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How are councils future-proofing through prototyping?
Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher, 22 November, 2019

Last week, Labour pledged to outspend the Conservatives with £26 billion ‘rescue’ plan for NHS. Since the Chancellor declared the ‘end of austerity’, the Conservatives have further promised to allocate £14 billion to schools and £25 billion to upgrading roads and transport network. As the country faces a general election and the two main parties attempt to outdo each other in how much money they want to splurge on capital investments such as schools, roads and hospitals, councils continue to face the daily reality of sustaining their local public services and to make the limited resources go further.

It is unquestionable that a decade of austerity has been damaging to local services. But it has also instilled in councils the desire to innovate and do things differently in order to survive. Amidst increasing demand pressure, it can be hard for councils to look beyond the immediate challenges they face – let alone setting aside necessary resources to improve the future of services. But in a growing number of councils across the UK, the immense challenge of the last decade has made them more determined than ever to ensure that local services are as sustainable as possible and that they do not reach crisis point. It has provided the impetus to think creatively, in some cases redesigning services, policies and even entirely new ways of working.

Increasingly councils are recognising the value of investing in future-proofing, and they are seeking to do so through prototyping. Prototyping is often confused with piloting because both evoke the notion of testing. But in fact it reflects a very different stage in the development of an idea. Unlike piloting, which can be costly and occurs just before a product or service is released to the end users, prototyping is the process of mocking up an idea very quickly at a much earlier stage of the process. It requires minimal resources and is aimed at testing viability, by eliciting feedback in order that the ‘prototype’ can be re-worked and improved. Given the increasingly stretched resources in councils, prototyping provides a sensible and low-cost approach to test new ideas and obtain buy-in along the way.

Our latest Innovation Briefing for members provides insights into how prototyping is being used in councils to test ideas. It illustrates some best practice in three different settings, ranging from developing a specific product to changing whole systems. Examples include those from London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, Newcastle City Council, and London Borough of Hackney.

These examples help illustrate a number of key challenges councils face in prototyping. For example, councils we spoke to warned against being preoccupied with scaling up, and consequently losing sight of the original objectives of an innovation. To guard against this pitfall, contributors suggested making room to strategically pause and honestly reflect on the progress made.

The briefing also introduces a wide range of prototyping methods adopted by different councils – each bringing with it different challenges and opportunities. Regardless of the methods used, however, there appears to be a growing conviction that prototyping – in its many forms – should become a natural part of councils’ continuous process of learning and improvement. Only by integrating prototyping more widely, will its value and long-term impact – for example, in identifying costly problems early and helping to obtain buy-in – become more evident and appreciated.

The latest NLGN Innovation Briefing on ‘Testing Ideas through Prototyping’ was launched in November 2019 and is available exclusively to our members. For more information about the range of benefits of joining our community of innovative councils, please contact Richard Nelmes, Head of Events and Network, on rnelmes@nlgn.org.uk
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