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.
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.