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.
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.