There’s a knotty systemic and cost problem with local authorities and other public service organisations delivering essentially the same core services in different parts of the country. We all recognise that we are often doing the same thing, but we are stuck doing it slightly differently from each other. The wise understand that standardisation (as we currently imagine the path to it) is impossible and undesirable, but it’s still true that we have unwittingly created a costly ‘bespoking’ market that commercial providers of one sort and another exploit.
I recently went through the rather painful process of applying for a senior digital transformation role in local government and not getting it. I might write in more detail at some point about it all, but right now I am far too bitter about the whole experience.
As part of the process I needed to talk about what I think the key themes are for councils when thinking about the impact of digital on what they do and how they do it, and I thought I would share them here – just in case some people find it more interesting than the original intended audience did.
1. Digital service design
Meeting the heightened expectations of residents, communities and businesses means radically rethinking how services are delivered. This requires new approaches to change that meet the specific requirements of each service’s users, and in the long term working to prevent those needs from emerging in the first place.
2. Digital workplace
In order to deliver the change that is needed, people need to have the best tools possible available to them, whether hardware or software. This means looking at the whole suite of technology, from productivity tools to line of business applications and the devices they run on. People also need to feel confident in using them, along with developing a customer-focused, commercial, flexible culture.
3. Digital inclusion
It’s vital that the services that many people rely on remain accessible to all of them. For some, using the internet will never meet their needs and so other forms of access will be needed. For others, there is much that councils can do to help them get the most from it.
4. Digital intelligence
Local councils should have the best understanding of the people, communities and businesses in their area. Often, however, this understanding is limited by the inability to make the best use of the data held in siloed systems that do not share information easily or in usable formats. This needs to change, along with keeping up with obligations around data protection and information security.
5. Digital economy
To protect and grow the local economy in the future, councils must do all they can to ensure local businesses can thrive in the digital age, and attract new enterprises to base themselves locally. This means ensuring businesses have access to high speed broadband; the equipment, systems and skills to make use of it; and easy, simple access to the council services they need.
6. Digital civic infrastructure
True digital transformation in local public services involves not just putting existing services online, but radically rewiring the local system to take advantage of shared, common digital components. The Council should take a lead in stewarding this work, collaborating with all organisations that meet local people’s needs, whether central government, the health sector or community and voluntary groups on a digital platform for genuinely joined up service delivery.
Digital – as a word – is broken. We have slapped it onto the front of two many old world applications in an attempt to normalise and ‘make safe’ new concepts that at this point saying something is digital is a bit like saying water is wet
To help us understand the ‘as is’ in more detail we’ve gathered insights from available data and call centre staff, tested how easy it is for users to find things on the site and identified some key gaps in understanding around the importance of designing for user need, measurement and accessibility.
You want people to use your digital service.
You want best value for money when you buy or build new digital services.
Here are 10 steps to success.
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.
…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.
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 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.
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.