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

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.

The iPad: computer or device?

There has been a flurry of reviews and opinions about Apple’s new gadget, the iPad, this weekend as the devices has been launched in the States. They should be in the UK by the end of April, and I still haven’t made up my mind about whether I’m going to get one or not.

ipad

A really interesting debate was kicked off by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing with a specific philosophical problem with the iPad, in that it is a computing device that is seemingly at odds with the prevailing culture of computing:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

In other words, where is the room for tinkering with a device like this? How can you get a piece of software onto your iPad, other than by having it accepted by Apple onto the AppStore?

Jeff Jarvis also has issues with the iPad:

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

There’s no denying it is a beautiful bit of kit, though, and a winning user experience. Take the review by Jason Snell:

One day, devices like the iPad may very well change the way we view computers and technology. But right now, I don’t believe the iPad is going to make anyone stop using their main Mac or PC. If you were in the market for an e-book reader or a supplemental laptop, though, I’d give those plans a serious re-think.

Because the iPad is such a new concept, Apple faces some serious challenges in making people understand how they might use it and why they should buy one. It’s not a product type people are familiar with, like a PC or a phone, or a TV or a lawnmower. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and consumers are pretty comfortable with their chicken and salmon, thank you very much.

Joe Clarke also has an interesting take:

This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

I think there is an important distinction to make between those who use computer purely to consume stuff – whether it’s web browsing, playing music and videos, doing a bit of online shopping, Facebooking and emailing, and those who create on a bigger scale using technology – those that produce a lot of content, whatever the medium, and those that want to program computers to do things.

The idea, frankly, that someone would buy an iPad so that they could learn PHP on it, or something, is a bit daft. Instead the iPad could be seen as the type of device people first use to get online, and if curiosity makes them want to find out how stuff is created, they graduate to more flexible machines, in other words a laptop or desktop computer.

I suspect then that iPads – and similar tablet devices – could begin to replace netbooks, which are often bought as cheaper alternatives to full laptops. As Tim Anderson’s recent piece shows, though, even an entry level netbook can be a pain to get working.

My main use for an iPad would be in using tools like my email, Twitter, and especially Google Reader, in a comfy way when I am away from my desk. Whether that’s worth £500 I’m not sure.

The interesting thing is to watch emergent technology to see where it will go. The great example is SMS and mobile phones – it was never thought likely that people would use text messaging, and yet it is a phenomenally popular tool.

Here’s another example, from my own technology use. I bought a Kindle a few months ago, mainly to have a play and without any serious idea that I might stop reading paper books. However, I’ve found myself using it more and more – but not to read books.

Kindle

It’s really easy to get PDFs on the Kindle, either by emailing them into a dedicated address for my device (which costs a few pence) or just transferring by USB when the Kindle is connected to my computer, like any other external storage. The Kindle has now become the thing I use to read documents published electronically, whether white papers, instruction manuals, policy documents, whatever. Rather than staring at my laptop screen, or printing them out, I now just download them onto the Kindle and read them on there.

So it’s possible that the game changing use of devices like the iPad hasn’t even been identified yet. But I think it is important to recognise that these things are devices and not computers, at least not in the sense that a lot of us are used to.