Interview: Simon Parker, Redbridge Council’s incoming strategy director, on agile working, data and transformation

Written by Rebecca Hill on 5 August 2016 in Features

Simon Parker, the outgoing director of the NLGN think tank, reflects on six years in the job and tells Rebecca Hill how he plans to use digital approaches in his move to Redbridge Council 

Redbridge in North-east London - Photo credit: Flickr, diamond geezer

Simon Parker doesn’t profess to be a digital expert – indeed a direct question on the changes to councils’ approach to digital over the last decade elicits a short pause followed by the assertion that he “isn’t close enough to answer in detail”.

Despite this, in the course of an hour’s interview to mark his departure from the local government think tank NLGN, Parker readily discusses hackathons, agile working and the opportunities big data offers councils.

It also transpires that he quoted the founder of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, when he was interviewed for his new job, as corporate director of strategy at Redbridge council in London.

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So what are Parker's thoughts on digital and local government?

“The main thing is that it isn’t about the tech,” he says. “Digital implies and demands certain types of behaviour and cultures – agile working wants you to iterate, experiment and find ways of doing things in the real world – and that’s really good.”

The concept of agile working has piqued Parker’s interest. “I haven’t really heard about it in other worlds beyond tech,” he says. “What’s interesting about agile is that it feels risky because the people at the top of the organisation aren’t in control of what’s coming out at the other end. You have to trust the middle-managers of frontline staff to redefine services.”

It’s the iterative approach that appeals to him, he says – “instinctively that’s the way I like working” – and it’s clear that this is something he has made good use of over his six years at NLGN.

The think tank, founded in 1996 as the New Local Government Network, has seen major changes since Parker – who had previously worked at Demos and the Institute for Government – took the helm in 2010. His move coincided with the arrival of the new Coalition government and many of the changes were necessitated by the demands of austerity – NLGN's public sector members no longer had the big bucks they had been used to.

But it’s clear that Parker would have wanted to make changes without the financial pressure facing the organisation.

“We all have these instincts about the way we want to work,” he says. “I’m not very formal and I like to do things quickly. It turned out that kind of agility was exactly what NLGN needed.

“If you went back to 2010, you'd find an organisation that was an absolute machine. It churned out events, but in the world we were moving into, we needed to churn out ideas and respond to the outside world.”

He also instigated a change of location, from a corporate environment where senior staff sat in glass-walled offices to a co-working space with the 11-strong team spread across a couple of big desks.

“I didn’t want us to be a place that had a big shiny office with our name on the door. I wanted us to be a place that directed its resources towards making change happen in the world; a place that could rapidly develop and fund new projects,” Parker says.

Now, the team uses its resources wisely – like most small think tanks it often finds itself living hand-to-mouth – to help councils transform themselves, bringing together the people with the best ideas and sharing them across the sector.

This ranges from the standard research expected of a think tank to applying the methods behind hackathons to encourage people to think about their problems differently. (He later notes with an ever-so-slight hint of frustration that some local government leaders still prefer pragmatism to what might appear to be out-there ideas.)

Digital isn’t a solution

Is digital one way of getting councils to think differently about services?

“I don’t think anyone has the sense digital is the solution,” he says. “Will it solve the adult social care crisis? No.

“But if you’re not moving into the digital age, you’re not keeping up with the residents.”

His argument is a familiar one: people want to engage with their council in the same way as they engage with retailers, restaurants or banks.

“A lot of people are happy accessing services online. Some people aren’t, but that’s an increasingly small number,” he says. “You’ll still need some people to help those who don’t want to go online, or for when the system isn’t working, but digital helps you automate a lot of what is, essentially, boring menial work.”

This won’t, he says, “replace humanity” – instead it will save money and time to free up resources and people for the services that really need face-to-face contact.

But we’re not there yet, he says. “I still feel like we’re only at the beginning of exploring what digital can do. It’s still very transactional, and focused on moving customer services online.

“We’re not seeing a shift to digital being used to build communities, we’re only at the beginning of seeing digital being used as a democratic tool, and we can make much better use of data and analytics in local government.”

And, coming back to the question of how much digital has affected councils in the past decade, Parker says that he isn’t sure it has “penetrated the DNA” of most councils yet. “I don’t know what it will look like,” he says, “but it'll be quite a lot different to how it looks now.”

What does this mean for his new job? Redbridge isn’t known for being a mover-and-shaker in the digital world – what attracted Parker to the role?

“Redbridge is a borough that’s about to go places,” he says, adding that by the time he joins in the autumn, there will be a new top team on the corporate side. “Things have been quiet, but there’s bags of ambition. I wanted to go somewhere that I could help transform.”

Parker’s enthusiasm for making changes seems at odds with his decision to take on a strategic – rather than operational – role. But he counters that strategy means different things to different people.

“In local government, strategy has to be connected with driving real change on the ground,” he says, pausing to consider his next anecdote.

“I quoted Mike Bracken when I was applying for the job: ‘The strategy is delivery’. He might have been too exuberant about its potential to change everything, but it stuck with me. If strategy isn’t delivering real change then we’re doing it wrong.”

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Submitted on 8 August, 2016 - 14:14
Simon, Two great statements: A) “What’s interesting about agile is that it feels risky because the people at the top of the organisation aren’t in control of what’s coming out at the other end. You have to trust the middle-managers of frontline staff to redefine services.” B) "Digital isn’t a solution" Both these statements need to be acknowledged to enable effective citizen services. The greatest challenges are presented to those leaders who need to portray the 'illusion of control', which they loose on two counts: i) organisations should be operating subsidiarity, delegating to those on the front line. They will be amazed by the capability of their people and the ability to provide effective service. ii) organisations can't deliver outcomes (benefits or impact). Citizens have to engage and use the organisational resources to create benefits. Solving these two will liberate staff and citizens and create a 21st century public sector. Traditional leadership and governance principles were invented in the 19th/20th century to enable production-line manufacturing, not services in a digital world. The solution lies in emergent and adaptive leadership, enabling ‘new ways of working’ to create vibrant and sustainable communities: ‘City Regions: Citizen Health and Education’ In light of this dialogue you have to ask if the current approach to city region devolution is going to be as effective as citizens deserve? To tweak Mike Bracken's quote 'A strategy only has value if delivered, from the citizens perspective'.

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