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...
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.