Socitm President’s Conference: In conversation with Martin Ferguson

Martin Ferguson2

With the excitement around the Socitm President’s Conference growing more and more by the day, we wanted to catch up with some of this year’s speakers to find out what they’re most looking forward to at the event and why you can’t afford to miss it! Read the interview below, which is the first instalment of our President’s Conference Speaker Q&As.

Martin Ferguson, Socitm’s director of policy and research, will be delivering the keynote address on the first day of the conference. His thought-provoking presentation will explore what lies in store for the future of public services.

 

Q1. What does it mean to be the keynote speaker for the first-ever Socitm President’s Conference?

A. I’m excited to be both keynote speaker and part of the team producing the first-ever Socitm President’s Conference.

In a year when so much in Socitm is changing – totally refreshed national and regional conferences, our new packages of Improve services, a revamped Inform research programme and a vibrant Socitm Advisory service – working with our members and partners, we have so much to offer!

Q2. What do you think the public sector might look like in 2030?

A. Public services are at a tipping point. Either we grasp a future that is ethical and secure, where public services conjoin to achieve politically contested outcomes supporting the well-being and prosperity of people in places, or we run the risks that harnessing data and new technologies threaten to undermine the very fabric of our society.

Q3. Is local government making sufficient use of technology, and is it using it well?

A. We have many leading examples reflecting the rich tapestry and diversity of places throughout the UK, while adhering to the principles of: Simplify – Standardise – Share.
Our series of Socitm Inform guides on Smart Places, Location Intelligence and Shared Services reveal a myriad of examples. While lack of capacity, investment, skills and risk adversity are just some of the barriers to be overcome in pursuit of innovation, we have outstanding examples of digital leadership: some of the leading exponents exist in local government in the UK (see our Modern Leadership Guide 6).

Q4. How do local authorities introduce software-based automation in a fair and ethical way? For example, should citizens be told they are talking to software, or is it OK to pretend they are talking to another human?

A. For me, the issue is not to whom the citizen is talking. Rather, it is whether a quality outcome is being delivered. The public are increasingly well-used to ‘talking’ to automated telephone systems, to interacting with maps depicting online order deliveries, to watching interactive TV and audio, to booking trains, flights, hotels and holidays online, to managing a host of specific home, work and leisure services through apps and, now to physically talking to technology based systems.

The trick is to ensure that the benefits and the outcomes are transparent to the user, rather than the frustration of being directed into some kind of technology ‘black hole’. If data is required, then explain why, assess the risks of sharing versus not sharing information, and only then do it.

Q5. How should staff be asked to work with automation – training software to eventually take over their jobs, or in partnership?

A. We need to be honest and open with staff about what is in prospect – not to give them a ‘fait accompli’, but to give them the opportunity to engage with the challenge and to become a part of the solution. We need to say to our staff: “Do your job as best you can, but always ask yourself, why do I do this, is it still necessary and can it be done better?” Innovation is everyone’s job.

This is the approach that has been taken at Aylesbury Vale District Council, where they have turned the organisation inside out, dispensing with traditional service departments and working with their staff to co-design and co-create services that have the well-being of citizens, local businesses and the place at their heart.

Q6. Why do you think adoption of new technology has been slower in the public sector versus the private sector?

A. We need to see the adoption of technology less as competition, more as co-opetition – local authorities working with the best that the private sector and its entrepreneurship can bring to innovate solutions and a future that benefits the well-being of people, places and productivity. Blind adoption of technology for its own sake benefits no-one.

Big outsourcing projects and public-private finance (PFI) initiatives have fossilised inputs and failed to deliver on outcomes, instead mortgaging the future against the present.
We would do well to look at the lessons from the likes of CivTech in Scotland, Data Mill North and new, streamlined approaches to procurement and partnership working with start-ups and SMEs in cities like Antwerp.

Q7. As the automation age inevitably draws ever closer and we see human roles evolve with the advent of machines, what can authorities do to prepare for the changes to come?

A. Encourage your staff to look outwards, not inwards. Adopt a constructively critical mindset. Engage at every level – with citizens and businesses, with universities and communities, with local and global interests. Above all, constantly seek to learn and be generous with your knowledge and expertise.

Q8. What advice would you give to anyone deciding whether or not to come along to the Socitm President’s Conference?

A. Broaden your horizons. Come prepared to give something to your colleagues. Be surprised by what you receive. Above all make the effort to come and participate. You won’t be disappointed.

 

The event in Glasgow on 8 and 9 May promises to inspire the Socitm community through a phenomenal line-up of expert speakers paired with a knockout conference agenda.

You can find out more information about the conference agenda and read Martin’s full profile here.

Socitm President’s Conference: In conversation with Martin Ferguson

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