over the line, but it also promotes best practice across the sector.”

Being okay with failing – and taking a leaf from private’s book

Cllr Fleming noted how, whilst successful projects from previous schemes and ones from this connectivity programme are of course welcomed and to be celebrated, sometimes failed projects are crucial to get to the point of a truly innovative digital service. “Particularly when you think about innovation in all of its terms, it’s not always about a project being fully successful, or fully meeting its desired outcomes. For us, particularly in a membership organisation with the sorts of numbers of members we’ve had – we’ve had 300 member councils – of equal value is the learning that is taken away from it for the whole sector,” explained the Sevenoaks District Council leader.

That classic thing about innovation, particularly around the private sector, is for every one success, there’s been 99 failures in getting to that point

“What worked well? What didn’t work well? Is it replicable? Is it something we can do at scale? A lot of what the LGA does is around that: we are never going to be able to fund every programme, but what we can do is we can fund some programmes, and then really disseminate all of that information to all of our members, so they can then see what has worked, see what hasn’t.

Gloucester City Council local government services app c. LGA

“That classic thing about innovation, particularly around the private sector, is for every one success, there’s been 99 failures in getting to that point, at least.” Cllr Fleming continued to note how, in the public sector, “we can’t afford that,” in spending for value on behalf of the taxpayer, but if an interesting project doesn’t work out, “it’s better that we’ve funded one council to go on that journey, than 50 councils going on that journey, and all finding out that it doesn’t work,” said Peter.

This embrace of private sector thinking was distilled by Peter using his example of the Google Alphabet Project Loon concept. Using weather balloons to provide connectivity above the amazon rainforest, the Loon project was highlighted by Cllr Fleming as that embracement of private sector thinking to encourage innovation: “I asked the question of why don’t we do our own Project Loon?” Peter said. “I don’t think the £20,000 will cover that – but sometimes in local government, we have to steal from other people in terms of if a solution isn’t forthcoming from government, and we need to look at what is happening in the private sector, what’s happening around the world, what are those other solutions.

“As the chair of the Improvement and Innovation Board, it’s about looking at these programmes – but driving that view that we should be trying to innovate, even in difficult times. We should be always trying to pursue, moving forward.”

Whilst you may not see any WiFi weather balloons over Sevenoaks in Kent any time soon, this harnessing of innovative thinking is crucial for local government in building connectivity – both physically and mentally – across councils in England to give the most in-need residents the connectivity they deserve.

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