Thursday, 26 June 2014

A single website for local government

This week I've seen discussion about a "single website for local government", so I think it's important to clarify what's being talked about when we're talking about local authority websites.

Council websites deliver information to residents; that's traditionally been their core task and if they're following the LocalGov Digital Content Standards, where possible they've linked to a definitive source rather than write a page themselves, unless they're the definitive source of the information themselves.

This means that the 500 to 1000 pages on the site all serve a purpose. This content could be put into a central local government site (if that's not an oxymoron) but it still takes someone to author and edit these pages that are specific to each council, so putting them all on one site isn't really going to be any more efficient.

So that's information, but councils offer a lot more online and many will have a collection of forms or a set of digital services. Take Solihull's Missed Bin Collection form that supplies some of the data to this experimental dashboard, built with the Government Digital Service. There's also West Berkshire's Service Site with over 100 digital services and a real-time dashboard of activity. Yes, again you could replicate this centrally, but you'd have to work with each team delivering each service in each council for every digital service to make sure it was fit for purpose.

It doesn't end there. If you're looking for a planning application you'll probably be directed to another website, for example here's Newcastle's public access planning search. It's different from their website.

Library books? That's usually another site, here's Worcestershire's library catalogue on a separate to site to their main content.

Want to find out about your councilor? That's another site and here's Surrey's separate My Council site as an example.

I could go on and give examples for consultations, petitions, family information services, local offers, social care information directories, school admissions, job applications, and more, potentially all on different sites, but I hope you get the idea.

When someone talks about "a single website for local government", ask them which of the above they're hoping to include and if it's just information and they're not thinking about reusable digital services for local government, ask them to think again about the bigger picture of the services local governments offer their residents.

Monday, 23 June 2014

What became of LocalGovCamp 2014?

LocalGovCamp 2014 was last weekend and judging by the response on Twitter and blogs, it looks like people thought it was a success.

From a personal perspective there were so many people I'd talked to online that I met in person for the first time. There were people I really wanted to chat with but missed or just nodded to as I dashed to a session.  However long the day is, it's never long enough.

I was also proud to organise the Makers Hack Day which around 50 people attended on a work day, and importantly I learned a lot for the next time. I'll post more about this later.

I've already seen blog posts about a coming of age for LocalGov Digital, how LocalGovCamp is vital for disrupting and pushing the sector forward, how LocalGov Digital should have more balls (in fact perhaps Glen Ocsko should have the title "LocalGov Digital Voice of the Balls"), all of which I agree with, so in Makers' style, I wanted to focus on doing stuff.

I've put together a list things people did, started to do, or say they'll do:

I'm sure with Sarah Lay in charge LocalGovCamp 2015 will be a success and the Makers Hack Day and the Local Leaders fringe events showed that attending these types of days can now legitimately be considered part of one's work.

With Cornwall being a days travel for some however, I wanted to put something together for those who'll have to make a case for attending. I want to show that the return on investment of a day out the office, a couple of nights in a cheap hotel and a train ticket is huge, based on the collective output from this weekend.

The list is just the stuff I know about, so there's bound to be a load more, and if you know of something tweet me and I'll add, which I'll then put on the LocalGov Digital website.

Let's document what became of  LocalGovCamp 2014, so that the legacy lives on and helps others to attend or perhaps even run their own, because as Dave Briggs tweeted, "remember - you don't need permission to run your own", just the inspiration to do so.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Could the ECB inspire a Local GDS?

So back once again is the debate about a Local GDS.

For me, here's the dilemma. To understand local governments and the ever changing demands and constraints which are even more evident in the digital world you need to be part of one as a member, or work for one as an officer. I wrote about this back in 2012 just after LocalGov Digital was formed.

In my view it's essential to be directly accountable to the representatives of local people or local people themselves, if you're delivering public services for them.

The problem with this is, quite rightly, one's time is taken up with working for one's council, so unless you find other councils interested in doing what you're doing which in itself takes time, any work beyond the day job for the wider sector is largely done in one's own time.

So, take the person out of local government and they lose the essential accountability to local people, keep them in and they'll have little time to do anything for the wider sector.

There's a model from sport that could work and perhaps solve this problem. It's used by the England and Wales Cricket Board and it's called the central contract system.

The system sees 12 or 13 English cricketers offered central contracts each year, which means they work as part of the national team to practice and prepare for international cricket. Instead of working solely for the national side, they still retain the link with their county side and some cases, they return to play a match for their county.

Different types of people make up a team. There's batsmen, fast bowlers, spin bowlers, a wicket keeper and perhaps an all-rounder too. You don't need to know what any of these roles do, I'm just using them to illustrate that it's similar to a digital team that might also include many disciplines.

You can see where I'm going with this. Central contracts could be offered on annual basis to create a Local GDS. Officers would work as part of a central team but still retain the connection with the local government they work for.

This raises more questions than it answers, for example:
  • Who appoints and manages this team? 
  • Who funds it? 
  • How do you back-fill their post for the time they're not working for their council.
  • Projects don't normally last exactly a year, do you employ people for the term of a project only? 
  • What if they're working on more than one project? 
  • Can people be employed for a second, third term or longer, as they are with cricket's central contract model? 
  • If not are you throwing away experience gained? 
  • If they can, will they become so distanced from their council, might you be better employing them on a more conventional fixed term contract?

Perhaps this might move the debate on, perhaps it just confuses things or perhaps you just think there's a better way to do it. Whatever your view, you can join in the debate through LocalGov Digital Voice.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A local public services search

It's funny how conversations on Twitter start off about one thing and end up about another.

This morning I started tweeting about how we're aggregating Google Calendars (gCal) into an events search, found out Kevin Jump had written some code for pulling events from gCal too, talked about testing the Solr search engine against Google with Jason Williams, Sarah Jennings and Richard Kingston, and ended up discussing a local public services search engine with James Cattell and briefly, Saul Cozens and Tom Loosemore too.

Both the first two subjects deserve their own post, but this one's about the last, a local service search engine.

On 20 June LocalGov Digital Makers are running a Hack Day in partnership with Nesta and for one of the challenges we're looking at is creating a central resource for local governments, perhaps based on the some of the work the Government Digital Service have done.

The discussion this morning got me thinking, what if we could pull together search data from local governments into one resource. Unsurprisingly this isn't an original idea, and Saul pointed me in the direction of a basic specification for a federated search for local governments that he'd written.

But then I thought some more, why just local governments? With NHS Choices kindly giving us full access to their API for the Hack, why not include health information like the locations of doctors, dentists and more, too.

Add spatial data to the mix too, and it just so happens that the Ordnance Survey are at the Hack as well, and you've got the start of a local public services federated search.

Councils could embed a faceted version of it in their sites and use it instead of their internal search to provide a much wider range of information. Hyperlocals could use it to display local services and information which could cross council borders. It could even be included on GOV.UK. It's not about creating one central search page for information and services, it's about better signposting to public service digital content.

At the moment it's just an idea. There's a few tickets left for the Hack. Come along and help to start to make it a reality.

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.