Technology’s Tremendous Gift

Nov 20, 2023

Many now acknowledge that austerity-driven thinking and practices are endemic to the culture and behaviours of local government. A decade and a half in and we have become acclimatised to having no money and, in becoming impoverished, in the vast majority of cases, we have become short-termist technocrats. Trimmers, cutters, slashers, increasingly expert in the science of reduction and cessation. If necessity is the mother of invention, then what we appear to have come up with is a culture in which doing less through increasing technical proficiency has become dominant. We haven’t been able to innovate ourselves out of austerity: partly because of the rate at which we have had to manage on less – and now incontrovertibly insufficient – funding; and partly because innovation was never endemic in the sector and it has hardly been a period during which its cultivation has been possible. We know what happens to R&D monies when front line services are under threat.

But we do need that change in culture. We have to shift our horizon from the short to the medium and long term. We need to rebalance the technical-adaptive relationship to be more in favour of the latter. We need to go from optimising – if you can use such a word to describe what’s had to be done to spend considerably less – to inventing. And, yes, here it comes – we need to get the balance right between management and leadership: again, favouring the leadership task somewhat more than we do the managerial. And afore ye accuse me of neglecting fundamental professional capability, no! It’s both/and – I just argue for more of the and!

So, whither art innovation in all this? And the role of technology specifically? I am in agreement with the venerable Jonathan Flower that for far too long there have been some hard-wired flaws in the local government circuit board. Innovation and the supportive and additive role of technologies have too often been the flight of (wonderful) fancy of the CX and/or the head of transformation; and/or the domain of the cherished but isolated (intellectually and organisationally) “new futures” team buried deep in the windowless vaults of the council house. I exaggerate, but you get my gist.

What we need is to have a bit of think. Yes, about why we still find ourselves not in the warm Silicon Valley uplands surrounded by Meta-Councils. But, also, about what happened on the last day of November 2022. In only a feigned effort to avoid outrageous hyperbole, the world changed forever on Billy Idol’s 67thBirthday. Why? Because ChatGPT was launched/foisted on the general public and, in its very own words, it “enables users to refine and steer a conversation towards a desired length, format, style, level of detail, and language used”.

Here we have a technology that is the most democratised form of innovation known so far, with its uptake outstripping that of all recent popular applications: it had 5 million users within 5 days compared to Instagram that took 2.5 months to achieve the same number of downloads in 2010. Now, it is true that such popularity must not blind us to the inbuilt risks and downsides of generative AI: the remixing and restating of content without owner/creator consent; the inbuilt biases arising from the underpinning datasets; the exaggeration of inequalities arising from those most dependent on the state needing to forfeit more personal data to access public services; and, of course, its potential to aid and abet totalitarianism.

Nonetheless, AI is here, growing rapidly in use and we have to confront and embrace it – just as we have done previously with previously radical innovations ranging from the printing press to the internet.

So, herein lies the prompt to culture change. At pretty much every leader’s, manager’s and worker’s fingertips is a new innovation tool that has the potential to revolutionise everything, everywhere, all at once. What if we – me, you, the sector, our partners – started a concerted, organised conversation about the ethics, purpose and applications of this new technology? For it is going to change the world in a way that no previous application, staff development or transformation programme ever touched the sides of.

It is certainly changing my life already.

It wrote this article for a start.

Mark Rogers (and AI!)

This article was first published in The MJ in October 2023.


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