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.