Be your own best customer to advance your transformation

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 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.

Photo credit: Jomjakkapat Parrueng on Unsplash

[RL] Accounts and portals

Original post from Salman Chaudhri, FutureGov

…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.

This is a post in the Reading List series, where I link to an interesting article and add some commentary. See here for more information, or find all the posts in the series here.

Two blockers to radical (digital) change

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.

Five for Friday (29/9/17)


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 democracyCatherine 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.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

You can also sign up to get them delivered to you by email, if that’s your thing.

A digital journey

A tweet from Simon Wardley made me chuckle this week:

It stung a bit too – after all, I started out being someone promoting social media in government, and now here I am banging on about IT and transformation.

Of course, a bit of imposter syndrome is probably a good thing now and then – it never pays to be too confident, after all.

However, there is a bit of logic to my transition from hapless social media consultant to hapless digital transformation consultant, I think.

What I preached about social media was about getting on with things, making it easier and more convenient for residents and service users to access information, or make their views known. It was in a bit of a niche, around communications and engagement, but still.

However, as time went on, it became clear that this could only take you so far – you have to turn engagement into something actionable for a difference to be made. At this point I found myself in discussions with web teams and others around making websites more useful in delivering services (it was around this time that GDS started work on the single domain project).

Again, though, time passed and things didn’t move as quickly as I and others might have hoped. This was because, it turns out, that delivering great services online doesn’t just rely on a great website. It needs (at least) two other things: decent technology on the back end, and services fully designed to meet user need.

So it was at this point that, despite having started out in the social media days trying to work around IT, I realised it was necessary to fix IT in order to get even the simple things done properly. So here I am – modernising IT teams and helping organisations transform digitally.

Could I have started out at this point, ten years ago? Probably not. I needed to be hapless at social media so I could be hapless at websites so I could be hapless at IT and transformation.

Now I just need to work on being less hapless.

Five for Friday (11/8/17)

I took a week off doing this last week – the shame! – so apologies for that*. A good crop this time round though. Enjoy!

  • Tom Steinberg asks Why even bother with a user centred, digital government? and it’s a very interesting question. We spend a lot of time wondering what such a thing might look like, but without understanding why you’re doing it life can  get very tricky. Tom’s answer is based around achieving compassion, fairness, the value of government itself, respect and transparency. Matt Jukes has posted his response to the question as well, in typically thoughtful style, adding empowerment to the list.
  • An update on Government as a Platform (GaaP) progress at GDS gives a chance to discuss some of this stuff, including the opening up of the Notify service to local government, and the additonal capability for Notify to allow for inbound text messaging and the sending out of postal letters. Now, I wrote about GaaP a little while ago, and having just reread it, I’m not entirely happy about it (bit too tech-focused). The general issue I have with this area of work is that it seems to have leapt straight into the tech capabilities part, without thinking through the platform operating model bit first. The more specific issue with the way this is being done is in the re-writing of what are pretty common, commodity components. These things already exist! Why does local government need another way to send people emails, text messages or (FFS!) letters? Surely it would have been quicker, easier and cheaper to curate a suite of existing, well supported, easily configurable and interoperable components that could be used lego block style to build out services? Maybe there’s something here I’m just not getting.
  • ‘Digital Transformation’ Is a Misnomer – is a great articulation about the problems of language and how they impede progress. I’ve a post in the process of percolation on this topic at the moment, however it’s worth saying that people’s understanding of terms is based as much on their own experience as it is commonly accepted definitions. In other words (ha!) no single expression is ever going to work as a shorthand that everybody gets first time. This whole thing is made harder by the efforts of vendor marketing departments who like to badge whatever they do with whatever the fashionable term is at the time. My approach is to choose the right language for your organisation and stick with it, and rather than focus on specific definitions, work on using them as symbols to represent the thing you’re trying to get across. Otherwise you are doomed to never get past the first slide of the deck you’re writing for that important meeting.
  • If I could tell you 3 things – notes from a brief career in the public service – really nice reflective piece from Leisa Reichelt. All three of her things come from being user focused in one’s work, which is telling. It’s very easy to talk the talk on user needs but actually doing it is hard and requires constant vigiliance.
  • GDS Isn’t Working – Part 5 (No Vision, No Ambition) – an excoriating post from Alan Mather, continuing his series analysing government transformation efforts of the last few years. It’s not perfect – I can’t help but get the feeling that Alan needs to let the Gateway go… – but it’s a great challenge to not just the current central government strategy but also for anybody working on this stuff in their own organisations.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

* although nobody complained…

Five for Friday (28/7/17)


While you wonder where on earth the sun has gone (and I don't mean from the accurate depiction of the solar system above) here are some interesting things to read.

  • There are many tech roles going at Guildford Borough Council – take a look and best of luck if you go for one. If you're on the lookout for a job, don't forget Jukesie's email list.
  • Eleven exercises for more efficient, productive, and creative meetings – a few years ago my son asked me what I did at work. I wittered on a bit about digital, strategy and running a service; but he interrupted me and asked what I actually physically did. I had to answer that I read and wrote emails, and that I went to meetings. The second thing would be much improved if I started making use of some of the ideas in this article.
  • Businesses are using 'digital transformation' purely for marketing purposes, says Co-Op CDO Mike Bracken – there's a nice summary in here on why transformation isn't about merely digitising existing processes but taking a harder look at operating models and culture. Bracken identifies three barriers – first that changing culture is really hard, second that leadership views digital just as better IT, and third (as it says in the headline) that some organisations just use the D word for meaningless marketing.
  • GDS wants IT suppliers to use its GaaP products – but won’t offer service guarantees – interesting take on the Governmant as a Platform programme at GDS and hints at some of the difficulties involved in creating new capabilities rather than consuming them from the market. Supporting products is really hard, particularly in the 'enterprise' environment where expectations are high.
  • The GDS Academy is here – a more positive GDS story. The DWP digital academy has been given a makeover and now is the GDS Academy. Having a consistent way of delivering good quality learning to folk on the important bits of what digital is all about is one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw for many organisations and this is one of the few attempts to get it done at scale.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

Five for Friday (21/7/2017)

The end of the week and time to do some more linkery. Hope you enjoy them, and don’t forget to pass them along to anybody who might benefit.

  • Digital Delivery Manager – my old team at Adur & Worthing are recruiting for a delivery manger to whip the programme into shape there. A great opportunity to work on stuff at the cutting edge of local gov tech.
  • Things of the internet – a lovely post by Ben Holliday on what it means to ‘be’ digital rather than just ‘do’ digital. One bit stuck out for me: “In my 4 years in government the biggest challenge has been moving beyond the digitisation of existing analogue services.” Yup.
  • Writing ‘the missing chapter’ on local digital services for UK digital policyTheo Blackwell, Cabinet Member for Finance, Technology and Growth at Camden Council, writes persuasively about the challenges local government faces in terms of exploting the opportunity of digital thinking. His identification of a collaboration deficit is interesting – although my experience is that more often than not, councils collaborating slows things down and makes them worse. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done better – but there are deep cultural and structural reasons why it hasn’t yet. While you’re here, check out Matt Jukesthoughts on the local gov tech world.
  • The what not the how of Service Design – strikes me that there’s am emerging three way split for doing digital properly in an organisation: the corporate strategy operating models bit, the technology bit, and the service design bit. Actually describing what service design is tends to be pretty hard, and this post from Sarah Drummond is one that I will be pointing people towards in the future. Another articulation of the difference of ‘doing’ something compared to ‘being’ something, it emphasises the need for focus on the outcome for the service user, rather than on processes, tools and techniques (which it is very easy to get obsessed with).
  • Here’s a video of Catherine Howe talking about a model for digital maturity that she’s been working on at Capita. It’s a useful framework for thinking about where your organisation is at on this stuff – and it’s short, which means you might get one of the big cheeses to watch it all the way through.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

Five for Friday (9/6/17)

Not sure anything in tech world can match politics right now for interestingness, but here goes…

  1. Tandridge Council are recruiting a Technology Implementation Manager. Details here.
  2. What a digital organisation looks like – smart stuff from Janet Hughes. Answer = responsive, open and efficient.
  3. We need a Minister for Digital Government – according to Dan Thornton at the Institute for Government. Quite a bit of commentary has been around the limitation of the word ‘digital’ – though that’s largely semantics – and I would argue that even if you (wrongly) take digital to mean just tech, there’s still enough that needs fixing to make it worthwhile.
  4. “Which third are you?” – asks James Governor from Redmonk. The thirds being change agents, persuadables or heel diggers. All about your attitude to change. Every organisation has every type, and you need them all onside – or at least enough of them – to make stuff happen.
  5. Coté shares some slides from a workshop he ran in the States on how Government can go cloud native. Also see this post for further ruminations.

These have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

The elements of council as a platform

A platform, yesterday

We are fairly aggressively targeting a platform approach to service design and delivery at Adur and Worthing.

Summing this up is the vision statement in our (still developing) strategy is: “To use our expertise and platforms to help the people, communities and businesses of Adur and Worthing achieve their goals.”

Government as a platform is a phrase that is bandied around a fair bit in digital circles and perhaps it’s worth thinking about what it means in the context of a local authority – hence the title of this post.

To me, there are three main elements:

1. Technology

Whilst it might not be the place we want to start, in many ways you can’t build a platform for a council without having the right technology in place first. Our approach has been to get the core tech foundations right, from which we can then figure out all the other stuff.

The essential thing to get about the technology stack is to think capabilities and not systems. Go watch the gubbins video if you haven’t already to get an introduction to this. In effect, pretty much every system is made up of similar core capabilities – think bookings, reporting, paying, case management, and so on. Rather than buying siloed systems which replicated a lot of these capabilities, the platform approach is to build each capability and then use these building blocks to put together systems to deliver services.

With this approach, you save money, have a common user interface across many systems, have interoperable systems that talk to each other, reduce support complexity and have a much more flexibility in your tech stack.

It also enables you to make use of best of breed technology, by making strategic decisions around buy or build. We don’t want to spend our time developing stuff in house that already exists on the market, where it meets our technology design principles (internet age, cloud ready, interoperable, plug and play…). However, where the market isn’t mature enough to meet our user needs, we have the ability to develop our own software that does. More on the detail on this soon – it really is exciting.

So far, so SOA. Platform technology doesn’t equal council as a platform. It is the foundation on which it is built, however.

2. Service (co)design

What really starts to make council as a platform a reality is the way that services are designed. In Tim O’Reilly’s classic talk on government as a platform, he compared the old way of delivering services to citizens as a vending machine – people pay their (tax) money in, and a service gets dispensed at them as a result.

A platform approach is less about the vending machine – where the first thing a citizen knows about a service is when it happens to them – and much more about involving service users in the design of those services in the first place.

This takes two forms. Much of the digital way of doing things has focused on the citizen or customer user journeys, and indeed this forms the starting point for all of our work. However we take just as seriously the needs of the internal user – in others words our colleagues who, up until now, have been subjected to some pretty awful software.

Our approach to digital transformation takes a truly end to end view, mapping existing processes, identifying steps that can be removed or speeded up, and developing the user stories that help inform a truly excellent user experience rather than a merely efficient one. Until this design work is done, the digital end of the transformation cannot begin.

By involving people, whether customers or staff, in the design of services, we switch the model from the vending machine to the platform. Services are no longer ‘done to’ people, or inflicted upon them, but instead built with them and their input at their very heart.

3. Let others build

We can’t call what we are doing council as a platform while the only people using the platform to deliver services is the council. What really pushes us towards a true platform approach is when other organisations are using our platform to deliver their own services and products,

This is where we really break out of this being a technology project, and into a far more interesting space where the role of the council in supporting local civic, community and business activity is redefined.

This could mean a number of things. It could mean the council effectively becoming a software developer for other organisations. Or, even more interestingly, it could mean other organisations building their systems on our platform using our building blocks of technology capability.

It would hopefully also include other organisations making use of other elements of our platform than just the technology. Our approach to service design, for example, as discussed above, could help organisations figure out the best way to deliver their products and services to meet the needs of their customers. This could be done by opening up our processes and making tools and expertise available to others to tap into.

Just the beginning…

We’re at the very start of this journey at the moment and none of the above is in place yet to the point where we can open it up to others. However, by planning for it at the start, it means the architecture of our technology and our processes will be able to deliver a platform to enable the Council to play a new, appropriate role within our local place in the future.