Six principles for good local government technology

As part of the work putting together a Technology Strategy (think IT + digital) for my current employer, I came up with six principles of good technology. The idea is that each of these principles must be met by any piece of technology the organisation wishes to buy or to build.

(The purpose of the strategy is to develop what was a fairly traditional IT team into a rebranded ‘Technology Services’ team; and to bring them out of ‘maintenance mode’ and into more proactive space, where technology can be used to drive improvement and efficiency in the way that services are delivered. To my mind, IT in this sense cannot be worked around or ignored in a JFDI sense if you’re serious about transformation in your organisation – it must be tackled head on, otherwise you’re doomed to failure. More on this in a future post.)

Anyway, here are the principles, in case they are useful.

Cloud native – to ensure all the systems we use are designed for the internet age

Core to the Technology Strategy is for the Council to become a ‘cloud native’ organisation, making use of commoditised utility computing wherever possible. A district council has somewhat limited resources, and those resources are best spent where we can add most value, and to my mind, that isn’t in upgrading firmware or patching servers.

Our preferences when investing in systems is as follows:

  • Software as a Service – where possible, we prefer to use a SaaS solution to minimise the responsibility we have to support and maintain a system’s infrastructure
  • Platform as a Service – for bespoke workflows and requirements, we develop using a cloud-hosted, capability-based, off the shelf PaaS
  • Infrastructure as a Service – where the market is yet to deliver an acceptable SaaS solution and the requirement is too complex to deliver via PaaS, then a more traditional application will be hosted within a public cloud environment such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure

Mobile ready – to ensure all the systems we use can be accessed anywhere, from any device

Legacy software was built for desktop based computing and thus doesn’t work well with the new style of devices that have emerged in the last decade.

We want staff to be able to make use of easy to use devices such as smartphones and tablets while working away from the office.

Any software we purchase, renew or develop must be enabled for mobile working out of the box, without the requirement for middleware or extra investment in specialist hardware.

Interoperable – to ensure the data our systems use is easily shared between people and applications

Legacy software makes exchanging data between systems difficult and expensive.

Cloud native systems and software offer freely accessible and publicly document application programming interfaces (APIs) and web services, which can be used to link systems together very simply, often with very limited programming required and use of ‘drag and drop’ style interfaces.

We will insist that all technology we invest in offers this ability to share data across systems.

Flexible – to ensure we make good use of shared platforms and capabilities across our services

Many of the systems we use are made up of the same common capabilities – booking , reporting, managing cases, payments, assessments and so forth – however they are trapped in service specific silos.

We wish to tackle this inflexibility by investing in flexible, generic capabilities that give us the building blocks to design our services, and the systems they run on, in the way we want to, and not be beholden to system suppliers.

Enabling customers – to ensure all the technology we deploy helps our customers enjoy a consistent journey across our services

We want to put our customers at the centre of the way we do things. This means two things:

  1. Any system we purchase or develop must have online self service as a foundational part of its design, to ensure as many as possible choose to take this option
  2. Service and system design should be based upon evidence generated through user research and take a customer-centric approach

Proportionately secure – to ensure that the Council’s and our customer’s data is as safe as it needs to be to enable us to deliver our best work

Information security is extremely important and we must be vigilant in looking after the data we hold, particularly that which belongs to our customers.

However, with our move to internet based technology, we can follow best practice guidance from central government to classify our information assets to enable us to work flexibly when it is appropriate to do so.

We want to encourage colleagues to think for themselves around information security, rather than relying on one size fits all policies that often are not adhered to.

The strategy graph

I rather like this diagram that appeared in a post talking about Microsoft (which is well worth reading in and of itself).

strategy-graph

It describes all the elements that make up what an organisation is and does. At the top, there are fewer words and they don’t change very often. At the moment, there are a lot more words and they are subject to regular change.

Strikes me as being a useful model to use to think about this stuff.

So, you think you want social media training?

whiteboardIncreasingly, following a bit of a chat, it turns out you don’t.

I’ve been delivering training on digital tools, including social media, for a fair few years now. I’d like to think I’m quite good at it, and that those who leave my training sessions get a lot out of it.

One of the most frustrating things, though, is when at the end of some training, a learner will ask ‘so, will we actually be able to use this stuff?’ or ‘this has been great, but until I get these websites blocked I won’t be able to use anything I’ve learned’.

Gack!

What’s happening is that there is an acknowledgement within an organisation that they need some additional digital capacity, so they send people on a course. Trouble is, the strategy, or vision, isn’t in place for the organisation – so those skills are going to go to waste.

Instead, if you want to spend some money on this stuff, it’s better to spend it first on developing some idea of where digital fits into your organisation.

One of the first commissions WorkSmart has received has been to do just this. The original brief was for a series of workshops explaining how to use the popular social media tools. Discussing it, though, everyone became aware that there was a piece of work to do first.

So, we’re running an agile little project, made up of a couple of workshops and some online deliberation and collaboration. The aim at the end will be to have a draft strategy document, outlining how the organisation can use digital tools and techniques – including stuff like agile project management and user centred design.

Along with that there will also be a process defined for rolling this kind of capability out across the organisation, using internal expertise rather than bought in training. Hopefully this means that the learning activity will be scalable and sustainable, and most importantly of all, everyone will know why they are doing it.

Digital visions

I spend a fair bit of time talking to local councils and the like about taking a strategic approach to digital stuff, although usually it is mostly around engagement, and a bit of communications.

It’s important – simply to know what you want to achieve and why. As soon as you have those things figure out then it’s easy to choose the right tools and channels to help you get there.

Taking a strategic approach though doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bit of paper, with ‘strategy’ written on it. Sometimes just having thought about the issues is all you need to do. A quick look on Twitter or Facebook and it’s pretty straightforward to spot those that haven’t even done that!

However, there are times when a bit more of an in depth look at all things digital are required. After all, the bits of an organisation like a local council that are affected by the internet go way beyond just the communications team.

There’s customer services and all the transactional stuff – what commonly gets referred to as channel shift these days. There’s the democratic element, and the policy development process. The way big projects are managed and communicated can be transformed by the web. Every service delivery team could make use of digital channels to deliver that service, or part of it, or at least communications around it.

Given all of this, and the vital strategic role a council plays within a local area, having a digital vision is pretty important. There are several big agendas connected to technology which need to be considered.

What elements are required?

  • channel shift
  • digital engagement
  • mobile
  • publishing / content strategy
  • digital inclusion and broadband roll out
  • open data

I think these are probably best presented as some form of ven diagram, and there is bound to be plenty of overlap in there.

I’ve always like the phrase that ushered in the Government Digital Service – that of ‘digital by default’. The notion not that digital is the only option – but that it is always an option. Quite often when I have been called in to help out with digital side of a project or campaign, it’s been a bit of an add on. Being digital by default means building the online element from the get go – making it an integral part of a service or project.

It also means getting away from one of the flaws of the e-government era – that (necessary) rush to get government services online – which was to do the wrong thing righter. In other words, not rethinking how a service should be delivered in a networked society but just taking a process and sticking it into an online form.

We’re just taking on a project to deliver a comprehensive high level digital strategy for a county council. I’m delighted – it’s the sort of meaty, wide ranging envisioning work which is pretty scarce these days. It also offers a chance to think about what a truly digital local council might look like, and how it might work.

Part of the project will involve running a crowdsourcing exercise on good practice and what the future may hold for local government digital – rather like the effort I made back in 2009 which focused on websites. That’ll launch in a few weeks. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who has been having digital visions in the comments, or by email.

What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Government IT costs – the bloggers’ view

Once again, the quality commentary on the latest reports into government IT spending is coming from blogs.

Simon Dickson:

The real story, such as it is, is the Committee’s apparent recognition that the current process – reliant on a small number of large suppliers being given over-spec’ed, over-detailed, over-sized and over-priced projects – is the ‘root cause’ of the problem. And it’s quite nice to see them challenging the Cabinet Office, about whether its initiatives are tackling that root cause, or just the symptoms (paras 10-11).

Paul Clarke:

Can it really be that a single office computer can cost £3,500? Read that again. £3,500.

No. Of course not. And it almost certainly doesn’t.

Charges made for desktop computing in the public sector are invariably composed of an element for the hardware, plus a rather greater element to cover installation, support… in fact quite a bit more. IT managers (disclosure: I used to be one in the public sector) can play quite a few tunes on this figure; using it to cover centralised development work, packages of software and all manner of other “hidden” costs.

Dan Harrison:

According to the BBC’s article on the report issued by the public administration committee, departments sometimes pay up to £3,500 for a single desktop. What this figure includes, who knows? Undoubtedly there are some howlers out there—some costs that need to be called out and reigned in. Big time. But comparing desktop costs both within government and with those that you or I would pay on Amazon is bananas.

Bookmarks for February 23rd through April 4th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Future of local gov IT strategy

Gotta love blogging local government types. Great post here from Warwickshire County Council’s Jim Morton about their developing IT strategy.

My favourite bit:

1. Embrace the practice of using ICT as a Utility: It is now possible to consume software, development platforms and infrastructure from the cloud which can potentially lead to many benefits. We need to understand where working this way will help save us time and money as well as avoid extensive development in re-inventing the wheel where a product or service can be used off the shelf. As an example our open data site is already provided using the Ruby on Rails platform as a service provider Heroku.

2. Warwickshire as a service: This is a (hopefully) catchy way of saying that we need to expand our initial work on open data to include as many of our data sets and services as possible i.e. build an open API for the organisation. The vision is that both internal and external developers will make use of the same building blocks for creating services applications and web sites.

3. Rational approach to information management: We need to overcome the historical and technical silos that we have built up around information to build single sources of the truth and gain a clearer understanding of the context around our data and documents. This will allow us to build more useful, accurate applications and web sites as well as providing clear understanding of which information must be kept safe and secure.

4. Use the web to extend the organisation: We need to move from an arms-length model of interacting with the public web via a curated web presence and individual point solutions for deeper interaction to becoming an organisation that is engaged with the web at a cultural as well as technical level. Staff at WCC need to merge the web into their everyday work-life in the same way that they do in their personal lives.

Update: just come across this illuminating interview with Socitm President Jos Creese:

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.