Editor’s letter: From universities to councils, and why diversity should be a major part of our coverage

PublicTechnology’s new online editor Rebecca Hill talks about the similarities between her old and new beats, as we launch our series focusing on diversity in public sector technology.

The University of Sheffield – where Rebecca Hill did her undergraduate and PhD – and the city’s council have more in common than impressive buildings – Photo credit: Lee Haywood Flickr / Wikimedia Commons

When announcing my move to join PublicTechnology after four years covering research policy, I was repeatedly told how different my new journalistic stomping ground would be from my old one.

I was, of course, confident there would be some similarities.

I knew, for example, I’d encounter the debates about data protection that are rife in the research world. I was also aware, looking at my contacts book, that some of the academics I had met over the years would come in useful when discussing new technologies.

But, after a couple of months in post, I’ve found far more parallels between the UK’s university network and our country’s local authorities than I had expected.

For a start – even though there are significantly more councils across the UK (more than 400, compared with under 150 universities) – you can’t really refer to either group as a homogenous entity. There is no such thing as “a university” just as there’s no such thing as “a council”.

Both types of body have their own unique personality, shaped by their history, their locality, their community and their neighbours. Not to mention their leader.

Vice-chancellors are true characters – some of them are arrogant, some are open to change, some are born leaders, some classic negotiators. If my instincts are correct, the same is true of council leaders and chief executives.

And those attitudes affect the organisation as a whole. They define who these leaders choose to have at their top table, the way the body responds to challenges and, perhaps most importantly, they set the institutional culture.

Beyond this, the two groups also face similar challenges. They are both under ever-increasing pressure to make “efficiency savings” and to transfer systems online (an agenda sometimes adopted grudgingly, sometimes with gusto).

There’s also a growing acceptance that the people they serve – be they citizens or students – must play a bigger role in how services are designed. There may be different reasons behind this, but both require a change in attitude among staff.

At universities, some lecturers have been shocked that students, now paying through the teeth for their education, are making demands – and it’s forcing them to think more carefully about how they teach. (As an aside, it’s no bad thing for lecturers to be forced into offering engaging lessons, but I dread a race to the bottom in a bid to win points with students and an era of commercial universities.)

For councils, meanwhile, the change that’s required is to embrace new techniques and ways of working – like user-led research – and redesign services so they offer the citizen a smooth process rather than simply delivering the information the council needs.

And one issue I’ve heard discussed at length since I started at PublicTechnology – and one that is no doubt related to institutional culture – is that of diversity.

At a recent event, the topic of unconscious bias training – now something of a buzz-phrase in academic circles – came up, and I was surprised to find that it wasn’t something councils were doing as par for the course.

The tech sector, much like the sciences, is easy to label as being female-unfriendly; a geeky boys’ club. And the makeup of the events I’ve been to so far indicates that diversity more broadly isn’t as good as it could be.

And so, with that in mind, over the coming months, PublicTechnology is going to be getting under the skin of diversity in government tech with a series of articles that look at inclusivity from end-to-end – to coin a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately.

We’ve kicked off at the heart of central government’s digital agenda, with an interview with the leader of the Government Digital Service’s women’s group, Zara Farrar, and will be following it up with diversity in local government.

If you have any thoughts on diversity in public sector tech, or would like to contribute to the series, get in touch with me on rebecca.hill@dods.co.uk


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