Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Kick starting collaboration in Local Government

A while ago, at a LocalGov Digital Steering Group I suggested the idea of a "dating site" or Kickstarter for Local Government. This week I was discussing Nesta's new Creative Commons Europe site with Carl Haggerty and Paul Mackay; it seemed like a good idea to re-visit the subject.

When it comes to digital services, councils often tend to buy off-the-shelf solutions with a customised look and feel. This means that essentially, some suppliers are selling the same thing over and over again with a different paint job. It's production line development and sales in digital services, or IT systems as they're often seen as, which are treated as a purchased product with a limited shelf-life. When the shelf-life expires the procurement process starts again.

Producing digital services should be an iterative process, as documented in the Government Service Design Manual. People's expectations of digital services are constantly evolving and Local Government is not immune to this. Ongoing change in what Local Government does also affects what needs to be offered online.

Factors like newer and different types of device, improved connection speed and improved availability of connection are altering what people expect they can do digitally and where they can do it. The flip-side to this change is what can be done online is always expanding and many councils have a channel shift programme to exploit the potential savings of using digital services to a greater extent.

If you're not developing and continuing to improve a digital service with the customer in mind you're probably not meeting their expectation fully nor are you getting the full benefit of channel shift. This is where something like a council "Appstarter" could come in.

So let's say I'm looking to create new digital service and I have a limited development resource with which to create it. I'd go to Appstarter, write a brief description of what I wanted and break the work down into chunks. The author could specify which resources they had and what they needed. A extremely basic version of this could look like:

Digital service for residents to report missed bin collections.

Have: C# development.
Need: Database development, Graphic design, Web design , UX design.

Those interested in collaborating to produce something could then pledge their skills and time to fulfil one of the roles in creating and continuing to improve the service. Yes, this would make the project more complex than buying something off-the-shelf, but it wouldn't need project managers for each participating authority, as each council buying and implementing (or developing) their own system most likely would.

There are more possibilities if the proposed solution has a budget. Appstarter could be open to SMEs who don't have all the skills but could work on some aspects of the creation and iterative improvement. It could be that the entire solution is supplied by SMEs, facilitated through Appstarter.

Obviously there would need to be some sort of qualification criteria for SMEs, but this would be a one off task and sharing out work amongst a number of different smaller suppliers eliminates the risk of having a single point of failure.

There will be situations when this approach might not be appropriate, Problems to resolve with it will be identified, but Appstarter might save money on procurement, enable collaboration and save work, provide a better service to customers which in turn could save money through more channel shift.

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.