Sunday, 22 November 2015

How we created our winter updates

It's that time of year again, when council highways staff can be out all hours, keeping us safe by treating and clearing the roads from the effects of the winter. Where I work we've offered alerts on what's happening for a while and I thought it might be useful for other councils to let you know how this works.

To start I'll explain the restrictions we work with. We couldn't have a comms officer on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the whole of the winter, just to let people know about gritting. Also, a number of highways officers deal with treating and clearing the roads on a rota, and it wouldn't be cost effective to train them all up in how to update our website, Twitter and so on.

The challenge was to make this work with no additional operational resource or skills.

So how did we make this happen?

During the winter at least once a day, a highways officer makes a professional judgement as to whether and what type of treatment the roads in our area need and they record this in an IT system. We spoke to MeteoGroup, the suppliers and asked them to build something that was triggered every time an officer saves an update.

The content management system (CMS) we use has an application programming interface (API) which lets other IT systems talk to it, so we created a web service that MeteoGroup could call which stores all the right information in the right places in our CMS, to update our website.

We then created a new template to pull out this information and display links to other useful stuff, like a map of where we were gritting or clearing, which is already stored in our mapping system. You can see the winter service update page here.

Once the information is in our CMS we can use it in lots of ways. So there's an alert on our home page that during the winter is there even if we're not doing anything. One of the things I learned during past snowy periods is that it's important to tell people some of the stuff we're not doing or we don't know, to keep them informed, as it really cuts down calls to a call centre.

We also offer an RSS feed of the same information which means anyone can take it and put it on their own website, or create their own alerts. It also enables us, through Twitterfeed to update a Twitter account dedicated to roads.

So there we go, updates and alerts on our website, Twitter and RSS and with no additional operational resource needed. That's Government as a Platform in action years before the term became widely fashionable.

The most amusing element of this work? Because highways officers kept using the acronym RST, we wrote a line of a line of code that saves this text as "road surface temperatures" in our CMS and therefore wherever it's used online.

Do let me know if you'd like any help and advice getting this up and running at your council. In the spirit of LocalGov Digital, work and other time permitting, I'm always happy, to think, do and share.

Image By Editor5807 (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A common tech platform for local government?

I talk to lots of people working in lots of councils about collaboration every week, and on Monday I received an email that really highlighted the barriers to working together with a common tech platform across Local Government.

Here's the two most pertinent paragraphs, with a few bits redacted for obvious reasons:

We are migrating from [IT SYSTEM] to [IT SYSTEM]. We are a very small team without the same large infrastructure of most authorities. We do not have a Comms team or Comms Manager. No webmaster or any extras.
What we are doing here is creating a common platform centred around [IT PLATFORM]. Only one more migration to perform and that is to replace [IT SYSTEM] with [IT SYSTEM].  

Anyone who thinks rolling out a common tech platform across the whole of Local Government would be easy, needs to have a think about the issues this highlights.

The council in question are on their own timeline, as are all other councils. It's probably going to be three or four years before they look at this again. Rightly or wrongly, some councils will be locked into contracts that last longer than this, particularly those that have outsourced their IT capability.

Asking the council in question to abandon this programme and start another to roll out common elements that do the same thing would be costly. They probably won't have the resource to retrace the same steps to deliver a solution that does the same thing as they've just delivered, with different tech.

I know some councils that are digging into their reserves to fund digital transformation programmes. It's a one off spend-to-save and once the funds are gone, they're gone, but the programme will help the council stay financially afloat by delivering better cheaper services to their citizens.

For a digital transformation programme to a common platform to happen across local government at the same time, someone needs to fund this, 400+ times over. In short it would costs billions, it might save billions too, but it needs capital funding from a central source to work.

A common tech platform across the whole of local government wouldn't be impossible, but it's far from easy or cheap, as I have seen some suggest.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Superfast highways

You may have seen this slide I put together to help explain digital transformation

This week we launched a new beta service to report speeding traffic. It looks fairly simple but to give you an idea of what's happening in the background I thought it might be useful to show you the before and after.

So here's the before

and as you can see it's completely a manual process. Stuff might be recorded electronically but it takes someone to do something seven time to make the process work and send it to the parish or the district.

Here's the after

What this doesn't tell you is that it's basing whether the request is for the parish or district on three questions. It's also doing a spatial look up to find the parish and returning the parish clerk details using the Modern.Gov API.

Because these are already part of our platform this is data that we currently maintain, so there's no additional work to keep this up to date and we've reduced the human interaction down to one step where we ask the user the details of the problem.

Give this a go yourself, you can find the beta service at here and there's an option to just test it out.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Increasingly meaningless

I should start this piece by saying I understand that the English language evolves and no doubt have also used terms incorrectly myself in the past. So consider this as a disclaimer that I know things change, and that there's also a touch of hypocrisy in me writing this.

I saw a few things this week that prompted me to write this piece, and one was this tweet

which neatly highlights the problem.

Another was watching a presentation from a well respected thought leader around government digital in which he said that "digital platforms aren't tech". I beg to differ. Take away the tech and see how far a digital platform gets you. See how these new ideas and service designs work without ones and zeroes.

I'm reminded of this spoof of "Utah Saints Unplugged"

Whilst digital platforms certainly aren't all about tech, and tech should be an enabler rather than a driver, we are redesigning things around what tech now allows us to do, so tech shouldn't be forgotten or downplayed.

Mind you, the speaker also said that re-designing government around digital was a "once in a lifetime opportunity" which fundamentally misunderstands that digital design isn't a one off, it's an iterative process that evolves as both user needs and the tech that could be used to meet them does too. When I see people questioning that the Government Digital Service (GDS) are looking at rebuilding bits of GOV.UK
I say good on GDS. Three years is a long time in tech and they're a different organisation to the one that originally built GOV.UK. They should be looking at their core offering and considering how they could do it better, every organisation should.

The tipping point this week was when I saw someone write that "Open source is not really about the tech". Yes it is. The term was coined to describe making the source code of something open and usable by everyone.

So why's this happening?

Well at best it's a misunderstanding of the terms being used and at worst an attempt by some to jump on the digital bandwagon to sell their wares. Think "technical sales" in IT. A generalisation I know, but these are often people with a little bit of tech knowledge and a slick line in sales patter trotting out buzzwords to flog something.

So what's the problem with this, surely no one owns these terms and they can be used as seen fit? Yes that's true, and as I said at the start language evolves, but terms like "digital platform" and "open source" are now being used to define an increasingly different array of concepts and products so much so that they're becoming meaningless.

Ultimately this harms the process of producing better, cheaper, user centred services because no one knows what anyone talking about any more, and we're starting to see the same old stuff being re-sold with a shiny new "digital" badge.

So next time you hear "digital platform" or "open source" think about what it's being used to describe and the motives of the person using it. Are they doing so to promote better, cheaper, user centred services through the use of tech, or to flog a product or their own services which just offer a passing nod to enabling tech to meet user needs.

Thanks for reading; my book and speaking tour on enabling digital transformation by engaging communities with open source thinking will be available soon. ;-)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Observations of a Digital by Default Service Assessment

In September I wrote about attending a Digital by Default Service Assessment and last week I did just that. Before I start I should say that this piece isn't an assessment of the assessment, it's just a collection of ideas related to how it might work for Local Government, based on four hours of observation.

So firstly, I have to say it's difficult being an observer. Like everyone else in the room I have a passion for public sector digital and not being able to comment at any point is extremely frustrating. That's the deal with being an observer though and in fact if I had been allowed to comment I would have influenced the very process I was there to see. Gonzo digital assessments this ain't.

As you'd expect the assessment follows the Digital by Default Standard, and it's split into themes  relating to the 18 points which are roughly:
  • User needs/testing
  • Questions about the team supporting the service
  • Digital inclusion and contingency planning
  • Technical architecture and code
  • UX and content design
There's a lead expert for each of these sections of the assessment round the table and there were also five people from the service delivery team (which numbered over 20 people as a whole). In many cases the expert from GDS and the appropriate person from the team matched up, but this wasn't exclusive and sometimes two or three people answered the question.

As an aside, though the services reviewed were used by millions, they were probably less complex than some of those offered online by councils which are often delivered by a handful of people. If this was an average example of Central Government digital then they're definitely the "haves" to Local Government's "have nots". Perhaps it wasn't indicative though, and there's civil servants across the country shaking their fist at their screen after reading this paragraph.

But back to the assessment and my first question. Would councils have these skills in house? Perhaps for technical architecture, but I'm guessing not for everything else in that list, in many cases. So the introduction of even a basic assessment would probably highlight the need for skilling up digital teams in councils.

The second question would then be, who carries out the assessment. There almost always some sort of process in the creation or procuring if digital services within councils, why not build it in to this. Sure it's not a proper service assessment but it's a start and if it helps councils offer better digital services, then it's got to be of benefit.

The hardest part is getting acceptance that this sort of assessment is needed. Start simple, get councils to adopt it, build the case and iterate the assessment until it becomes an equal to that used to measure Central Government.

By the way, if you do work for a council that does have all the skills in the assessment team you should be shouting about this as a model to aspire to, but perhaps you're just too busy getting stuff done.

So I mentioned that the service I saw assessed had millions of users which brings me to my third question. Would each Local Government service be assessed similarly? To be honest I don't have an answer for this. It doesn't seem sensible to short change the user by only applying some of the points to a service, but would it be appropriate for a service that only gets a thousand users a year remembering that this is Local Government so cost will always play a part, and rightly so.

So what's next, well hopefully a workshop for Local Government to start putting this together, a coalition of those willing to answer the questions I can't and to start applying it to what their organisation delivers. If you're interested in getting involved, please get in touch.

Oh, and in my previous post I asked "where is the user's voice in the process?". It didn't come across to me in the 18 points on the screen, but rest assured, I've seen it first hand, GDS stand up for the user all the way through the assessment.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Digital by Default Assessments

Next month a colleague and I will be observing a Digital by Default Assessment at the Government Digital Service (GDS). We were delighted to be invited and I'm very grateful to Olivia Neal and her colleagues for the chance to see how a stage of it works, in person.

The Digital by Default Standard applies to Central Government services that have (or are likely to have) more than 100,000 transactions a year and happens at various stages of a new service's creation. It's a good thing for lots of reasons, two of which being it makes sure services are relentlessly centred on user needs and it stops taxpayers money being wasted on pet projects and poor services. In short it's about better, cheaper government services.

My interest is twofold. Firstly to see if elements could be used at the council I work for, and also whether it could be applied generally to service Local Government offers, perhaps through LocalGov Digital, or something else.

We'll be watching a Beta to Live Service Assessment and I picked this because I think it's the most applicable to local government at this time. I'd argue there are very few councils doing Discovery and Alpha phases properly, whilst there are probably more doing Beta better.

So to questions I have for the day.

You might be surprised to know "Could this work for Local Government" isn't one of them. The answer to this in my view is a resounding "yes". What I'll be looking for is "How could this work for Local Government", or "Which elements could work for Local Government".

The fundamental difference between Central and Local Government is that whilst the former offers a small amount of high volume services, the latter generally offers a large amount of low volume services. 100,000 transactions would only apply to a tiny percentage of council services like paying council tax, so I'll be looking to see if it could or should be scaled for smaller volume services.

A second is, where is the user's voice in the process? From the outside it looks a bit like the government inspectors inspecting the government. GDS put user needs at the heart of everything they do, and I'm keen to see how this happens in practice, in the Assessment.

A third is, is there any interest from GDS in working with councils on this? I've seen differing messages over the past year from local GDS ‘very high priority’ to "In terms of mandate and what local can do, I’m afraid it’s not my job". The two quotees have now moved to new roles and the Spending Review will also bring changes so perhaps this might not become clearer until November.

There are other questions, but there's a role for you the reader in this too, because if you've read this far you probably have in interest in this. For the most part we're there to observe, and time for asking questions afterwards will be short, but if you have something you'd like to find out about the process please do let me know and I'll do my best to ask.

I hoping we might be able to run a workshop or maker day some time afterwards, I hope this won't be the end, but whatever happens I'm grateful to GDS for sparing some of their valuable time for my colleague and I.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow up, after my visit here.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

More than the sum of its parts

This the third in what's turned into a series of posts. In the first I discussed what I'd learnt from helping build Pipeline, a website to facilitate council collaboration. The second was about what I was going to pitch at LocalGovCamp and this, the third about is what's happened since then.

I'm really grateful to everyone who came to my session at LocalGovCamp and you can read about what happened at it here. I was also inspired by what happened at our Local Democracy Maker Day and the innovative way people went about solving the challenges.

I called it a Makers Day rather than a Hack Day because some people people think computer programming when they hear the word "hack" and this might put them off, because it's really not about tech, in fact some of the excellent outputs from Local Democracy Maker Day were made using post-its and flipcharts.

So the conclusion I've come to was arrived at from the journey of thought I've been on around how to move Pipeline forward, talking to people at both events and elsewhere, which is all aligned with my overall view that LocalGov Digital Makers should be facilitating the creation of tangible things, or to quote the witty and ever down to earth Carl Whistlecraft, "Getting stuff done".

In my first post on Pipeline you may have read that whilst there could be some technical improvements, I think the main hurdle is it really needs a community manager to facilitate collaboration between councils.

I think I now may have a way create this role, and in a nutshell the solution could be this:

Regularly held makers days could fund a community manager role, but more than that, Pipeline could be used to source the challenges at the maker days thus providing the incentive of free research and development for councils if they add and keep their projects up to date on Pipeline.

Maker Days could be funded by sponsorship from the private sector, so they're not directly funding Piepeline; there's also a lot in it for them too. This is low-cost contact with councils helping the private sector improve things they might incorporate into their products.

This solution would create a symbiotic relationship between Pipeline and Maker Days, and their union would become more than the sum of its parts.

There could also be other benefits.

If you put a bunch of suppliers and civic and council makers in a room to work on a particular challenge, that's when common standards to support Local Government as a Platform might emerge. The cost of sponsorship could be set low to allow SMEs to attend, so they get the same benefit from the day as a large company. I'm thinking as I'm typing here though, and there might be good reasons why either of these won't work.

I'm really keen to get people's views on whether this idea might work, so do leave a comment below, or get in touch @philrumens on Twitter.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The five stages of digital transformation

Digital transformation in any organisation is a process of evolution, from a paper based process to a one that better serves users and gains the most from digital.

I've detailed five stages, focussing on applying for an Events Notice. I chose this because it's a statutory service, but even for this there's a huge about of scope for re-thinking it around user needs and digital.

Paper Based

This is the most costly and time consuming for everyone. Every step with an icon of a person next to it takes manual intervention which makes the process longer for the user and more costly for the council.

Downloadable Form


The bad old days of eGIF saw councils fill their websites up with PDFs in an attempt to do things "electronically". As you can see from above, there's very little time saving to the user or the council, other than the user doesn't have to wait to receive the application form.

Online and E-Forms


Now we're getting somewhere and the customer interaction is down to one step, but look at the back office function, it hasn't changed. So whilst the customer's getting a nice, sometimes well designed front end, there's no saving for the council and it'll take just as long for the user to get their licence. This is what's sometimes referred to as "lipstick as a pig".


An End-to-End Process


You can see a clear change here, checks are completed by the online service querying a database or API. Information is automatically saved in the back office system so no re-keying, and the service generates the licence which the user could download and may be made available somewhere online for everyone to see.

So that's it, digital transformation done, right? Well, no.


Digital Transformation


We've approached the first four steps with the user need being "I want to apply for an Events Notice" but this isn't the case, no one wants to apply for an Events Notice. The user need is "I want to put on an event" and when you look at it like that things become different.

So our service above still has the statutory function of issuing a licence, it still has the efficient end-to-end process but it's got more. At the start we ask the user their needs, do they need advertising, a venue, staff to run their event and if they do, we build this into the service.

Because this is a digital service, though we're offering a lot more, once created there's minimal cost to the council.

Because these are optional extras and not part of the statutory service these can be chargeable and run by partners or the community, which means we've turned round what was a very costly process into something that now generates revenue.

Of course there's a lot more to digital transformation than this. I've not touched on the process of creating a digital service, but hopefully this is a good guide for those starting to think about the subject.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Local Democracy Maker Day 2015

At 8am on Thursday I left my house to attend the Local CIO Council, Place as a Platform event in London. Travelling to Leeds that night, the next day I ran Local Democracy Maker Day a fringe event of LocalGovCamp and then attend the main LocalGovCamp on Saturday. I returned home at midnight on Sunday, so if this comes across as a bit of a brain-dump, hopefully you'll understand as I'm writing this just few hours later.

The first observation I have about the three events is that they were attended by different combinations of the some of the same people. Dave Briggs joked about a self regarding clique in his introduction to LocalGovCamp, but collectively we need to make sure this isn't happening.

My second is that without Nick Hill, either of the LocalGovCamp days wouldn't have happened.

Local Democracy Maker Day was on the Friday, and first of all I need to thank everyone involved in making it happen. From initial discussions online, a meeting between LGMakers, LDBytes and Democracy Club at Birmingham City Council in the summer, to the event, I feel we've worked as a team.

Huge thanks to Carl Whistlecraft, Diane Sims, Sym Roe, Joe Mitchell, Ben Cheetham, Simon Gray the main organisers, and those including Dave McKenna and Rob Alexander who also contributed. Whenever I needed advice at various junctures on what might happen during the organisation of, or the running of the day, someone came back with a great suggestion which collectively we refined.

Though I mentioned a meeting in the summer, Local Democracy Maker Day really started in Huddersfield, at Not in Westminster 2015.

I'd run a maker day as a fringe event of LocalGovCamp in 2014, but it was a collection of unconnected challenges, and whilst it was enjoyable, personally I learnt a lot on how to run that sort of event, and it led to the Local Waste Service Standards Project that LocalGov Digital and Department for Communities and Local Government are currently working on, it wasn't really a continuation of anything.

LocalGov Digital is a network, and I think this should be reflected in the events it organises, and that in many cases they should collaboratively aid a process of improvement spanning across the various streams.

For Local Democracy Maker Day 2015, we took 15 of the outcomes from Not in Westminster 2015 and asked people to vote online on what we should work on; after all, it was a day about democracy. Based on this we chose three for the Maker Day and promoted them to the attendees, giving them time to formulate their ideas.

The make or break point of the day was when we asked people to come forward and pitch their ideas on the three challenges. I was both pleased and relieved when around ten people did, and from that point on I knew that we'd get something out of the day.

One of the highlights for me of when the teams were working on the challenges was when two of them decided to send some of their number out of the building to conduct guerilla research to corporate into their prototype.

Over the next couple weeks, we'll collate and publish all the outputs from each team. I think they'll prove useful to a wide range of people. I mentioned about the Maker Day being a continuation of work and we're planning another, this time as a fringe event of Not in Westminster 2016.

Ultimately Local Democracy Maker Day affirmed to me that the LocalGov Digital and in particular LGMakers should be facilitating the creation of tangible things, or to quote Carl Whistlecraft, "Getting stuff done". So similar to a company, the production and distribution of outputs (doing and sharing) supports the research and development (thinking).

I'll reflect on the main LocalGovCamp later, but that's quite enough thinking, doing and sharing for three days.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

What's in GaaP for the Private Sector?

...or less succinctly, how Government as a Platform (GaaP) could create a new market for software devlopers.

Three things inspired me to write this:

GaaP isn't really a new concept. The idea of a single, cross-organisation platform has been around for decades and those with the view that GaaP should just have a single service developed for each function (an opposing view to Dave's) are really calling for a return to the old days of having one system for common applications, bulk data processing, and so on. This should probably be called Government as a Mainframe (GaaM), but that's another debate.

Elements of the open version of GaaP have been around for a while too; take Open 311. Rewind to four years ago, and I worked with Fix My Street to create an Open 311 Service. There's a good piece about Open 311 here, but basically it means that service requests made via Fix My Street go straight into the system the back-office use. 

So the service request bit of GaaP already exists in a growing number of local authorities and if you're creating a platform for government and you're not considering common standards like Open 311 for reporting, OAuth for authorisation, and the variety on, you're probably developing a proprietary platform that leans more towards GaaM than GaaP.

So what does an open platform, using common standards enable? Many things, but in the context of this piece it creates a new market for software developers to create applications that use council services, for the public. This is a good thing for many reasons, three of which are:

  • It facilitates a move for private sector companies who currently design for councils, to designing for users, and as users understand their own needs better than anyone else the service is far more likely to meet user need. Should a shift to design around user need be happening anyway, yes, but is it, probably not, and definitely not as fast as it should be.

  • It frees council services from the confines of their own GOV.UK website, making them far more versatile. I discussed this here, but it'll mean that the likes of Fix My Street or will be possible for every local government service.

  • It creates choice, and it'll be possible to have multiple applications that use the same end-to-end service. Is this a waste, perhaps, but it's not a waste of public money and if you were to consider every unsuccessful venture purely as a failure rather than also a lesson learnt, the process of improvement would be dramatically slower.

There's a lot more to GaaP than the single aspect I've written about, and you'll see a lot written over the next year. One thing's for sure, GaaP isn't anything for the Private Sector to fear, in fact if done right, we'll see better digital public services and a new market for software developers.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Phil's Pipeline pitch

LocalGovCamp and Fringe 2015 starts on 11th September and the main event on Saturday is the unconference for Local Government. This year I'll be pitching a session about Pipeline, the collaboration platform from LocalGov Digital.

I've already written about what I learnt from Pipeline, but in short it demonstrated a strong desire from councils to collaborate, but a need for a service or community management role to facilitate collaboration.

So how could this role or service be funded? I'll explore some options below.



Ultimately this will benefit all councils, so why shouldn't they fund it? Perhaps eventually they could, but there isn't a proven business case and even if a handful of councils decided to go in together they're unlikely to reap the benefits unless they were all working on the same projects at the same time, which is fairly unlikely.

Asking a few councils to take a punt on something they won't reap the rewards until many more come on board isn't likely to succeed.


National Organisations 

You'd think there might be some scope for a national organisation partnering with LocalGov Digital, however there seems to be little interest in this.

A consortium of six councils applied for funding for Pipeline from one national organisation which was turned down. Another national organisation has since launched a very similar platform in alpha. Others are producing their own studies and reports into cross sector collaboration rather than actually doing something.

It seems promoting ones organisation is of higher importance than collaboration between councils, so at this time, this isn't an option.



Private sector sponsorship could be a viable option in terms of getting the funding needed, but does the platform need to be impartial in terms of choices of solution?

For example, if a bunch of councils were looking for something that a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) might deliver, and a major CRM supplier sponsored Pipeline might there be pressure to steer councils towards their product.

So this is a possible option, but you'd have to ask, what's in it for the private sector?



LocalGov Digital is essentially crowd funded, apart from LocalGovCamp which couldn't happen without generous partners and sponsors. I wrote about how LocalGov Digital is funded in January.

Crowdfunding would provide flexibility and impartiality, but perhaps not sustainability, however once a case has been proven other funding options might be more viable.

That was my pitch for 12th September, if you'd like to find out what happened afterwards, I've written a piece here.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Beyond user needs

This week we published our first Digital Service User Assessment. Whilst this is far from a Digital Service Standard it's a step in the right direction. This is something we're working towards, though I'm wary of us introducing too much bureaucracy or letting "the government inspectors" have the final say.

Digital service redesign and improvement should always be driven by the needs and the assessment of the user and perhaps something greater, which is the subject of this piece.

So to the digital service we've just made live. We've build this based on needs, but what are those needs? To a digital team it might look like this:

As a resident, I want to report dog fouling to the council, so the council can clean it up.

but this isn't the primary user need. No one gets up in the morning looking forward to contacting their local council to report dog fouling.

To see this one needs to take a step outside the digital realm, outside the language of users and think about what residents want, what society wants because as a local government officer I'm paid to serve all residents and their elected representatives, not just those who might use a website.

Whilst a reactive function of the service is to remove dog fouling it goes wider than that and there is a proactive need to prevent dog fouling.

So with this in mind, the resident need is:

As a resident, I want dog owners to clear up their dog fouling, so I can live in a nice place.

and when you start to see it this way, that's when new opportunities arise.

Tom Loosemore asked on Twitter:
and he's spot on, when in effect he asks "justify the creation of this service".

As a council we can do various things to meet the resident needs of living in a nice place when it comes to dog fouling, they include:

  • Installing and maintaining dog bins
  • Installing signage asking people to clear up after their dogs
  • Clearing up dog fouling
  • Investigating dog fouling and prosecuting owners who fail to clean up after their dog

however there was no digital service to help us meet the need of the resident, a simple reporting tool doesn't gather the information we need. Now there is, though at the least it only asks four questions (more if the user wants to tell us more), so it's pretty simple in itself.

We can be proactive and use analysis of the data to put signs and bins in the right place. Not only will this save us money, it'll create a nicer place. We can better investigate reports of dog fouling, clear it up and perhaps prosecute if we need to because we have better information that asks residents specifically about these things.

It's not until you see the resident need and how a digital service could be used to re-design wider service delivery that you'll realise the true benefits of digital service delivery.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Democracy is never out of style

If you've been following the debate around government and digital for a while you'll know like most areas of discussion, it follows patterns and fashions.

Take this year for example. It started with voting and elections, moved on to open data and recently we've seen a lot of debate around Government as a Platform (GaaP). Interest in a topic can be accentuated by events at the time. So voting and elections by the General Election, GaaP by Mike Braken leaving GDS.

Debate can be cyclical. The question "Do we need a Local Government Digital Service (LocalGDS)" had been discussed for over four years and was a factor in the formation of LocalGov Digital in 2012. A catalyst for a recurrence of the topic can be someone fresh entering the conversation. For example, someone new to the topic decides that a LocalGDS would be a great idea and makes many of the points that others have before. Take a look at this compilation of what's been said over the years and you'll see there's a lot of repetition.

Given what I've written you might expect this year's LGMakers fringe event of LocalGovCamp to focus on something de rigueur that entices people to attend. It's not. At any time generally the least fashionable thing is what's just been fashionable , which means by running Local Democracy Maker Day, focussing on voting and elections we're running an event on the least trendy topic in digital government.

Here's the thing though. Pushing forward the digital debate by doing isn't about following fads, it's about being relentless in one's vision for making things better. In February 2015 Local Democracy Bytes collaborated with others on the Not in Westminster event and "Uncompromising" was the title of Carl Haggery's lightening talk.

Not only does this year's LGMakers fringe event take inspiration its uncompromising vision from Not in Westminster, it will build on some the discoveries at the event in February . You can have your say on which of the challenges that the day will focus on here.

This is when LocalGov Digital works best, where people with different skills and interests come together to build something together.

There's another factor in the timing too. Now is the best time to analyse all the data from General Election 2015 and I'm delighted that Democracy Club are involved with the event to bring their insights to the day. Elections don't just happen every five years. There are parish and district by-elections almost every week and 2016 sees elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the London Assembly, the Mayor of London, English local government and Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales. Waiting until just before the 2020 General Election would be a missed opportunity.

If you haven't already, book a free ticket for Local Democracy Maker Day in Leeds in 11th September, because democracy should never go out of style.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Stop telling me there's a problem with women in tech

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend time talking with Nadira Hussain. She's passionate about IT and public service, as you'd expect of a President of SocITM. One of the key themes of her year of the presidency is Women in IT.

Women in IT and digital isn't something I've considered much, and I haven't I written on the subject before; this got me thinking. Perhaps this is part of the problem, and in my own small way I'm helping to perpetuating the status quo rather contributing than fixing things.

So I had a think about what's happening and concluded there isn't a problem with women in IT.

OK, here's what I actually mean. There isn't a problem with women in IT, there is a problem however with a sometimes boorish culture in tech which is inflicted on others by a certain section of the sector, the vast majority of whom happen to be men. The problem wasn't created and isn't continued by women.

So how to resolve this, well for one stop talking about a problem with women in IT and start promoting women in IT.

Imagine a publicity campaign for anything else being marketed in the same way. "Come on holiday to Bogchester. It's dull as dishwater but someone like you will liven it up" or "The Nag's Head. You might get punched in the face, but you'll add a touch of class to the place".

If you're a young person looking for a career path and you hear that because of your gender, your views and work are likely to be taken less seriously, that's not going to entice you into the sector, it's going to drive you away. Hearing about positive role models who are doing great things however just might make you want to seek a career in that sector. Let's be positive about things, not promote the negative or confuse the problem.

Secondly, I've seen tech conferences aimed at women and as a man I feel excluded as they're not for me. Perhaps I shouldn't be there I think and I'm betting many fellow men feel the same.

Yes, this is a bit rich, a man compliaing about feeling excluded, but to exclude those who might be unwittingly be causing the problem from an event which is part of the solution, exposure to positive female role models, seems to be counter productive to me.

So how to fix this? If you organise a conference or event, at your next event make the line-up of speakers all female. Hang on though, haven't I just said this doesn't solve the problem? Here's the twist; don't tell anyone you're doing it.

Don't tell the speakers, don't put it in the publicity, don't mention it on the day. When attendees evaluate the event don't ask any gender based questions about the day. If anyone complains or asks, say this was the best panel available. How often have we heard this before when the bias is the other way?

So here's to people like Sarah Lay, Sarah Prag, Linda O'Halloran, Sarah Jennings, Nadira Hussain and countless others who inspire me in what I do, in fact there's a top class panel of speakers right there if you're putting on an event about government and digital.

Don't tell me there's a problem with women in tech, there isn't. There's a problem with the culture in tech. Let's start doing something about it.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Pipeline Alpha

In September 2014, officers from 25 councils met in Guildford to discuss a platform to enable collaboration across Local Government. A "Kickstarter for local government" is the missing part to Makers Project Teams, a concept to enable collaborative working across different organisations put forward by LGMakers the design and development strand of LocalGov Digital.

Based on the user needs captured at the event, LGMakers created collaboration platform Pipeline and by October people from over 50 councils had signed up. Pipeline is an Alpha, a prototype set up to evaluate how a Kickstarter for councils might work. It is a working site though, and is being used as the platform it is eventually intended to be, at present without some of finer features a live offer might have.

So what have I've learnt in the eight months since we launched Pipeline?

There's a strong desire to collaborate 

LocalGov Digital isn't a funded programme. I wrote about how much it LocalGov Digital costs, but the short of it is, other than LocalGovCamp which is funded by generous sponsors (though still very much organised by people like Sarah Lay in their own time), we spend next to nothing on what we do.

The campaign to promote Pipeline consisted of a few tweets, a couple of articles online and a lot of word-of-mouth, yet as I type people from almost 100 councils have signed up. That's almost 25% of local authorities in the UK.

This doesn't happen unless there's a desire for people to do something, so yes, people working in councils and civic coders seem to genuinely want to join things up and work together.

Collaboration needs coordination

There are 58 projects in Pipeline but many have been added and forgotten about. In some cases others have expressed an interest in someone else's project, but again, then forgotten about it. This could be because as an Alpha, Pipeline doesn't yet have the full capabilities needed to keep people informed of what's happening on it, but actually I don't think it really needs a technical solution.

No amount of email, tweeting or other messaging functionality will help resolve this on its own. After all, how many times a month do you unsubscribe from something you vaguely remember signing up for some time ago?

Without a co-ordinator or community manager Pipeline and anything set up to achieve similar aims will become nothing more than a place to share ideas at best, of which there are already many adequate mediums, and talking shop at worst.

I've heard so much about collaboration over the past years, but to the best of my knowledge there still isn't a single person in this kind of co-ordinator role nationally, which brings me to the main conclusion I draw from Pipeline:

There is no organisation championing local government digital collaboration nationally by doing

LocalGov Digital isn't an organisation, it's a networked collection of like minded people with an interest in making things better by the use of digital.

In the medium term at least, there is no champion organisation or programme set to ride in and round up all those interested in true cross-organisation collaboration. Equally there are no tanks set to invade the lawn of local government digital service provision. If there were, they still would have to navigate the mire of interests and opinions of associations, societies and companies who have some involvement in how local government does digital.

Even with a proven case for collaboration, access to the open source code for Pipeline and kanban board of user needs which anyone can take an use for themselves this hasn't happened. If you have an interest in this topic you may have read, or perhaps even written that someone needs really needs to do something about this.

Well guess what? That someone it probably you.

So what next?

To make this happen it's not about creating a GDS Local (though this may be a small part of that), it's not about solving the big problems like open systems or making sure local government designs to meet user needs, in my mind this is where the debate has been going wrong.

It's about starting small and simple and building from there. So in this case, how do we create that single role to facilitate collaboration nationally, because sometimes the solutions to digital problems aren't technology based, they're just about good old fashioned thinking, doing and sharing.

I've started to think about it, and I wrote about how it might be funded here.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Doing digital democracy

The people of the UK have just voted in a new government, and in local authorities across the country, thousands of councillors have been elected.

For the past few weeks I've been involved in a small way, in the electoral process and over Thursday  and Friday I worked 27 hours out of 32. Some of my colleagues continue today, for the count of the parish elections.

Prior to the election, working with Democracy Club I helped them produce their polling station finder. When I say I helped them, we gave them some data, they put in the long hours of creating and refining the finder, and I did a bit of bug testing.

I wrote a lot more about why the polling station finder is a good thing here.

The polls opened at 7am on 7 May and we were able to offer voters not only the location of polling stations in our district, but neighbouring Reading Borough too. This is a model that I've talked about for a while. Civic coders, or perhaps even a GDS Local producing common functionality that can be embedded in council sites, spanning borders so offering a better service. Developing it once rather than hundreds of times, so it's a lot better value for the taxpayer.

The main barrier to nationwide coverage was some councils' unwillingness to release data in response to Democracy Club's FOI request.

When the polls closed at 10pm the process of verification and counting started. We'd developed something to allow people both in the room on large screens and out in internet land to keep up with the various stages of the count.

Using a simple spreadsheet as a database powering an application, we were able to tell people on which counting table each ballot box was, and whether it was being verified or counted.

For the Parliamentary count there was just one result which was announced at 5.30am and after a few hours sleep, everyone was back at 10am to start on counting votes for district councillors on the unitary council.

For this we'd developed something additional. Based on the Modern.Gov API we were able to show the overall results as they happened, updated seconds after the Returning Officer had finished announcing it on stage.

We've put the election results code on GitHub, free for anyone to use. Again, this could be a model for a GDS Local, producing common functionality that many councils can use. I'd love to see someone else use this for their council elections next year, and I'd be happy to help them set it up.

As well as being available on the big screens we put all of this online, which means those not able to attend the count were as up to date as those in the room. We tweeted each district result too, linking back to the full results.

There's two encouraging things about this for me:
It was the Returning Officer that asked for the election count and results dashboard. It's great that the person in charge of the electoral process got how digital communications can be used to keep people informed.

It proved that the creation of shareable digital products for the dissemination of democratic information, both by civic coders and councils, is possible.
With no General Election for five years, perhaps the focus of coders might turn to local governments, some of whom have elections most years. I really hope the case, and watch this space for an event to help promote this, later in the year.

One final thing. We thought we were the only count with a glitterball but it turns out Oldham went one better and had a full on disco, as pictured below. I've made notes for next time.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Social. Same, but different.

I don't write about social media a lot these days. As far as Facebook and Twitter goes much of the conversation has been said. Online discussion usually follows the circular argument:

"Isn't social media great?"
"Yes, governments should do more with it"
"That's right, because isn't social media great"

That's not to say governments and their agencies could and should do more, but talking is easy, hence the success and some of the great fails of social media. Putting ideas into action is harder.

There's still room for innovation in social, for example the trial of What's App at Shropshire Council, or the number of councils looking at using Meerkat and Periscope for election coverage, although this does feel like a bit of a fad as video streaming apps like Bambuser and Hangouts on Air have been around for a couple of years now. Anything that pushes governments in the right direction must be a good thing though.

I'm still very much an advocate of social media. I use it in my professional life and I set up the Twitter account and main Facebook page for the organisation I work for, in 2009. Since then I've handed it over to others to manage and this is what I'm really what covering in this post. What happens when social moves from innovation to business as usual?

This great post on Comms2Point0 was the catalyst for me wanting to write about social again. I recognise and sympathise many of the issues here, having been in the same position a few years ago. And I've split my response up into two parts.


Social is another channel of contact and engagement. It's as valid as the telephone or email, perhaps more some argue, given its ability to reach so many people, so quickly. Some organisations don't get this, and that's why it's not taken seriously and used as best as it could.

Given this, those managing it need to apply some of the same professional disciplines they do with other channels. You probably wouldn't take a phone call or reply to an email from a member of the public about at pothole, unpaid on a Sunday afternoon, so why is social different?

Monitoring a social account on behalf of an organisation in your own time creates a false expectation from those using the service. There are always going to be times when this is necessary, in emergencies for example, but I'm talking about on a run of the mill, Sunday afternoon.

Replying to people out of your paid hours means that this is a service people will come to expect, and that afternoon you're at a wedding, or out in the sticks and haven't got a mobile signal so can't reply, people are going to be disappointed that you haven't.

Do the people doing a great job of running the First Great Western or Nationwide Twitter accounts at weekends do so for the love of their organisation? No, they're getting paid for doing it, and quite rightly so. If doing this for free, you're masking the lack of investment in this channel and preventing it from being taken as seriously as it should.

My advice? Add the hours you'll respond to the account's profile and stick to them. If people complain, you've got a case for more investment. If they don't, you probably never needed to monitor it at the weekend.

But different.

I've said how social should be taken seriously. That a professional approach should manage expectation and give social the profile it deserves in an organisation.

Social is, well, social however. It's been likened to a conversation down the pub and whilst you'd rarely run a corporate account with that level of informality this doesn't mean that those use social to interact with your organisation might not take that approach.

This isn't always the case, as O2 demonstrated here. Be careful if you're thinking of doing this though. You're more likely to come across as Richard Madeley being Ali G than authentic, if you're unfamiliar with a particular style of language, init.

So here's the thing. Some people swear. Some people swear a lot. For example, here's Happy Mondays and Black Grape front man Sean Ryder trying his best not to swear and failing in under a minute. Don't take it personally. They're not swearing at you, they're swearing at the online presence of an organisation they're legally obliged to give money to, using social language in the manner they're used to.

Just remember that the "f*cking sh*t council" might become the "f*cking brilliant council" in their mind and online after you've engaged with them, and to have an advocate saying your organisation is "f*cking brilliant" is pretty powerful.

So that's my first and last post on social for a while. Written on a Sunday, unpaid, this once again highlights difference between professional and personal opinion, this being very much the latter.

I'm off for a roast dinner now. If you'd need my services professionally, I'll be around from 8am tomorrow.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Democracy Club

I manage the Digital Services Team for a council in the South of England, I’m also Vice-Chair of the LocalGov Digital Steering Group, a network of digital practitioners working in councils across the country.

It’s the nature of the mixture of local and national administration that sometime geographical boundaries don’t match up. Take Berkshire for example. There are eight parliamentary constituencies and six unitary authorities, but only two of the former are administered by a single one of the latter.

Confused? Voters probably are too.

The local authority that voters pay their council tax to might not be the one that administers polling for their parliamentary seat. For example, if you live in the parliamentary constituency of Windsor, you’ll have to visit the websites of either Bracknell Forest Council, Slough Borough Council or the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to find the location of your polling station.

This is where the work Democracy Club is doing comes in. By embedding functionality that uses national data in every council website, voters don’t have to know which council website to go to because the data crosses administrative borders.

In lots of cases the council boundary does match the parliamentary constituency, but there are still benefits here too. Hundreds of councils don’t have to produce or purchase this functionality independently, so there’s a cost saving to taxpayers. It also frees the information from the confines of a council website. Hyperlocal and national websites can use it too, or people might want to visit the Democracy Club website itself.

What Democracy Club are doing fits in with the wider idea of local government as a service, and the “Think. Do. Share” ethos, that LocalGov Digital promote. Our Local Democracy Bytes workstream is all about digital and local democracy, whilst our LocalGov Digital Makers promotes collaborative creation.

For my own part, and on the topic of democracy, here’s the code to create a results board utilising the Modern.Gov API, that can be used by councils at the election count and for displaying a simple view of results online. If you have any more projects, it’d be great if you could add them to the LocalGov Digital platform Pipeline that we designed to kick-start collaboration in local government.

I’ve seen much talk of a need for re-usable components, for civic and council websites, so it’s great to see that Democracy Club, along with LocalGov Digital, are getting on developing them and when it comes to the democratic process, Democracy Club are thinking, doing and sharing.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Local government should... (Part Two)

In Part One I offered a rough guide to local government. A quick explanation of how complex this bit of the public sector is compared central government.

In this part I'll discuss how we can move things forward, not by amending existing practices but by taking a new approach. I'm going to use the contentious issue of "one website to rule them all", that is, a single website to publish information from all 6,500ish local government departments that some have proposed.

Local government websites are a good example of change by consensus. Even as little as ten years ago, not every UK council had a website. There's no general legislation to ensure that councils have websites (though there is some around specific content provision), it's just by consensus of user need that they've been created.

They're also a good example of the speed of change. Local politicians have been told by professionals of the need for bigger, better websites for years. This is starting to change, and in 2013 I wrote "How to reduce visits to your website" about how councils will eventually be looking to cut down the number of user journeys to their website. The ultimate outcome of this is that councils don't have individual websites at all. Imagine how confusing this must be to some local politicians, being told the exact opposite of what they've heard for the last fifteen years.

So back to the single website. Many are against this idea, including the Society of Information Technology Managers, I am too, but for different reasons, it's not forward thinking enough and is the wrong model given what's achievable now. Simply amending where local government website content is presented is unlikely to work, changing the model the sector uses to publish content just might.

Back in 2011 I wrote about treating content as a data object rather than a page of text and followed this up with a different look at Twitter in 2012. When you start to break things down to this level, more becomes possible.

Rather than trying to force councils to use a single website and content management system (CMS) , a better approach would be to create a central repository for content with a publicly readable API. This isn't a new idea, nor is it mine. Saul Cozens has talked about "local government as a service" since 2012.

An open service of council content would enable authorities to continue to create local websites should they wish to. Yes, some might see this as continuing to be wasteful but it negates the argument that as independent organisations, councils should have their own web presence, because they still can should they wish.

Another argument against a one website for councils is that it would only need a single CMS and therefore is anti-competitive. With the model I'm proposing, existing management systems could be configured to use the API, allowing councils to still use the CMS of their choice, should they wish to.

This model breaks down the artificial barriers that some have put in place to achieving something new.

Sure you'd need to agree the range of content types but this has already been documented in the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. You'd also need to agree what's stored against each record, but to a large extent this has been done by and LocalGov Digital project Localo is starting to define some of the standards that are individual to local government.

An additional benefit is hyperlocals could create community websites, national websites on a particular topic could be developed (similar to Tell Me Scotland). Put simply, local government content would not be confined to a single website that provides information about services in one geographic boundary, but set free for use by whoever wishes to create something with it.

This approach fits with the idea of government as a platform and is far more versatile than a single website. It means that those that want to get on with doing something new can do so, but allows those who don't to, to migrate across when they're ready, because without legislation this can't be mandated and will only be achieved by consensus.

In Part One I talked about doing things differently rather than trying to re-invent what already exists. Starting to create a local government content API rather than a single website is just one example. I've added this idea to LocalGov Digital's collaboration platform Pipeline, I'm sure other can think of many more, so why not post them on Pipeline too.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Local government should... (Part One)

I've seen a lot written recently about what local government should do in terms of digital services, so I thought I'd write a quick guide to this bit of the public sector, for those who might not be so familiar with it.

Local government isn't one government like central government, but a collection of Counties, Districts, Boroughs, Unitary, Town, Parish and a few other Councils. There's around 9,000 of these. Many members of these councils have affiliation to a political party, but some don't. When people say "local government" however, they're usually referring to the 433 Tier One and Tier Two councils though, so for the rest of this article that's what I'll mean, when I refer to local government or councils.

Each council is split into departments or service units. Depending on the size of the organisation there could be quite a few of these, but I'm going to guestimate on average there's 15. They're sometimes referred to authorities in their own right, so for example a local planning authority, local education authority and so on. So when if one makes a broad statement saying "local government should do this", they're really saying "6,500 local government departments do this".

There is no one organisation that represents councils. There are in fact hundreds, from the Local Government Association right though to more niche organisations such as Directors of Adult Social Care. There's also unions, such as Unison and the GMB that represent staff.

Whilst central government deals with a few high volume services, local government offers many often low volume services. The Local Government Services List is a good indicator of them and there 942 on this list, though not all councils offer all these services because its not in their remit to do so and many offer additional services bespoke to local user need. If the Government Digital Service were to create exemplar services out of these it would take 75 years at their current rate, assuming they finish their current 25 by the end of next month.

Politicians lead councils, officers carry out the decisions of councillors. Officers are also there to advise councillors. Local politicians tend to be more hands on than Members of Parliament, some taking an interest in general or specific operation matters. This gives "user need" an added political dimension at local level.

Like Members of Parliament, some politicians won't support the views of others, usually because they're from a different political party. Because politicians run councils this means that some councils won't work with others at a strategic level and they may choose to ignore or work against central government too, particularly if central government is a different party to the ruling party of the council.

So next time you say "local government should...", bear in mind you could be saying "6,500 local government departments, with agreement from local 1,000s of politicians should....". Faced with this, one might despair and give up, but there are other ways to achieve change.

One could seek to change the system, and some are, but for the reasons above this is often slow. One would also need a mandate to start to change the nature of local government.

There is a third way, doing things differently, and I'll be covering this in Part Two.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


This week LocalGov Digital launched unmentoring. Based on Nesta's Randomised Coffee Trials, you sign up to committing to having a conversation remotely with a random person over a cup of your favourite refreshment (non alcoholic of course), for around 30 minutes to 1 hour once a month.

With a background as a developer I usually deal in the tangible, the doing and sharing bit of  LocalGov Digital's "Think. Do. Share". So why have I signed up for unmentoring?

Coding out loud

The first port call when you get stuck coding are often sites like stackoverflow, an open compendium of public questions and answers about all sorts of coding problems. If you can't get an answer from here then talking through your problem with someone else is usually next.

Sometimes, working through the code, or rather the intention of the code helps you spot the problems with it. The solution might be something as simple as removing a stray speech mark, right though to having to re-write your solution. Explaining your code to someone else means you're assessing your own work in a way you probably wouldn't on your own.

The person you're talking to doesn't always have to be a developer, just willing to listen and ask questions if needed and I think you can apply this concept to most thing in life. This is why I'm signing up to unmentoring, to talk, and more importantly, listen and hopefully ask the right questions.

A different perspective

The concept of pair programming has been around for a while, two people working as a Lennon and McCartney or Beavis and Butthead to create a product. This approach can work well, particularly in agile development as it's a constant quality check for what's being produced.

The pair are likely to have a similar skills and can often have the same perspective on many things, or the same background. Whilst this might be useful for the production of digital applications and services, you're unlikely to get a radically approach to problem resolution.

I'm signing up to unmentoring because I want to talk to people with different skills and backgrounds to myself, to get a different perspective on things.

Opening up

Unmentoring is a good challenge for me, to make sure I can open up the things I'm trying to achieve and explain them in language most people can understand.

Last year I wrote about how some of the jargon used by "digital people" might be hindering progress in getting good things done online. For example, the Guardian published an article explaining what "digital transformation" is, to people who might not understand the concept. If you need a page to explain two words, you probably need to change the words.

I'm signing up to unmentoring to make sure I'm opening up the things I do to everyone, not just those who understand the digital jargon and buzzwords, because if they don't understand, I need to change.

So if someone like me, who you'd probably find coding on a keyboard (though increasingly less these days) more than chatting over a coffee can sign up to unmentoring, you can too.

Monday, 9 February 2015

We're not in 2012 any more

This is a post about two events, both last week. The first the LocalGov Digital Steering Group meet on 6th February, and the second Local Democracy for Everyone: We're Not in Westminster Any More on the 7th, both in Huddersfield

Perhaps they warrant two individual write ups, but as the two are inextricably linked, both because LocalGov Digital was a sponsor of the latter and with the LocalGov Digital Steering Group's Carl Whistlecraft and Dave McKenna being involved in its organisation, I've decided to write about the two together.

A four an a half hour journey gave me a chance to play with Google+ Locations, and watching Carl Haggerty and Lucy Knight race me across the country, in a sort of virtual It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World gave me a few ideas, but that's for another post.

The trip from Manchester to Huddersfield, over the beautiful snow peaked Pennines also remind me that life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. To adapt this to the 21st Century, remember put your smartphone down and look out the window once in a while.

Anyway, that's enough film references, back to the events of last week.

Sarah Lay already wrote about how LocalGov Digital came about, and I'm excited that a group which first came together in October 2012 and still remains as what some have referred to as "a network of enthusiastic volunteers" is now sponsoring and helping to organise groundbreaking events.

This is where Not in Westminster comes in.

From civic leaders to collaborative coders an amazing mix of people attended, all keen to improve local democracy, giving up their own time. The day was split into lightening talks and workshops, with the latter required to output at least three ideas. This is great as it helps to turn thinking into doing; more on that later.

Whilst some have been moaning that someone should create a LocalGDS, with others issuing best practice guidance and publishing strategy reports, LocalGov Digital been getting on with it by thinking, doing and sharing and Not in Westminster really exemplifies this ethos.

But where now for the network in 2015?

Planning for LocalGovCamp is already underway and they'll be an announcement in the next few weeks. LocalGov Digital certainly didn't start LocalGovCamp, in fact it was more the other way around, but we'll be organising it again this year.

They'll also be another Makers Meet, following up from the success of last September where Pipeline was born. It'll still focus on digital design and development but cast the net wider to bring the tribes together,  taking some of the ideas from Not in Westminster and our other workstreams, to combine them into one event.

You'll also see some of the things we've been discussing or working on move to the next stage this year, be they platforms, standards or something more radical like un-mentoring.

Three years ago LocalGov Digital was a disparate group of like minded individuals with a passion for improving public services. Last weekend shows, we're not in 2012 any more.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Digital best practice checklist

This week I finished the draft of a digital best practice check-list. It's not digital strategy, in fact I'm increasingly thinking organisations don't need a digital strategy, they need a delivery strategy.

My draft has check-list of seven questions and recommendations, with one overall recommendation regarding best practice for delivering digital. Ideally it would be incorporated into a wider service and information delivery strategy.

Below I've omitted the bulk of the content, the reasoning behind arriving at the recommendation from the question because it's still in draft, but here are the seven questions and eight recommendations:

1. Is the council properly promoting its digital services and content, to reduce avoidable contact?

Recommendation: Establish a “digital first” ethos to the promotion of services and better targeting what, when and where they're promoted.

2. Are the digital services the council offers, especially where the design and development has been outsourced, user focused and usable on mobile devices?

Recommendation: Ensure new digital services developed or procured are created to a joined-up delivery strategy or framework, using customer focused Service Design principles.

3. Are the council's digital services designed to gain the maximum capacity and efficiency benefits, making the most of automated “end to end” services?

Recommendation: Ensure digital services offered to the public are end to end where appropriate, and that business processes make the most of digital.

4. Is the council using social media to its full potential?

Recommendation: Ensure the most appropriate officers are using social media to its full potential, particularly around customer service and promotional storytelling, and that they have the skills to do so. 

5. In an increasingly digital world, does the council offer sufficient support to those who may find it difficult to use online services?

Recommendation: Collate and publicise all the digital skills and inclusion activities offered the area.

6. Is the council considering alternative or supplementary service provision by facilitation through digital services?

Recommendation: Consider the facilitation of services provided by the community through the use of digital services and tools.

7. Is the council considering co-production and resource sharing around the creation and management of digital services?

Recommendation: Adopt a more collaborative approach to the creation of digital services and encourage co-production of services with the community.

Main Recommendation: Establish a “digital service” with remit over the digital services the council offers to customers to implement the recommendations above.

Are these the questions you'd include and are these the recommendations you'd suggest?

It'd be great to hear from you, whether you agree or disagree with what I've written because in true LocalGov Digital collaborative style, your feedback will make what I produce better.
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.