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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…

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 …

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 interactio…

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

No, dear Director of Capita, digital in its widest sense is ones and zeroes, as opposed to analogue, actually pic.twitter.com/tI8rrff75b — Anke Holst (@the_anke) October 29, 2015
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 c…

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/testingQuestions about the team supporting the serviceDigital inclusion and contingency planningTechnical archite…

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 L…

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 mov…

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 interac…

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

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:
Dave Briggs' excellent piece on GaaPThis week I'll be attending a Local CIO Council workshop on Place as a Platform. This FOI request to Worcestershire County Council.
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 Op…

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.
Councils 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 b…

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 …

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'…

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 sto…

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 Digita…

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 b…

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 …

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 embeddin…

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 star…

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 authorit…

Unmentoring

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 you…

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 mi…

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 ha…