Thursday, 22 September 2016

I learnt summit on Monday

The LocalGov Digital Service Standard Summit happened on Monday 19 September and you can see the agenda here. Here's some things I learnt from it:

There's a growing number of people working in central government, who want to help improve local service delivery and are willing to lend some of their professional time and skills.

There's a growing number of people who work in local government who have an interest in doing digital well.

Some IT suppliers are seen as an obstacle to delivering better, cheaper public services.

City Hall, London is a great venue, and there's some great people who work there.

It's entirely possible and relatively easy to put together a panel of excellent speakers on digital, the majority of who happen to be women. If you're going to an event on digital that features mostly men, ask the organiser why that is.

If you're paying to attend an event, someone's probably making money out of you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but do be aware of it.

I'm reasonably good at putting together events, less so at presenting.

We need to start to re-think the LocalGov Digital Network to make it more sustainable and better aid collaboration across local and central government.

A growing number of councils are signing up to the Local Government Digital Service Standard. Your council can sign up here.


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Pushing back

Sometimes you have to push back. It won't make you popular, but when business requirements and user needs clash you have to stand up for the user.

Let me give you two examples of this.

A service delivery team wanted a new digital service so that users could register for a permit. Most of the proposed questions were simple and straightforward, but two weren't. They were:

  • Upload a copy of a recent utility bill 
  • Upload a copy of your vehicle's V5 certificate

Asking these questions assumes that the user has access to the technology to scan or take a picture of the documents required, and also the skills required to use the technology. We asked the team to research their service users' skills and their access to technology. At present the service is being created without these two questions.

The second example is where a new law and statutory requirement meant the creation of a new digital service. The service delivery team wanted the digital service to ask around 20 questions but when we researched the legislation it turned out only 10 were actually statutory.

Whilst the 10 additional questions were there to help the service delivery team deliver a better service to the user, we suggested to the team that making users answer them wasn't really fair, given by law people had to use the service to register something. They agreed and we made the non-statutory questions optional.

Standing up for user needs won't make you popular, but it will help you create a better service

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Open standards and the Private Sector

Why aren't the private sector lobbying for the public sector to use open standards? Why would they do that you might ask? Well let me propose why they should be, and what's in it for them.

Take how the private sector sell to councils for example, whether you're buying a product, SaaS or using a paid for service another way, this is generally how it works




Yes, I know that the API might be a database connection and there's lots other ways to integrate a service with a website or app, but let's look at this model for now. So the maximum number of clients the supplier can ever reach directly is 433 because that's the number of Tier 1 and 2 councils in the UK.

So lets make one change that enables another.




Now the API is using open standards. This in turn opens up a new market, as now suppliers can sell direct to the service user, because they can build in the knowledge that the API won't change. So now they've expanded their market from 433 councils to potentially everyone in the UK who uses digital services and even better they haven't lost their original market.

So why aren't the private sector lobbying for the creation of open standards in government?

Friday, 22 July 2016

This week I have been mostly doing...

I thought I'd write a quick summary of the main things I did this week. Yes, in many respects this is a narcissistic mixture of self promotion and self congratulation, however I'm doing it for two reasons which I'll explain later.

So here we go:

  • With a couple of my team, spoke to our Civil Contingencies Team about creating a new digital service to record information about emergency shelters.
  • Attended our Capital Group to ask for a new fund to be created.
  • Attended a meeting of our Education Service's Senior Management Team.
  • Attended a Digital Transformation Project Group meeting.
  • Spoke with our Consultation Team about forthcoming user needs research.
  • With our Planning Policy Team, launched our Register Your Self-Build digital service.
  • Attended a meeting with the company doing the Libraries Needs Assessment for our authority
  • Attended my team meeting.
  • Amended the code for our search engine.
  • With one of my team, met with Human Resources about offering a better digital service for Disclosure Barring Service checks.
  • With my council's Chief Executive, spoke with another council's Chief Executive via Skype
  • Spoke to someone about running an unconference for learning and development.
  • Did some work on setting up the Local Government Digital Service Standard Summit.
  • Made a few changes to what our public analytics page displays.
  • With one of my team, met with Head of Children's Services about their digital services and content.
  • Spoke to someone at another council about collaborating on our Case Management/Tracking Capability work on the phone.
  • Spoke to a group of councils about their experience of online booking capabilities. 

So do I want, a medal for having a busy week or something? No, there's two reasons for publishing this:

If you also work in local government digital, is this how your week looks too? I know some are doing more than this, but generally how does this compare with the variety and volume of what you do? I'm keen to compare notes.

I want to highlight the varied array of things that someone in local government digital might do, to those who might be interested in working in a council digital service. So if that's you, does this make you less or more likely to want to move to work in local government digital?

Saturday, 9 July 2016

To code or not to code

There's an ongoing debate on the LocalGov Digital Slack Team about the merits of a low code approach to building digital services.

A low code platform is one that enables you to quickly create and deploy digital services usually by dragging and dropping a selection of predefined plug and play elements. These could be anything from a text input box, to a database or API call, to a bit of logic based on answers to previous questions.

Where I work we've been using a low code platform for 3-4 years and some of the stuff you can see being used in our dashboard was built without writing a line of code.

There are great benefits to having this approach available to you. Just one example of this is we're currently user testing an end-to-end register for the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Regulations which we built in a couple of weeks. We'll make this available for anyone using the same platform as us, for free.

Because we're starting to use the Local Government Digital Service Standard and therefore the Government Digital Service design patterns, when we needed to include something that checked whether someone was over 18, we built something that looks like this. The great thing about a low code platform is now that we don't need to build that again. We can drag and drop it into any new digital service and it'll work straight away.

So low code is the way forward, right?

Well yes and no. If you're astute you'll have probably guessed that when we built our over 18 checker, we did that by writing code. The design pattern suggests that individual inputs for Day, Month and Year are best for usability for memorable dates, and we didn't have anything that merged these together into one date, then worked out if that date was more than 18 years in the past.

When you start to think about it, actually every digital service runs on code and markup, even if you don't write it or see it yourself. So actually low code is really low code once you've written the code.

Through having access to this method of building services over the past few years it's become apparent that as digital services evolve, and when you start to tackle some of the bigger transformation work, there's an increasing need to write connectors, end points and other more bespoke functionality. This isn't a one off process because the services your organisation consume will change, or you'll want to change how you use them to respond to user needs,

Without a developer you'll be at the mercy of a supplier, and you'll be in the same position some have found themselves in the past, with a supplier wanting to charge £100s for a minor change to the HTML of a web portal. This isn't prudent use of public money, nor will it enable you to get something quickly most of the time.

So my advice? Low code is a great idea and will help you accelerate the creation of your digital services. Do seriously look at it, but don't outsource your ability to create and adapt your re-usable low code elements yourself, or you'll find yourself a less agile and adaptable organisation.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Progressive points for a pivotal period

It seems like we're at a pivotal period for the future direction of our country. Not for a long time have many things been so uncertain, but this means it's an opportunity for change, so now seems a good time to suggest four ideas for the future.


Local service providers can't continue to go it alone any more

We know that digital offers new ways of delivering services locally and individual organisations don't have to procure products from individual suppliers any more. You might look to SaaS a way forward, but for me shifting from products to services doesn't really solve the problem that hundreds councils and other local service providers are individually buying the same thing over and over again.

This is a huge waste of taxpayers money and should be addressed because the financial situation for councils isn't going to get any easier in the short or medium term. It really needs disruption and re-design, not just within each organisation but across the sector.

One approach is councils creating services for others, for example Surrey Digital Services have produced an address lookup API which is currently in Alpha. If this approach was taken for more capabilities local government would save millions of pounds every year.

Working against this is the software industry who will seek to protect their income from the current model, a few politicians keen to protect their fiefdom, and those who will tell you "but we've always done it like this", which is why...


We need strong, informed leadership

However forward thinking digital practitioners and teams are, they're not the leaders at the very top of their public sector organisation, driving its overall strategy. Those who are need to be well informed, but the digital space is so crowded right now it's difficult for them to know who and what to listen to.

Just this week I saw a white paper on published that was so wide of the mark it was at best old ideas re-hashed, and at worst misinformation. I also spoke to a colleague in local government who's work I and I know many others greatly respect, who could be out there helping other councils, who said he rarely gets to bed before midnight because of the volume of his work.

This needs to change, and in every public sector organisation a partnership of leaders and informed digital practitioners needs be re-designing their service delivery. When I say every organisation...


We need to include everyone

If the events of recent weeks have shown me anything, it's that there needs to be a focus on society as a whole, or in this case local service delivery across the whole country, or you won't get the result you're aiming for,

I know there's some great work going on in councils like Bristol, Leeds, across the authorities in Manchester, and elsewhere but if we really want to change how local services are delivered for the better we need to include everyone, not just focus on what might some might term the "metropolitan elite".

I don't mean to use this term with any disrespect, just that smaller councils across the country will never be able emulate what happens at their big city counterparts, and when I see "apply the model used in city X" touted as a solution for everyone across the country, I'm not sure this is workable as an inclusive model to transform services for every user in the country.

That's not to say larger councils couldn't supply individual services to smaller organisations as previously mentioned, and in addition we're seeing that...


The lines are being blurred

Local and central government have always worked together and as far as digital goes, initiatives like the Local Waste Standards Project have led the way in recent times. Over the coming year we're going to start to see a real blurring of the lines though between local and national service delivery.

Most central government departments now have digital teams, and many are keen to work with councils. Take this discovery event from DCLG, DVLA and GDS for example, three bits of central government and councils all providing elements for one service. We're going to see a lot more of this over the next year and we need to remember that whether national or local, we should all be working to achieve the same thing, cost effective, user centred public services.

Which links quite nicely in with...

Friday, 17 June 2016

What I learned from Standard Sprint #1

Standard Sprint #1 was two weeks of work from 6 to 17 June, to both produce guidance for the Local Government Digital Service Standard and to see if it's possible to work collaboratively, using online tools and resources.

Turns out it is.

Rewind back to the start of April and LocalGov Digital released the Standard, with help from over 60 councils and the Government Digital Service. The Standard contains 15 points suggesting how to build and manage good local government digital services. Whilst some points are fairly self-explanatory, for example:

Make sure that the service is simple enough that users succeed first time unaided.

others such as

Use open standards, existing authoritative data and registers, and where possible make source code and service data open and reusable under appropriate licenses.

are less so and some sort of guidance was needed. As of today, that guidance now exists and we'll continue to revise and add to it.

So what did I learn?

Collaboration needs leadership

The sprint was the idea of Julia McGinley, Lead Business Analyst at Coventry City Council and she was also the scrum master. She expertly facilitated the creation of 15 items of guidance, based on all the comments received.

Relying on organic collaboration is far less likely to produce something usable. Up until 6 June, over the two months following the publication of the Standard, we'd only created guidance on one single point, two weeks later we have guidance for all 15.


Collaboration needs a core team

Though tens of people contributed from all over the country, a core team at Coventry City Council did the work of creating drafts, reviewing all of the comments, redrafting and again reviewing all the comments to create the finished product.

At some point they'll be a Standard Sprint #2 and another council could very well take the lead, but the point is, this works best when the core work is part of a team's day jobs, even if it is for just a short two week period.


Communication is key

An obvious one, but there were daily stand-ups and weekly reviews via Hangout which were open to everyone. We tweeted regularly using #ssprint1 inviting people to join in and updated the website to keep everyone update on the Sprint's progress.


Scheduling and timeboxing helps

Stand ups were at 9am, longer reviews on Friday, we closed comments at 5pm on 15 June, the Sprint ran for two weeks. Putting times and dates on things focuses those working and contributing to get stuff done.


The digital tools are there...

We used Twitter, a Hangout, a Trello Board, 15 Google Docs and the LocalGov Digital Slack Channel. The digital tools we needed to do the work described in Makers Project Teams worked.


...but not everyone could use them

Not everyone away from the core team in Coventry could access the Google Docs due to their council's IT policy. At some councils officers had to work from home to contribute and one council officer even had to stand in a hallway at work to access the Hangout on his smartphone. There's a separate blog post in this no doubt, but in short, blocking these digital tools is hurting councils' ability to collaborate and therefore their productivity.


Huge congratulations to Julia and the team and Coventry for making this happen. You've proved that collaboration across councils to produce something for the whole of local government in a short amount of time can work.

I'm sure we'll put together a more detailed case study, to explain and sell the concept of digital collaboration, but for now, after a two week sprint, go and put your feet up, you've earned it.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.