Monday, 8 March 2010

Better Connected, Cabinet Office, good financial advice and R Buckminster Fuller

I cannot begin an account of last week without reference to the fact that 8am on Monday saw the launch of Better Connected 2010. This meant that the weekend was not without some tension and a little lost sleep.

I was in the Socitm Office last year for the launch of BC09 and it was genuinely manic. From 8 am there were phone calls - a lot of them, from people who could not access the material for a whole variety of reasons. This year, as you surely know, we have the recently launched new website....and all the questions around how it would cope. Unlike previous years where we really were constrained by our technology and had to send the same single password out to all Insight subscribers (and only one contact in each organisation received the password......)the new site has intelligent individual authenticated logon so we really do know who you are and where you work and if you have subscribed etc etc....so in theory the system would just let you have it if you had permission to access it and it wouldn't if you didn't. And it worked as we started the day averaging 700 downloads per hour, with very few phone calls. So all in all it was well done the central team who set up the site, turned up early on Monday and made it happen. More on BC10 here

Perhaps a word or two on the new web site, which, by the way, is now fully integrated into our back office CRM system. It has come in for a little criticism following its launch but by and large it is streets ahead of what we had previously in terms of functionality, capability and flexibility for the future. Of course it is not yet as we want it, but we are getting there and we very much appreciate your 'bearing with us' during this beta phase. For those who are not aware of quite how much infrastructure work has been going on within the Society over the last 18 months, we have in this period changed our hosting and e mail service provider without so much as a hiccup for end users, moved our domain to .net, sourced and moved to a totally new data centre, changed our technical support provider, procured and implemented totally new CRM (Gold Vision) and CMS (Jadu) systems and integrated them to each other and the finance system. I realise that many of our members do this kind of thing in their sleep but this has been achieved on a budget of less than £100 K for the systems and with 1 technical member of staff and one webby.... (and a lot of support from our partners) So, while its not perfect it has been a fantastic achievement and it is only the beginning of the process.

So, after that little diversion, it was good to start to the week, albeit unexpectedly, by travelling to London to sub for Martin Ferguson at a meeting in the Cabinet Office considering some of the requirements, opportunities and implications of 'future public service delivery'. Well, it was a little more than attending on his behalf; it was giving a presentation to the assembled group which outlined our take on 'Tomorrow's public services'.

Whilst not being able to report much of the detail of the meeting at this stage, it was refreshing in its honesty and the depth with which participants were prepared to share about the barriers and cultural issues that still exist, particularly, but not exclusively, between central and local government. These issues will be ignored at our peril and to the detriment of the quality and efficiency of future public services. However, there was also a genuine optimism based upon the opportunities we can all see in identifying and moving forward in a more collaborative and open way. Unlike many such meetings I have attended it was not just 'nice sounding words built on the foundations of zero intention'. There was genuine intention move us forward towards the goal of 100% digital delivery of all appropriate services. As we considered the notional concept of 'digital place' it was good to do so within a framework in which real people, real communities, real businesses and their needs were the drivers and in which digital issues had in mind real benefit for users not simply enforced migration to cheaper delivery channels (although in today's climate there is no escaping this factor).

One of the messages that Socitm is very eager to place at the forefront of people's thinking is that or better (not just more) for less. The introduction of a serious qualitative element is, for us, very important because in the public sector we do not and should not inhabit the warehouse festooned world driven by a particular "stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap" retail mentality. Nor for that matter should we flirt too closely with the budget airline philosophy which rather disingenuously seeks to bedazzle with 'good value' prices only to leave you paying and paying again for anything remotely resembling satisfactory quality. We did hear a rather amusing example (well, it would be amusing if it were not true) of a particular project (which will remain nameless) whose programme board decided to investigate to the nth degree a budget variance of £1M (which represented a relatively insignificant proportion of the total budget) and spent more than £1M conducting the 'inquisition'.... It would be wrong to finish on such a sceptical note as that would not at all give a fair representation of the meeting. Many of the discussions around subjects such as the Total Place pilots and 'Tell us once' certainly demonstrated that there is innovation happening, that there is both opportunity and maybe even emerging 'solid evidence' for a genuine 'paradigm shift' in our approach to public service delivery. Then it was off to Birmingham to meet with Glyn Evans over a pleasant meal at Chez Jules (recommend it if you are stuck for a place to eat in the middle of Brum).

On Tuesday I was at the next in a series of meetings with our Consulting business team during which we are looking at ways in which we can further and more effectively develop not only this particular area of our work but also how, as an organisation, we can operate in a more integrated and coherent way to produce better value for our members and more effective processes within our businesses....we are making progress. Next stop Lincoln, to meet with our finance director and finance manager in preparation for a meeting with our financial advisors Wright Vigar. I highly recommend them as purveyors of direct no nonesense financial advice - in plain English, now what more could you want? . We are in the process of forward planning, looking specifically at the governance and financial structures of the organisation over the next 36 - 48 months. There is a game plan..... and we are fast approaching the point where it will be sufficiently robust and coherent to take it outdoors......so to speak. The rest of the week (it is Wednesday evening and I am currently on a train northwards - that's the right way for those in any doubt) will be spent at home putting further detail around the outputs from some of these meetings.
And finally....this is a great quote (at least I think it is) and particularly relevant to what goes on in the name of 'progress' within some of the 'transformation' agenda.


If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem. -
R. Buckminster Fuller

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