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Interview: Eddie Copeland, director, London Office of Technology and Innovation

The leader of the London Office of Technology and Innovation discusses local government’s response to the pandemic and its priorities for collaborative work around data and innovation in 2022

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As the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) enters its third year of operation, priorities for 2022 will include ramping up the digital innovation capabilities of boroughs across the capital and helping them access skills, as pressures on local authorities around citizen provision increase following Covid.

Launched in June 2019 to address a digital collaboration deficit in London, LOTI has been supporting boroughs as they work together to take advantage of digital and data innovation and overcome local government silos and inertia. Led since its inception by Eddie Copeland, formerly director of government innovation at think tank Nesta, the group started out with a group of boroughs as “the home of collaboration and getting good stuff done”.

In its first year, the group focused on what Copeland describes as “fixing the plumbing,” including the way members share data with each other and standardising ways of working in areas such as recruiting apprentices and Wi-Fi networks. In year two, the agenda was dominated by Covid-19, so the group worked on collaborative projects to tackle urgent requirements, and later, in a recovery phase, the focus shifted to initiatives such as supporting extremely vulnerable citizens, particularly the digitally excluded.

“[Boroughs] knew they could only make the best use of this amazing set of powerful tools and methods that we call digital and data innovation by working together. When we look at problems and opportunities in a big city like London, it’s obvious that they don’t neatly confine themselves to borough boundaries,” Copeland tells Computer Weekly.

Covid-focused work

Local government needs stemming from the pandemic were the main focus of LOTI’s activities in its second year, between 2020 and 2021. According to Copeland, the urgency to respond to various aspects of the crisis increased the relevance of the group as it supported boroughs in their discovery and execution of projects around data and digital.

Work focused on the Covid-19 response included enabling vulnerability hubs and the distribution of food parcels and medicine, which entailed using data to quickly identify the lists of vulnerable people and working hand in glove with the voluntary sector.

“There was loads of collaboration on how to use data to figure out which households might be in need of help. [Boroughs] would look at common vulnerability factors and talk to each other in terms of defining the data model and collaborating with local voluntary organisations, which have proven to be crucial through the pandemic,” said Copeland.

A major change Copeland noticed during the Covid outbreak was the change in attitudes of senior leaders in government around service innovation in times of crisis. “We were seeing chief executives, very senior leaders and elected members really understanding – potentially for the first time – quite how profound our methods are,” he points out.

A practical example that illustrates this is the use of technology to respond to concerns around high street recovery towards the latter stages of the lockdowns. “[Local authorities] would rely on last year’s economic statistics, which were completely useless if they’re trying to understand which streets need the most help, which businesses are in crisis, whether social distancing is taking place or not,” says Copeland.

To address that challenge, LOTI worked with boroughs and the Greater London Authority (GLA) to help them access datasets from organisations such as Mastercard and fitness app Strava to build a more granular and near-real-time view of economic indicators.

“Chief executives started to realise that was helpful and that they could make strategic decisions using the data,” says the LOTI leader. “I hope this is a trend we can build on after they have tasted what this could look like when applied to other areas.”

While local government bodies are being urged to “move beyond Covid”, Copeland believes the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on boroughs, as certain sectors of the population are now more vulnerable than ever. Digital exclusion has become an “incredibly pressing” issue – and LOTI is ramping up its work in that area, with an extra £1.3m in funding from the GLA for that purpose.

“The pandemic has impacted the economic reality for boroughs,” he says. “We’ve had 10 years of austerity and there’s been disruption to businesses as a result of Brexit. With the pressures of Covid, huge expenses incurred, demand is rising, and we can’t operate ignorant of that reality. [These factors form] the background context on everything we do.”

On the other hand, the LOTI leader sees many opportunities ahead in terms of the work the group does. According to Copeland, the disruption in the use of public services and the way people work has “opened people’s minds to the fact that it is possible to think more radically about service models”. For example, this would include more profound collaborations with the third sector, as well as enhancing digital democracy models to increase citizen participation in decision-making.

Breaking down silos

According to Copeland, LOTI will focus on helping boroughs with service innovation in areas under extreme financial pressure in local governments and the office is currently taking a deep dive on social care. Projects on that front will be aimed at finding “fundamentally different ways of addressing boroughs’ needs”.

“[Social care] is the single largest item of expenditure for local authorities everywhere in the UK, but in London it’s the bit that will cause the most financial stress to boroughs if left unreformed,” he says, adding that LOTI is also engaging with local authorities around the UK to advance the collective work around tech and service design patterns.

“One of the impacts of Covid is that the appetite for exploring [new technologies and approaches] has risen”
Eddie Copeland, LOTI

This area of work entails helping boroughs understand not just how they can get better value from the technology suppliers they work with, but also rethink their social care models, as well as the technologies that could enable them to do things differently. The initiative includes asking local authorities what technologies they use in that area, when contracts are expiring, and either helping them identify cost-saving opportunities or bringing them suggestions of innovative tech companies doing work in the social care space.

“It’s a big piece of work, but I think it will be a vital part of the conversation with social care directors across London to help them navigate what’s a really thorny problem for vulnerable Londoners and for local authority budgets,” Copeland points out.

According to Copeland, conversations around thinking not only about new tech that can support social care, but also rethinking the role of local authorities in the current socio-economic scenario, have been gathering pace. “One of the impacts of Covid is that the appetite for exploring [new technologies and approaches] has risen,” he says.

Ongoing work in that area includes a pilot of smart water bottles. The project aims to tackle chronic dehydration, which is one of the main reasons vulnerable individuals – particularly the elderly – end up being admitted to hospital with other complications. Looking ahead, LOTI will also be looking into options such as matchmaking platforms that can connect those in need with carers as one of many solutions to develop more system capacity and more personalised care.

“I’m not saying [models such as matchmaking platforms] are the right model everywhere, but it’s the nugget of an idea that starts a conversation with boroughs, saying we need to start thinking quite radically and laterally about how we address these social needs, because the current model is simply not sustainable,” he argues.

Paraphrasing Tom Loosemore – who wrote the UK’s first Government Digital Strategy and served as the Government Digital Service’s deputy director for five years – Copeland notes that advancing digital and data innovation in the public sector is not just about technology, but also relates to culture and ways of working. According to the executive, being able to break away from perceptions of IT as a silo, so that different policy and service areas can experience innovation themselves, is crucial in that evolutionary process.

To further accelerate progress on that front, LOTI will be offering design sprints as a service involving areas outside IT, the first of which will be aimed at helping local authorities rethink some of their core environmental challenges. At the event, environment directors will reflect on COP26 challenges alongside tech companies with behavioural insights, as well as experts with digital and data teams from their own boroughs.

“They set the outcome, we bring expertise to help them think about those challenges in different ways. If they can feel the energy, the fresh thinking, the ways of working that digital communities adopt, we hope that that will then create the demand for more work in that area,” says Copeland.

Advancing cyber defences

As LOTI enters its third year of operation, another key area of focus is boosting cyber security readiness within local authorities and moving forward with what Copeland describes as a collaborative intelligence approach. The increased focus on that area is also a response to the large-scale cyber attack that London Borough of Hackney suffered in October 2020.

“[The Hackney case] has been a wake-up call for boroughs to take stock and say, ‘Let’s make sure we are as robust as we possibly can be’,” Copeland notes, adding that LOTI collaborative efforts on that front will include helping with a direct relationship with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and thinking about how boroughs can support each other under reciprocal relationships, so if one local authority suffers an attack, others could step in to support them in a coordinated manner.

“This is about helping boroughs check and recheck what they’ve got in place and what else they need to ensure that they can respond [to threats] and avoid being in the situation of Hackney – albeit Hackney has recovered in an incredibly strong manner. It’s been quite remarkable with what it’s done,” Copeland notes.

According to LOTI’s chief, the idea is to ensure the cooperation around cyber does not take place only as incidents happen, but occurs in a “mindful, deliberate way that is designed to be effective”. Ongoing work in that area includes finding ways to analyse the cyber security landscape across the various local authorities, then using insights “to spot attacks a little sooner than would be typically possible if boroughs relied only on their own intelligence”.

Improving the ability of boroughs to analyse trends about what might be happening across the capital – including events that may seem minor from an individual perspective but collectively might be more significant – will be another aspect of the initiative, says Copeland.

“Ensuring that monitoring capability – the ability to notice stuff that looks suspicious and act on it very fast while ensuring all other boroughs are doing the same – is the current area of inquiry. And we’ll be doing a lot more on that,” he adds.

In addition, LOTI wants to make inroads in smart city technologies and approaches. “Lots of boroughs are now looking in earnest at smart city technologies, and really trying to ensure they’re doing so in a way that delivers the most value for Londoners,” says Copeland.

Examples of ongoing projects led by member boroughs in that area include intelligent internet of things (IoT) sensors for flood monitoring in Kingston and Sutton, and a resident innovation challenge in Westminster where residents are being asked for ideas on how next-generation technologies could be deployed.

Attracting skills

Among the key priorities for LOTI in 2022 are ensuring boroughs can access the skilled professionals required to advance in data and digital, and ensuring their adaptation to digital ways of working.

According to Copeland, there is a realisation among boroughs that access to talent is a “real existential threat” to their ambitions in digital and data. “None of the exciting stuff we are talking about is possible if we don’t have the people and that is going to be a priority for us,” he says.

However, there is also an acknowledgement at LOTI that local authorities in London will struggle to compete to attract talent. “If you’re particularly talented in disciplines relating to digital and data, you can probably get paid two or three times more [than in local authorities], so there is a huge job to be done to help boroughs access that expertise,” the executive notes.

Under a programme of work aimed at attracting more technology professionals to boroughs, LOTI will help members improve their recruitment practices and set up a jobs board so local authorities can advertise their roles. The group will also host careers days, with presentations aimed at dispelling myths about working in local government, and act as a sort of concierge service to help professionals understand their options in the public sector.

Copeland’s plan is to speak to the core motivations of professionals and the opportunity to work on issues with real human impact. “[Professionals] can go and work for a bank with data analytics – they’ll get a kick out of that and there’ll be lots of rewards. But I can also offer an alternative by saying they could use data to help find some of the most vulnerable children in London or to improve public services for a particular community in a really profound way that affects people’s lives,” he points out, adding that presenting the prospect of purposeful careers could be attractive to technology experts – even if they would earn less than in the private sector.

Leadership lessons

Despite the advances it has made since its inception, moving forward with an agenda of local government innovation does come with its challenges. On the other hand, Copeland believes the group is “getting better and better at managing collaboration” and finding points of commonality, considering the different priorities and political views, needs and priorities of the various organisations.

“We accept that not everyone has to get involved in everything, which is why there are bits in our portfolio of work that interest different clusters of boroughs. When we first started, we assumed every borough should get involved in every project,” says Copeland. “Now, if we can get three of four doing meaningful things together in a way that can be scaled to other London boroughs, that allows us to move more rapidly, deliver more results and keep people motivated. That has been very powerful.”

“People can disagree about the problem or what solutions are right, but they unite around the change they want to see in their communities”
Eddie Copeland, LOTI

In addition, the outcomes-based methodology the group has used since day one has also paid off. In essence, this means projects start not by looking into the problem to be solved or the technology solutions, but the actual change the initiative might have in Londoners’ lives. “That means people can disagree about the problem or what solutions are right, but they unite around the change they want to see in their communities. That has probably been the most effective thing we’ve done to aid the collaboration process,” he points out.

Being strategic about relationships in the UK – with organisations influencing the digital agenda, such as trade body TechUK; and in central government, with the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Cabinet Office; and in the devolved administrations, with Wales’s Centre for Digital Public Services and the Local Digital Office for Scotland – will be key to LOTI’s work going forward. Additionally, Copeland is keen for LOTI to learn and share with other cities around the UK and beyond.

To that end, LOTI will be launching a government innovators series, whereby member boroughs will be connected with digital innovators such as Estonia, San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris and Nordic cities so they can learn from global best practice. “We are keen to ensure we have contacts in those innovation hubs to learn from and also show what we’ve tried in London in return and help each other, in regular conversations,” says the executive.

As LOTI moves into a new phase of maturity, Copeland describes the trajectory of the organisation so far as “incredibly energising and worthwhile”. Looking back at the work he did at Nesta for a decade, he says it strengthened his convictions around the importance of advocating for cities to collaborate more around digital and data. He also accepts that some of his policy recommendations in the past were somewhat naive: “I realise now that the reality of it is way harder than any of my reports.”

The experiences at LOTI so far have also confirmed Copeland’s view that the stereotype of local authority workers couldn’t be further from the truth. “[Such preconceived ideas] are so far removed from the day-to-day reality of the community we work with, some incredibly inspiring people working really hard to keep services running,” he adds.

“The fact they keep coming back and wanting to work with each other to innovate on public services is remarkable, and anything we can do to help them do that feels incredibly worthwhile. It’s been very, very difficult, with lots of learning involved, but it has been extremely rewarding at the same time.”

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