Nice, funny video that might just help a few folk understand this stuff:
One thing that has been taking up quite a bit of my attention lately is how, in the real world, an organisation can do the kind or big picture, strategic transformation that’s almost certainly needed whilst making progress on what might be termed everyday digitisation – the sort of thing that makes peoples lives easier but doesn’t dramatically change the core operating model of the organisation.
I’ve imperfectly defined three ways to attack digitisation before:
- Access – taking a paper or telephone based process and whacking it online with an e-form (quick to do, few benefits except a bit of convenience for web savvy users)
- Efficiency – taking that process and digitising it end to end, involving the replacement or integration with back office systems, removing unnecessary admin touch points an so on (takes longer, more difficult, but yields better results)
- Transformation – taking an entire service and rethinking it from the ground up, knowing what we know about networks and connectivity (really hard, but could ensure the relevance of that service for the next 20 years).
The problem is that transformation is where the real action is, but it is hard, so hard in fact that it’s difficult in my experience to get people to even talk about it. In the meantime, you’ve got folk shouting at you to increase self service or decrease unnecessary demand.
In a recent conversation with Catherine Howe I reminded myself about Ben Thompson’s great analysis of the Amazon purchase of the Whole Foods supermarket chain (Amazon is, I think, by far the most interesting company of our times). In it he describes the concept of Amazon being its own best customer. When building the AWS service for cloud based computing infrastructure, they had a huge customer ready and waiting to use it (and more importantly, test the hell out of it): the Amazon.com e-commerce site. Likewise, having its own in house supermarket would be a great way to build and test Amazon’s emerging logistics business.
This I think gives a hint towards the way an organisation (I’m thinking of my usual local government context, to be clear, although it could work in other sectors too) could start laying the foundations for genuine transformation whilst doing some of the quick wins stuff in efficiency, and maybe a bit of access if they really have to.
By having an idea of what the future big picture might look like, it’s possible to start building things in the here and now in such a way that it delivers the short term gain whilst creating the capabilities, the building blocks, for making the future happen too.
The danger is to drive yourself into a technical cul-de-sac delivering on the immediate requirements which leaves you hamstrung in your ability to execute on the much greater strategic win of genuine transformation when that opportunity arises.
As always the difficulty with this conversation is figuring out what that future looks like. It’s easy to write posts saying “digital isn’t about tech! It’s about changing your fundamental operating model!” but such posts rarely tell you what one of those operating models might be. I don’t necessarily have an answer to that myself (the consultant in me screams “it depends!” at this point) but I’ll post a few thoughts another time.
What I would say though is that the ‘be your own customer’ part of this does point to an organisation in the future being the provider, or perhaps steward, of technical capabilities that can be shared and re-used across a wider (perhaps local) system. However other assets could also play a part in this and it doesn’t need to be a technology focused discussion.
Since joining the steering group for LocalGov Digital, I’ve been getting back into the swing of things when it comes to working remotely with people spread across the country.
In 2018 it feels like an obvious point to make, but the internet really does make this stuff easy. However, knowing how things are inside many organisations, there is still a whole lot that can be achieved by simply making open internet tools available to people to use to do their jobs.
Collaboration in LocalGov Digital is based on three main tools, all of which are free and can be set up by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare.
Slack is the key communications channel, and is a real time text chat application which gives a group of people the ability to talk to one another in themed channels. It’s very easy to use and can be accessed on the web, or through mobile and desktop applications.
The downside with Slack is that it is ephemeral, and stuff can get lost or forgotten about. This is particularly true of the free version, which only archives a certain number of messages. It’s definitely worth storing useful stuff people have shared in a more permanent space when you spot it.
Google Drive is the space where more long-lived collaboration takes place. It delivers word processing, presentations and spreadsheets along with a filing system – all based in the browser.
The ability to have many people working on the same documents, whether typing in directly or adding comments and suggestions is really powerful and it dramatically reduces the need for emailing things round.
Getting the most out of it does need a bit of planning though, particularly looking at folder structures and so forth. It’s tempting to just chuck everything in a flat structure and let the search do its job, but in reality having some order really helps people find their way around.
Again, as well as being web based, there are mobile apps too, which means that folk can get involved on any reasonably modern device. Handy.
Trello is a simple web app for making lists and sharing them with people. You create a board, add some lists and then add items to the list. People can then comment on them, add due dates, add additional sub task lists, label them and so forth.
Really it’s a bunch of different features that can be used however the group collaborating decide to use them, which makes it really powerful. Using Trello, we can see at a glance how certain actions are progressing and which need a little nudge to get going again.
And guess what? As well as the web, there are mobile and desktop apps for Trello. Boom.
Thoughts on getting the most out of these tools
- Sometimes a human API beats a computer’s one – while all the tools above can integrate with one another, sometimes it isn’t always all that helpful to do so. Often, it takes the eye and skill of a human being to link this Trello board to that Google Doc, or post that link in this Slack channel
- Don’t assume they are instantly easy to use – compared to many fully fledged desktop applications, these things are easy to pick up. That doesn’t mean that it will happen straight away however and it’s worth working with your team to ensure they are confident in using them
- It’s worth thinking about information security – whilst not letting it get in the way of doing good work. Not every bit of data is appropriate to be stored on these tools, particularly when you are using the free, consumer version of them, and it’s worth thinking about the nature of what you are sharing before you share it.
I’m well chuffed to have joined the steering group for LocalGov Digital, the informal network of bods doing interesting stuff with computers, the internet and change within local councils.
I’m leading on communication and am kicking off a few pieces of work to drive up levels of awareness of and engagement with the network.
The first of these is to pull together some great examples of digital resources in the sector. Stuff like:
- Digital, IT or technology strategies
- Service manuals, playbooks and how to guides on digital and transformation
- Templates for conducting user research or assessing a digitised service
- Presentations outlining an organisation’s approach to digital and change
…and anything else folk think might be interesting!
Do you have anything like this that you wouldn’t mind sharing with all the good people of LocalGov Digital (and anybody else who browses their website? Just get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll publish details here of the pages once they are live on the LocalGov Digital website.
With a very small number of exceptions, the established local government technology market is populated by companies that fundamentally do not understand user research.
They do not start with user needs or design great user experiences. And they do not use the tools and techniques of the internet age to deliver working software rapidly, so that real users get value from it quickly and iteratively.
I wrote a little while ago that the software market for local government is one of the things holding back the success of transformation in the sector. Gavin argues the point well in this post – it’s a fairly long read but worth the effort.
Why is local government software bad? Let me count the ways…
- It’s hard to maintain, taking up huge resources to keep systems patched and updated
- It’s siloed, with data unable to be meaningfully analysed and shared with other systems
- It’s user hostile, with manuals in lever arch ring binders and training needed to do the most basic of operations
- It’s hard to access, often hosted in council data centres, requiring the use of council equipment and connecting technology like Citrix to get anything done
I’m a little glum on this topic. My fear is that there are a couple of things holding back progress. The first is that the market for local government software isn’t big enough to provide the necessary reward for the investment needed to fix it. Second is that the develop challenge isn’t particularly exciting and thus the vendors struggle to attract the talent needed to make really great software.
One solution is for government to write its own software, although that would mean organisations bringing resources together in a way that hasn’t been particularly productive in the past.
Alternatively, councils could make a shared commitment to bring budget together to pump prime an incumbent or a new supplier. This though would almost certainly mean paying twice for a while whilst the new system is developed.
I’m not convinced either of the above are going to happen soon though. In the meantime, we must try to procure as well as we can, and try to hold suppliers to the standards we set ourselves for our own services.
…a different, more nuanced approach to authentication can save councils money in the long run. By focusing on making the transactions that apply to most people as seamless as possible, it can help to reduce additional support i.e. the number of phone calls and face to face contact.
An interesting development on the original post by then FutureGover Carrie Bishop, who delightfully wrote “‘I really wish I had one place where I can see all my transactions with the council’, said nobody, ever.”
The idea of accounts for public services kind of makes sense in the abstract – people think of e-commerce and how logging into one place where all your stuff resides is a useful thing. Surely it would be great to have that for council services too?
As this post explains, that isn’t necessarily the case, not least because most people don’t interact with their council all that often, and when they do, creating an account seems like needless faff. In those cases, authenticating users in other ways makes much more sense, and there’s some great ideas shared here.
We’ve found that once you identify the information needed for different types of transactions it’s possible to strip back which services really need a ‘login’.
However when considering the user need, there are some cases where an account might make sense. Perhaps a business owner who has several interactions on a regular basis with different bits of the Council, like commercial waste and environmental health, for instance. Or a developer, who has several sites with planning applications ongoing, or building inspections.
It’s dangerous though to make assumptions about when an account might be needed, and this is certainly one of those areas where keeping that focus on meeting the needs of user can ensure a better experience for them, and creating a digital journey that’s more likely to succeed.
Finding time to blog is tough, and while I enjoy putting together the Five for Friday posts, you may have noticed that even doing those is tricky.
To get myself back into the habit of regularly posting, I’m going to have a go at splitting the idea of Five for Friday up, posting the links and short commentary on them individually, as I come across them.
This hopefully will mean I don’t have the burden (!) of trying to find five every week, or having to edit a bunch of stuff in one go. Instead, I can do it piecemeal as I see things I find interesting.
I’ve always enjoyed the way John Gruber posts to his linked list and I guess this is a similar thing for me to do.
I’ll categorise all the posts as reading list, and also add the [RL] prefix to post titles to highlight what they are. I’ll also find a way to send a bunch out via email (which you can sign up for here) – which people have said they find useful in the past. As always, most stuff ends up on Pinboard and Twitter too.
I was asked this morning for the two main blockers to progress in the various attempts at technology enabled change over the years, whether titled e-government or digital transformation.
Here’s what I came up with – it would be interesting to get your thoughts:
Two main challenges for me would be two elements of core capability. The first would be technology, and specifically software. The main line of business systems in use in most local councils is simply not fit for purpose for the digital age. They are horrible to use, don’t interoperate, work poorly on mobile, don’t offer great customer experience for self service and are dogs for the IT team to maintain. Time and time again, otherwise excellent initiatives at e-government or digital transformation are scuppered because of issues relating to core back office systems. What’s more, the market seems to find it impossible to have an impact on the situation, and so driving the incumbents out is very hard to do.
Second, and possibly more important, are the people issues. First is culture, which is risk and change averse, often because of the role of middle managers, many of whom are ‘experts’ in their service area and extremely dedicated to preserving the current way of doing things. Folk on the front line can often easily diagnose problems and suggest solutions, and senior executives are usually well up for a bit of disruptive change. However those in the middle can slow things down and block progress. The other bit of the people problem is capability, in that there aren’t enough really good people around in organisations to drive the change needed forward, which takes guts and stamina as well as intelligence. Without a reasonably sized army of these people in place, initiatives can get run into the ground very quickly.
I was asked by my friends at AdviceCloud to write something for the TechUK blog about how small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can support public sector organisations in their efforts to transform.
Technology is not the be-all and end-all of digital transformation. However, any organisation looking to disrupt itself in this way must have a sufficiently flexible technology stack to support the radical change that is needed – and tech SMEs are in the perfect place to deliver what digital transformation demands.
Five for Friday took a little break for a month or so while I settled into my new job(s). If I’m honest, I am still not completely settled – it takes time getting used to a little portfolio having concentrated on a single role for several years – but I am getting there.
Enjoy the links.
- Mapping service design and policy design – terrific post by Andrea Siodmok on how service design and policy design meet. Quite a lot of the focus on digital transformation misses out the policy element, and understanding what an organisation’s approach to an issue, and why it has that approach, is vital to defining services that deliver the intended outcome.
- Digital transformation, or digital fossilisation? – good stuff from Andrew Larner talking about the need to use the opportunity of digital transformation to address big strategic issues around the manner in which organisations operate – not just hard baking inefficient and user unfriendly processes using new technology.
- Defining Aggregators – you are probably bored of me banging on about Ben Thompson and how good he is, but this is another great piece, pulling together his recent thinking on digital operating models, diving deep into the concept of the aggregator. Now, the aggregator model might not be a good fit for public services, but it’s a great way to get thinking about this operating model malarky.
- Designing for democracy – Catherine Howe applies the ladder of participation model to designing services in the digital age. Making this activity democratic involves the political, of courses, and also links up with Andrea’s post linked to above, where understanding the political and policy context is vital to achieving desired outcomes. There’s loads and loads in here (like does an iterative approach mean the big picture can get missed?) and it needs a good read and mull.
- YC’s Essential Startup Advice – always take stuff like this with a pinch of salt (one shouldn’t ignore the pervasive Silicon Valley ideology that startups will save the world) but there’s some really good advice in here about launching new services. Much of it focuses on keeping things small and not worrying about scale until you know you have a thing that enough people like to require scale.
You can also sign up to get them delivered to you by email, if that’s your thing.