Six principles for good local government technology

As part of the work putting together a Technology Strategy (think IT + digital) for my current employer, I came up with six principles of good technology. The idea is that each of these principles must be met by any piece of technology the organisation wishes to buy or to build.

(The purpose of the strategy is to develop what was a fairly traditional IT team into a rebranded ‘Technology Services’ team; and to bring them out of ‘maintenance mode’ and into more proactive space, where technology can be used to drive improvement and efficiency in the way that services are delivered. To my mind, IT in this sense cannot be worked around or ignored in a JFDI sense if you’re serious about transformation in your organisation – it must be tackled head on, otherwise you’re doomed to failure. More on this in a future post.)

Anyway, here are the principles, in case they are useful.

Cloud native – to ensure all the systems we use are designed for the internet age

Core to the Technology Strategy is for the Council to become a ‘cloud native’ organisation, making use of commoditised utility computing wherever possible. A district council has somewhat limited resources, and those resources are best spent where we can add most value, and to my mind, that isn’t in upgrading firmware or patching servers.

Our preferences when investing in systems is as follows:

  • Software as a Service – where possible, we prefer to use a SaaS solution to minimise the responsibility we have to support and maintain a system’s infrastructure
  • Platform as a Service – for bespoke workflows and requirements, we develop using a cloud-hosted, capability-based, off the shelf PaaS
  • Infrastructure as a Service – where the market is yet to deliver an acceptable SaaS solution and the requirement is too complex to deliver via PaaS, then a more traditional application will be hosted within a public cloud environment such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure

Mobile ready – to ensure all the systems we use can be accessed anywhere, from any device

Legacy software was built for desktop based computing and thus doesn’t work well with the new style of devices that have emerged in the last decade.

We want staff to be able to make use of easy to use devices such as smartphones and tablets while working away from the office.

Any software we purchase, renew or develop must be enabled for mobile working out of the box, without the requirement for middleware or extra investment in specialist hardware.

Interoperable – to ensure the data our systems use is easily shared between people and applications

Legacy software makes exchanging data between systems difficult and expensive.

Cloud native systems and software offer freely accessible and publicly document application programming interfaces (APIs) and web services, which can be used to link systems together very simply, often with very limited programming required and use of ‘drag and drop’ style interfaces.

We will insist that all technology we invest in offers this ability to share data across systems.

Flexible – to ensure we make good use of shared platforms and capabilities across our services

Many of the systems we use are made up of the same common capabilities – booking , reporting, managing cases, payments, assessments and so forth – however they are trapped in service specific silos.

We wish to tackle this inflexibility by investing in flexible, generic capabilities that give us the building blocks to design our services, and the systems they run on, in the way we want to, and not be beholden to system suppliers.

Enabling customers – to ensure all the technology we deploy helps our customers enjoy a consistent journey across our services

We want to put our customers at the centre of the way we do things. This means two things:

  1. Any system we purchase or develop must have online self service as a foundational part of its design, to ensure as many as possible choose to take this option
  2. Service and system design should be based upon evidence generated through user research and take a customer-centric approach

Proportionately secure – to ensure that the Council’s and our customer’s data is as safe as it needs to be to enable us to deliver our best work

Information security is extremely important and we must be vigilant in looking after the data we hold, particularly that which belongs to our customers.

However, with our move to internet based technology, we can follow best practice guidance from central government to classify our information assets to enable us to work flexibly when it is appropriate to do so.

We want to encourage colleagues to think for themselves around information security, rather than relying on one size fits all policies that often are not adhered to.

Government IT costs – the bloggers’ view

Once again, the quality commentary on the latest reports into government IT spending is coming from blogs.

Simon Dickson:

The real story, such as it is, is the Committee’s apparent recognition that the current process – reliant on a small number of large suppliers being given over-spec’ed, over-detailed, over-sized and over-priced projects – is the ‘root cause’ of the problem. And it’s quite nice to see them challenging the Cabinet Office, about whether its initiatives are tackling that root cause, or just the symptoms (paras 10-11).

Paul Clarke:

Can it really be that a single office computer can cost £3,500? Read that again. £3,500.

No. Of course not. And it almost certainly doesn’t.

Charges made for desktop computing in the public sector are invariably composed of an element for the hardware, plus a rather greater element to cover installation, support… in fact quite a bit more. IT managers (disclosure: I used to be one in the public sector) can play quite a few tunes on this figure; using it to cover centralised development work, packages of software and all manner of other “hidden” costs.

Dan Harrison:

According to the BBC’s article on the report issued by the public administration committee, departments sometimes pay up to £3,500 for a single desktop. What this figure includes, who knows? Undoubtedly there are some howlers out there—some costs that need to be called out and reigned in. Big time. But comparing desktop costs both within government and with those that you or I would pay on Amazon is bananas.

Yammer time

One of the most talked about sessions at last weekend’s LocalGovCamp was about Yammer.

(For those who don’t know, Yammer is basically a private version of Twitter with knobs on that works within an organisation.)

Tom Phillips, who led the session, wrote it up on the group blog:

I have a firm view, echoed by some points made by others, that while many threads on Yammer start there, bloom and fade away, a lot of conversations – as is the case on social media generally – start outside, come in, for a variety of reasons/motives, grow, and then fade. Or do they fade? There is evidence in my own work world that they often actually go offline, and often become mainstream topics in “real life”, as it were.

Here’s a video of the session (it’s on YouTube in case you can’t see it below):

Yammer certainly seems popular with a growing number of local authorities. It goes to show the potential in just making it easy for people to publish stuff to their colleagues – no need for workflows or processes.

It’s also popular because it is incredibly simple to deploy and starts out being free.

Yammer is exactly the sort of application that, left to traditional implementation styles, could take years and large amounts of money to make happen in a large organisation.

Instead, with a couple of clicks, it’s up and running. No need for a programme board, a project initiation document or milestones.

It’s an example of the way technology is changing. Anyone now has the power to roll out an enterprise-grade software package, as long as they can use a mouse and a keyboard.

Future of local gov IT strategy

Gotta love blogging local government types. Great post here from Warwickshire County Council’s Jim Morton about their developing IT strategy.

My favourite bit:

1. Embrace the practice of using ICT as a Utility: It is now possible to consume software, development platforms and infrastructure from the cloud which can potentially lead to many benefits. We need to understand where working this way will help save us time and money as well as avoid extensive development in re-inventing the wheel where a product or service can be used off the shelf. As an example our open data site is already provided using the Ruby on Rails platform as a service provider Heroku.

2. Warwickshire as a service: This is a (hopefully) catchy way of saying that we need to expand our initial work on open data to include as many of our data sets and services as possible i.e. build an open API for the organisation. The vision is that both internal and external developers will make use of the same building blocks for creating services applications and web sites.

3. Rational approach to information management: We need to overcome the historical and technical silos that we have built up around information to build single sources of the truth and gain a clearer understanding of the context around our data and documents. This will allow us to build more useful, accurate applications and web sites as well as providing clear understanding of which information must be kept safe and secure.

4. Use the web to extend the organisation: We need to move from an arms-length model of interacting with the public web via a curated web presence and individual point solutions for deeper interaction to becoming an organisation that is engaged with the web at a cultural as well as technical level. Staff at WCC need to merge the web into their everyday work-life in the same way that they do in their personal lives.

Update: just come across this illuminating interview with Socitm President Jos Creese:

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.

A Masters in Public Technology?

Tom Steinberg:

There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.

I agree, though Tom’s developer-centric view of this should probably be widened for it to be a bit more inclusive.

No more Windows?

Well, in a decade perhaps.

If you’ve ever wondered if it were possible to write fondly about Windows, well, James Gardner (kind of) gives it a go in his recent post on the desktop upgrade about to take place at the DWP:

It feels funny, doesn’t it, thinking about Windows in the context of being irrelevent, after all these years we’ve relied on it. I guess it proves, again, that change is the only constant.

As James puts it earlier in his post:

I think this will likely be the last verion of Windows we ever widely deploy, though.

The reason? I think we’ll have fewer workloads that actually require a heavy deskop stack. Today, of course, we have all this legacy that’s coupled to the desktop, but in a decade, I really doubt that will be the case. Most of our stuff will arrive via the browser.

So it looks like Scott McNealy and Sun were right all along. The network is the computer.

Recording and transforming

Some great stuff recently from Public Strategiest.

Firstly, on records management in the digital age:

Finding things again remains a challenge: Rosenberg’s argument about entropy and Lapping’s about the need to manage not just current formats but obsolete ones and those yet to be invented are both powerful ones. Even there though, the quality of search tools and the availability of the computing power needed to make them effective strongly supports the shift from the old approach to the new. It doesn’t matter how big the haystack is, if a search for ‘needle’ always returns the needle you are looking for.

History will, of course, look after itself. It always has. But the future history of our time will be different from our histories of past times, and that will not be because we have an eye to the future, but because we are always relentlessly focused on the present.

Second, on technology in big orgs:

The real question, of course, is not whether I should be allowed to create my working environment and link it with the department’s systems. I am pretty clear that I should – but equally sure that that puts me in a pretty small minority (but in five years? ten?). Big organisations tend not to be good at catering to small niche requirements, so that wait will continue. But that does not mean that the subversive impact of what ostensibly started as a routine and unavoidable technology update will not be powerful and ineluctable. The introduction of new tools always gives more power to those best able to use them – and they are rarely those who were the masters of the previous toolkit. That much is standard innovators’ dilemma territory.

How to make Government IT deliver savings

Interesting ebook report from The Network for Post-Bureaucratic Age:

Better for Less

Update: Mick provides his views on the report:

Rather than auditing ICT, what we need in reality is a proposal, by some authors with an understanding of what makes good services delivered by central and local government, of how we audit end-to-end government services and in the process identify areas of true regulated bureaucracy that can be removed. Further, any attempts at rationalization should account for multi-channel service delivery. Many of the applications in the “new conditional” world link together and off onto web sites or corporate applications, this could provide some of the open data desirable for the commonweal, which whilst not of general interest will still have value to the local community.

Further, in a couple of instances, Mr Maxwell examines and compares the costs of ICT in local and central government, which can be a very misleading practice. Even with the amount of regulation, financial accounting in government is a dark art with the use of on-costs and recharges varying from authority to authority to the extent that costing for IT services is not straightforward and one can easily be comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps, another area to standardize?

Productivity, responsiveness and lighter weight

I rather like this, from Gartner’s Mark McDonald:

While the future will require IT to deliver enterprise specific strategies and initiatives there are a few considerations to keep mind:

Jos Creese new Socitm President

Hampshire County Council’s Head of IT Jos Creese is the President of Socitm for the next 12 months, and if this quote is anything to go by, he seems an ideal man for the job:

IT professionals must carve out a role as agents of change, helping to re-shape the face of public services. This means involvement in policy formulation and service redesign, not technology. It also means taking risks and being at the forefront of change, rather than keeping busy in the data centre.

As reported on UKauthorITy.com.