Tag Archives: gaap

Implementing digital civic infrastructure

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I’ve banged on about this before, but then that’s because I think it is pretty important. To quickly recap – digital civic infrastructure is an idea I have been thinking about for some time as a means through which local councils (am thinking mostly about those at the district or borough tier, although it may be relevant for others too) can redesign their operating model and help to rewire local public service delivery to better meet the needs of local people, communities and businesses – and indeed to prevent those needs arising in the first place.

The starting point for me was when thinking about technology provision in local councils and how that might best work. Heavily influenced by platform based thinking as described by Mark Foden in this video and also in various bits of writing by Mark Thompson (and of course the original idea by Tim O’Reilly). The idea of reducing the number of siloed back office systems to being able to reuse common components such as reporting, booking, assessment, calculation, payments, case management etc answers many of the problems of delivering IT to multiple different services areas.

Much of this platform based thinking has gone in the direction of platforms for government, rather than government as a platform, in that components could be shared between bits of government delivering the same or very similar services. Why should a council delivering bins in one area need to buy a different system to the one next door, or indeed on the other side of the country? This is the approach taken by the GDS government as a platform team, which is developing shared components such as Pay, Notify and Platform as a Service.

While this is a very attractive proposition, with potentially eye watering sums of savings possible, it misses the mark for me in that it takes the focus away from meeting local people’s needs and instead looks to making things easier and more efficient for the organisations. In other words, the effort of sharing and collaborating on these components will likely result in them being less able to meet a local person’s need due to the increased levels of genericism needed.

Instead, and this is where we get to digital civic infrastructure, the real area of sharing and collaboration to focus on is within the local system itself. Instead of opening up platforms and components to other councils, these shared capabilities should be usable by all the actors within a local system. So, the borough council, the county, the local DWP office, the NHS and CCG, housing associations, community and voluntary groups, and even private sector providers of public services.

All of these organisations are working with the same users that the council is. Equally, they are involved in activities that use similar technology components – the bookings, reportings, case managings etc. Indeed, quite a lot of these organisations also lack strong technology capability and either don’t use digital tools to deliver their services at all, or use poor options that are badly supported. The community and voluntary sector would probably be a good example of this (to be clear, there is a lot of great digital practice in that sector, but many of the players are too small and poorly funded to have fit for purpose technology).

By having a shared platform in a local area, these components and capabilities become available to all the organisations that are working towards a common aim – meeting the social needs of the local populace. What it also enables is a fascinating data set of demand within a place. As services are requested and delivered by a range of organisations on a shared platform, the information on what demand exists and how it is currently being met will become available and usable to plot where the right interventions need to happen, how and by whom.

The council can play a role as the steward of this platform, and the data it produces. They are perfectly placed to do so because of the USP of councils: local democracy. Much of the angst about digital age organisations such as AirBnB, Uber, Amazon, Google, Facebook and the like is their seeming omnipotence and lack of accountability. Councils can fill the gap here by ensuring that stewardship of the shared local digital civic infrastructure and its data is governed by directly elected community representatives, accountable and answerable to the people who elect them.

To do this, the council must start to build the platform separate from it’s own existing IT estate. This will require a bi-modal approach to technology, which I know that some are not keen on. However from my experience of trying to manage legacy systems at the same time as building the new world, it’s incredibly hard to keep the two in sync. Exactly how to go about this is down to the council to decide – it could simply use existing off the shelf cloud components, stitched together with some kind of Mulesoft style middleware, or go down the low code route with Matssoft, Outsystems or similar, or perhaps the Salesforce ecosystem could be used. Alternatively, for a council with a strong development team, it could be written from the ground up, or built on top of a PaaS such as Cloud Foundry. It doesn’t really matter, so long as it is easy for other organisations to consume these components to build out their own services without overburdening the host council with support requirements. This is not about a council becoming a software development shop.

However, just because the new platform is built separately from existing tech within the organisation doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to build council-only services. Indeed, this is where the idea of becoming your own best customer comes in. With the key components of the shared platform in place, the council can start consuming them to design and deliver its own services on – just as any other organisation can do. In this way, the platform can be stress tested and ensured that it is fit for purpose, because if the council can run its services on it, then it ought to work for others too. Just as Amazon knew their web services worked, because Amazon.com ran on it.

The shared platform doesn’t need to be limited to technology in this way though, and indeed it probably shouldn’t be. There is a potentially fascinating role for customer contact centres to play here as another potentially shared capability. As digitisation of council services frees up customer service time, that time could be used offering a services to other actors within the system. The advantage is yet more data around people’s needs flowing into the system, building up a better, more accurate picture of what is going on locally.

Allied to this could develop a service design capability, reusing and repurposing user research, patterns and design work across different services and providers and providing the opportunity for the genuine rewiring of local public services delivery thanks to the shared technology stack (no more trying to integrate the NHS with local gov) and commitment to sharing and collaboration.

This might sound like a pipe dream but it is perfectly possible to start small and iterate in this space. The project I kicked off at Adur & Worthing called Going Local, which saw the local CCG and the councils collaborate on a new, shared cloud based platform for social prescribing, which has been developed brilliantly since my departure by the team under Paul Brewer, shows the benefit of this way of operating – and that it is possible. Just find somewhere to start, and have a go.

The challenge perhaps is in scaling it up and where this will come from is having a council willing to seriously back this as a future operating model, and a good, strong network of local collaborators willing to put local people’s needs ahead of organisational silos and patches of perceived jurisdiction.

The final point should be, of course, that it doesn’t have to be the council that does this. Any of the local actors could take the lead. What might be very interesting would be if a social enterprise type organisation takes the lead and starts to develop the platform. My reason for focusing in on local government as being the vehicle for this approach is partly because of my background  and professional interest, but also because of the democratic accountability angle, which would be important for folk having trust in the platform. But theoretically, anybody could take the lead on this.

To quickly summarise what has been a bit of a wordy post, the steps to implement digital civic infrastructure are:

  • build the coalition of local actors to be involved and identify some quick early collaborations to prove the model
  • start putting together the new platform of shareable components, including technology and an approach to service redesign, separate from existing technology stacks
  • establish a governance model with local democracy at its heart to ensure the platform continues to meet the needs of local people.

Simples.

Photo by Troy Jarrell on Unsplash

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)

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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.

What I’m talking about when I’m talking about government as a platform

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So, a little while ago I posted about government as a platform, and mentioned three main components that matter, particularly to us at Adur and Worthing with our approach.

However, I’ve been involved in various conversations where I’ve been confused about how other people define platform thinking, which I think goes to the root of the lot of the issues around the wider digital agenda – issues brought to prominence recently in the debate following several key folk from GDS deciding to leave recently.

For me, I defer to Mark Thompson‘s thinking on a lot of this stuff, which Sean Tubbs neatly summarised with the benefit of some of his practical experience.

This piece from Thompson is required reading on the two different approaches to platform thinking, and which he – and I, as it happens – think is the right one. He characterises GDS as a ‘web agency’ – which I think is a little harsh, but gets to the heart of the debate around whether digital is more front end design than fixing the back office line-of-business IT stack (hint: a great website is lovely, but real change can’t happen until the legacy is fixed, which itself can’t be achieved without thinking more widely about how your organisation works).

Effectively the proposition is this: that digital describes not a set of specific technologies or even approaches to technology, but rather the age in which we are currently living, and the appropriate operating models for that age. It also describes the way in which an ever increasing number of our customers want to interact with organisations.

Thus digital, and the strategy for delivering on the digital opportunity that is government as a platform, is not around technology but rather rethinking how organisations work.

Technology is a convenient way to practically start delivering on government as a platform, but it is very much the start of the process. This is slightly unfortunate as it does provide the opportunity for people to put digital, and platforms, into the box marked IT project, which is a massive mistake. Platform technology without a platform operating model  will never deliver on the opportunity.

So, the key elements for me when it comes to platform thinking are:

  • capabilities not systems – instead of thinking about solving problems with a single ‘system’ (think of that word in the widest sense, not just as in an IT system) we break down requirements into generic capabilities, which can then be put together, building block style, to create the most appropriate solution to the problem at the time
  • making use of commoditised, utility-like computing – in government, we do not need to be using bespoke technology, but instead in many instances can use what the market can provide, at a much lower cost than traditional technology – which then frees up resource for the front line (which is the key bit)
  • solutions for now that don’t limit us in future – capabilities must be designed in such a way that they are not ‘hard coded’ (tech metaphor, sorry) for the way they run now, but so they can be flexible to meet future needs which may be very different
  • create and consume – the platform must be put together in such a way that both we and other organisations can make use of its capabilities, as both creators (building our own apps) and consumers (making use of what others have done)
  • disintermediation – or getting rid of the middle men. Catherine Howe spoke a lot about this a few years ago – showing her talent for prescience yet again. We’re only now really starting to see the effects of this with the likes of Uber and Airbnb cutting out bureaucracy and using the internet to directly connect people with needs with those who can meet those needs. These are true digital business models, not just slapping nicely designed front end lipstick onto legacy pigs.

This is what has been so frustrating about some recent discussions – rather than focusing on the big picture of rethinking operating models, folk go straight into IT mode and start discussing which booking system is best, or who has the payment engine everyone should be using. The concept of capabilities is grasped, but only at the level of technology, not any further.

So, at Adur and Worthing, we are at the very beginning of delivery of platform thinking and operating models. We starting, as is customary, within the domain of technology – but we are not limiting ourselves to that, and are constantly challenging our thinking to ensure we don’t continue to work in non-digital age ways outside of tech.

With technology, we build or buy capabilities that can then be used and re-used many times to deliver appropriate solutions to needs, both by us and by others, and we are also able to consume on the platform too – so if someone else has something neat we’d like to use, we can slot it into our systems. This way of working can happen with other assets, as well as tech, though – people, knowledge, skills, buildings, open spaces, vehicles – anything.

The key is to construct our organisation in such a way that all our assets are effectively capabilities that can be used in different ways by different people – and indeed so that we can bring in assets from elsewhere on the ‘platform’. Often this this supported by digital technology, but that isn’t the starting point, nor the outcome.

For example, I’ve recently been thinking about how ‘people as a platform’ might work in the local area. How can we make the most of the people who work at the Council – and their expertise and skills – as well as those who don’t work here but nonetheless might help us make things happen?

The capability here might be an effective time banking system, enabling people and organisations to trade knowledge, skills, time spent etc without the need for money to change hands  – borrowing in expertise as needed, paid for via hours donated to the wider system previously, without the need for costly administration to link people up, make the transactions and so forth.

(On a side note, how exciting would it be for such a time-trading system to work via some kind of blockchain technology, as Lloyd talks about in this post?)

Hopefully this example is useful – a non technology asset being shared across a system, (re-)usable in a number of different contexts, supported by a digital platform, built upon off-the shelf utility technology, which cuts out the need for central bureaucracy. That’s where we need to be with government as a platform.

So, to recap: digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.

It is not about fixing on a single solution for everything, but creating an ecosystem of innovation, where different solutions can compete to deliver the right capability needed by the people using the platform.

It is not about making everyone use computers to do everything, but instead is about making use of modern, internet enabled tech to run a sufficiently minimal back office that enables us to maintain, and potentially grow, front line delivery of what customers need (see Buurtzorg – and see if you can spot me and Mary McKenna in that video).

Hoping to have a chat about this at LocalGovCamp. Come along – it’ll be a blast.