A red tape challenge for public servants? Or an internal GDS?

At the DH digital champions summit on Tuesday, during the afternoon open space session, an interesting discussion broke out. One among many, I’m sure!

Anyway, what was being discussed was the sheer unusability of government systems and processes. Only, not the ones that the public uses, but the ones that civil servants use.

I’ve worked in enough local councils, quangos and central government departments to know that the vast majority of IT systems in use are pretty dreadful. Clunky, and rarely fit for purpose, they seem to exist just to make life more difficult for those using them.

Likewise those processes yet to be digitised. How hard is it to bring in a temporary member of staff to get a job done? Sometimes the paperwork is so over the top, it’s quicker to do whatever it is yourself rather than get the extra body in.

It’s absurd and clearly must be a factor in the difficulty in getting stuff done within government.

The Red Tape Challenge is a crowdsourced effort within government to get rid of the burden of bureaucracy on businesses and citizens. It appears to have had some success in identifying areas where things could move a little quicker, smoother, and maybe with fewer dockets.

There’s also been a lot of focus – rightly – on the user experience for citizen and customer facing interactions. The work that GDS is doing in this area shows that it can be done.

I do wonder though whether a similar approach ought to be being taken to internal systems, across government. Maybe a red tape challenge style thing, where public servants can identify the particularly crappy systems and processes that make their lives a misery – and get them fixed.

Or maybe we need a black ops style skunkworks, wielding the knife on some of the more monstrous forms of obstructive paperwork and dreadful databases. Taking a similar user-focused approach to that which GDS – and many other public facing services – are using to such great effect.

There must be at least much opportunity here, to improve efficiency and save money, as there is in making things easier for the citizen?

Update: This here looks interesting – via @pubstrat

Local Authority Audit of Online Consultation

Bristolian eDemocracy dudes Delib have published their audit of local authority online consultation offerings across the UK.

Delib – Local Authority Audit of Online Consultation

It’s interesting reading. Personally, I’m still not convinced I really know what proper consultation looks or feels like.

LocalGovCamp Lincoln

Last Friday saw LocalGovCamp moving to Lincoln for the first of the follow up days. Learning Pool were happy to help out with some sponsorship of the event, which was marvelously organised and convened by Andrew Beeken of Lincoln City Council.

do councils need websites? #localgovcamp

The day was an enjoyable one, with plenty of interesting sessions, including one facilitated by Fraser Henderson on ePetitions – an issue I have a professional interest in – and commentable consultations by Joss Winn.

@josswinn talks commentable docs at #localgovcamp

Some great write ups of the event have already been posted up by Sarah and Andrew – and I’m sure there will be others.

The day was more obviously web focused than the Birmingham event, with many of the attendees coming from web teams. Nothing wrong with that – although the focus at times was more on making local government websites better, rather than making government better. Perhaps the fact that I have never worked on a web team means I’m a little distant from some of these conversations.

That the web will play an increasingly important role in the way councils and people interact with one another is a no-brainer. But more interesting to me than how that will work technologically is how it will fit within the culture and processes of local government – or how local government must change to fit with the new ways of working.

Another example was the session on hyperlocal blogging and local councils’ relationship with bloggers, which spent quite a bit of time discussing issues of judgements of quality and the need for editing and the relevance of the journalist in a networked society. Again, the real issue for me is the fact that outside the main urban areas, local newspapers are dying out and will continue to do so – and how will this affect the attitude local authorities have towards reputational risk, so much of which is focused not on the needs of the organisation or the people it serves but on what might appear in the local rag the next morning?

ePetitions are a good example. How hard is it to build an ePetitions system? Not very. What’s harder, and more interesting, is how you fit those ePetitions into the democratic and governance arrangements of the local authority.

This kind of ties in with the discussion on OpenSocitm about the future of the council, where I wrote the following:

I attended one of the Council of the Future sessions at the conference and found it a little unambitious. Indeed most of the things discussed were those that councils should be doing now – that many aren’t needs to be fixed, but it was hardly visionary stuff. I’m really thinking here of things like selling buildings, paperless office, EDRMS, business continuity, remote working, etc etc.

In fact, local government will be facing a crisis far worse than the current funding situation, which will be focused on staff and people. Look at the demographics of councillors – where are the next generation of people to take on the role once the current incumbents just get too old? Who will there be left vote for?

The problem is the same with officers, if not quite as bleak. There will be a massive churn in the next two years as expensive managers are pensioned off and younger, cheaper people will replace them – assuming those younger and cheaper people exist!

Perhaps this is a chance to rethink the roles played by councils and councillors – perhaps the reason why nobody is interested is because the roles are just wrong for this day and age – ties into Will Perrin’s point that government faced 21st century problems, has 21st century technology available to tackle them, but is lumbered with 19th century governance processes – and so no progress is ever made.

The things that should be discussed when the future of the council is considered should include:

  • Who delivers services – should the council be the retailer or the wholesaler of services?
  • How can councils work more closely with the private and third sectors, and community groups, in terms of carrying out its functions?
  • How can the council manage its information assets in a more open way, to encourage reuse by the community and the adding of innovative value that local gov isn’t able to provide itself?
  • How can councils become more entrepreneurial themselves to help bridge the funding gap?
  • How can customer service, communications and service design be blended into an iterative process to help make sure services deliver what users want?
  • What will the role of councillors be when nobody has the time to attend meetings in dusty town halls? Do we need to rethink the way our local democracy works?

Perhaps one framework to answer these and other questions might be to consider – if you were to start a council from scratch, right now, how would it work? What would it look like? What would you build first – an office or a website?

Am looking forward to these sorts of conversations at future events – and online, of course!

Teach us a Lesson

I’ve been working with BIS and Becta quite a bit recently on the Learning Revolution project, which is all about improving access to informal adult learning – that is, learning which doesn’t generally mean a qualification. So, stuff like book groups, choirs, yoga classes, basic computer skills. That sort of thing.

One part of this project was helping to manage the delivery of a DirectGov hosted website, ably put together by the Dextrous Web team, which provided an interactive calendar and map for the Festival of Learning throughout October. It’s a lovely looking site with a load of interesting features. We also have been running an online community, on good old Ning, for providers of this type of learning to get together and share knowledge and information.

But there remains a question over how a national, permanent directory of informal learning might work, and what it would look like. To try and find out, Becta have launched a competition, called Teach us a Lesson.

It’s based on Show us a Better Way, and allows ideas to be submitted from anybody. These will be vetted for filth and stupidity, before going live on the site, and other users will be able to comment and rate them.

As the ideas flow in, we’ll be organising an unconference in November, to get everyone together to connect and collaborative on ideas that fit well together. After that, the best projects will be judged, with a pot of £25,000 being split amongst up to five projects, so that prototypes can be delivered by March 2010 at the latest.

If you have any ideas on how such a directory might work – which could be anything from “I think it ought to be blue!” to “I know the SQL syntax we need to make this work” (I know, I know, I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about…) – then do submit them into the site and be a part of this exciting initiative.

Co-creating an open declaration on public services 2.0

An email from my friend Paul Johnston – he’s a Cisco public sector specialist and is behind the rather neat Connected Republic site – alerts me to EUPS 2.0 initiative. Here’s how it is explained:

Every two years, EU Ministers gather to agree on a Ministerial Declaration on e-government, which is the main European strategic document. This is usually accompanied by an Industry declaration.

We feel the urge to add an open declaration, collaboratively built and endorsed by EU citizens who share the view that the web is transforming our society and our governments. We feel e-government policies in Europe could learn from the open, meritocratic, transparent and user-driven culture of the web. We also feel that current web citizens should engage more positively with government to help designing a strategy which is genuinely difficult to adopt in the traditional culture of public administration.

We trust that if we manage to deliver quality of insight and quantity of endorsement, we will present this declaration officially at the EU ministerial conference on e-government, in Malmo on November 2009.

The open declaration is being collaboratively edited using the MixedInk tool, which to my shame I am yet to have a proper play with.

Check out the blog, and the Google Group too. I’ll be keeping my eye on this, a potentially really interesting initiative.

The importance of evaluation

Stephen Hale at the FCO has an excellent, interesting and important post about measuring the success of the London G20 Summit site.

With wonderful openness and transparency, Stephen has set out some of the factors by which the site’s success could be measured, along with the results. Its fascinating reading, and provides lots of lessons for anyone approaching an engagement project like this.

Indeed, this ties in with Steph’s recent (and overly-modest) post about the achievements of the engagement bods at DIUS over the last year or so. He wrote:

We still haven’t nailed some of the basics like evaluation, [or] the business case

Figuring out whether or not something has actually worked is terrifically important, and the long term efficacy of online engagement relies on this nut being cracked.

Stephen’s post highlighted some really good practice here: outline what your project aims to do, and come up with some measures around it so you can work out whether it worked or not.

As Steph mentions, having an up-front business case is really important – a written down formulation of what the project actually is and what it ought to achieve.

Now, business cases and evaluation criteria can be developed in isolation and in a project-by-project basis. I wonder, though, how much more value could be created by developing a ‘package’ of evaluation which could be used as a foundation by everyone involved in government online engagement?

Of course, each project has its own unique things that will need to be measured and tested, but surely there are some basic things that every evaluation exercise would need to look at?

How about some common evaluation documents were created, and that every project undertaken ensured that the basic, common stuff was recorded, as well as the unique bits. That way, some kind of comparative analysis would be possible, especially if everyone submitted their results into a common database.

Just how hard would it be to come up with a common framework for online engagement projects? I think it is worth a shot.

Real Help Now

Simon Dickson reports on the new site from the UK Government which currently aggregates news from around the country on what help is available to help businesses and individuals through the current economic difficulties.

Fundamentally, in this initial build, it’s a news aggregation site – pulling together material not just from national sources, but regional and local too. The aim is to complement the citizen- and business-facing stuff, at Directgov and BusinessLink respectively, by showing what’s actually happening on the ground, well away from Whitehall and the City.

I’m involved in the project from a content point of view, which at the moment is mainly a job of identifying content to be tagged in Delicious to appear on the site. A dashboard has been set up to monitor various news sources around the UK to make sure we pick up  a good range of stories.

Real Help Now

The site came together very quickly and is a great example of agile and flexible development. We’re hoping to be expanding it in the future to produce some original content, but at the moment it presents a nice picture of what’s going on out there.