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.