I Hold These Truths to be Self Evident – A Constitution for the Digital Engine Room

I’m yet to be convinced about the merits of creating a Digital Strategy or even an ICT Strategy (more on this here).

What you absolutely must have, however, is a set of principles which govern the way you do things or, as I prefer to think of it, a ‘constitution’. If you give your self a set of golden rules to dictate the way constitutionpicin which you respond to any request then the actual project list becomes significantly less important.

Your constitution – your philosophy is your strategy.

The list below is my constitution – I hold these truths to be self-evident.

  • Secure by default: information security will be designed in to all our systems, changes and processes right from start and throughout;
  • Information, not Infrastructure: Local Authorities should not be in the IT business – hardware and software is ancillary to any Council’s core activity (serving the public). Whilst the information we create and use is of ever growing strategic importance we can be less concerned about the infrastructure. We will continue to minimise our local infrastructure through a strong preference that systems will be vendor/cloud hosted wherever possible. We will review every significant application, starting with the largest and attempt to have them vendor hosted regardless of their current contractual state. Our aim is to quickly and safely reduce the equipment in our data centre and associated support activity to the absolute minimum;
  • Open Standards and open data: the use of published, open, standards for data exchange will continue to be pursued, the use of open standards will ensure that the likelihood of supplier lock in is reduced and allow the transfer of services or suppliers without significant cost or loss of data. We will publish as much of our data as possible openly, online, for reuse by citizens, the private sector and other public sector organisations;
  • Share and reuse: most Local Authorities do the same things in the same ways – this includes IT. This approach has resulted in an enormous duplication of effort and investment across the sector. We will always seek to join up with others and share services and our aspiration is to move away from each Council having its own IT department. We will learn from others and reuse software, processes and ideas;
  • Browser delivered and browser agnostic: the web browser is already the de facto standard application delivery interface. Traditional software which runs via separate client installations will soon be a thing of the past. Wherever possible we will buy/build applications that run in a web browser and are agnostic to the type of browser and device in use;
  • Any device, anywhere, any time: the traditional model of only being able to access Council applications from Council owned devices connected to the Council network is long gone. We will configure our network such that we can allow access from any device to authorised content whilst maintaining strong security;
  • Buy, don’t build: our default approach is to buy ‘off the shelf’ software (rented where possible) rather than designed in-house. We will only develop bespoke ‘in house’ software as a last resort. This removes support overheads and makes it easier to move software to the cloud. We no longer have the resources to commit to developing lots of software and, more significantly, we absolutely do not have the resources to continue to support and development the software we create;
  • Best of breed, not ERP: Local Authorities are some of the most complex and diverse organisations in the world. The wide range of services we deliver means that ‘one size fits all’ is never appropriate in the IT sense. We will take software procurement on a case by case basis always preferring best of breed point solutions over unwieldy enterprise-wide platforms that stifle agility and hamper cloud adoption;
  • Integration and APIs: regardless of where the systems we use are hosted we will always work to ensure that the systems can ‘talk to each other’ and are integrated. This will allow us to move away from the traditional silo approach and give us a holistic view of the data we hold. Where systems are provided by a third party we will insist that APIs (application programming interfaces) are available and provided.
  • Desktop and server virtualisation: physical infrastructure will be minimised through the use of server and desktop virtualisation. This allows us to extend the life of hardware and reduce the investment required in servers and laptops. In those instances when it is not possible to have a supplier host a system we will host the software in our own data centre. If possible we will use virtual servers to do so. Virtual servers are cheaper, greener, more efficient, more resilient and easier to support than traditional physical servers. We have already virtualised around 60% of our server fleet and we will review all our servers with a view to virtualising as many as possible. This will make provisioning easier and will also lead to a big energy efficiency gain as we decommission older servers which tend not to be very green;
  • Rent, don’t own: where possible we will lease licences and hardware rather than buying assets outright. This allows is to respond more quickly to changing demands and removes the inertia that comes with sunk investment in assets. A move towards a more ‘rental’ model for the majority of our software will make cloud adoption easier, allow the uptake and standardisation of new software versions to reduce support costs and improve user satisfaction;
  • Vanilla by default: Unlike the historic position, where software which is customisable to fit with business processes the working assumption will be that it is largely used out of the box as a standard or ‘vanilla’ version. Large scale or complex customisations to exactly meet business requirements will be avoided wherever possible; rather the expectation will be that business processes will be modified to meet the procured software’s approach to a process. This will significantly reduce the whole life cost of the software and enable the timely upgrade to new versions;
  • Show, don’t tell – prototypes not slideware: sometimes we will have to build things in house because this is the only option. In these cases, new ideas and proposed changes are best communicated by demonstrating how they will work. We will eschew bullet points in presentations in favour of quick and simple wire frames, prototypes and proofs of concept.
  • Minimum viable product: regardless of whether we are buying a product or building something ourselves we will adhere to the ‘minimum viable product’ principle (MVP). Rather than buying/building huge, complex unwieldy applications we will start small and move quickly. A MVP is the most pared down version of a product that can still be used and be useful.
  • ICT Professionalism and organisational resilience: as the Council and customers increasingly rely on ICT and expect more from ICT the skills of the Corporate ICT department need to be managed carefully to ensure they are fit for purpose. Membership of recognised professional bodies, such as British Computer Society or SOCTIM by Corporate ICT staff will be encouraged. Further, we will reduce the risk of downtime and data loss by ensuring that the ICT organisation has sufficient resilience through strength in depth.
  • Technology confidence in the wider workforce: we will create a skilled, technology-confident workforce through investing in learning, development and training opportunities for our own staff. We will, through training, enable staff to get the most benefit from our investment in technology;
  • Open source software: procurement of open source software will always be considered; Open source products are rarely ‘free’ as there are usually support and productivity costs but it will always be considered.
  • ICT Self-service: we will deploy self-service web tools to allow our customers to raise incidents and request changes and to give them the ability to log on to check the status of their requests. We will design these tools such that our customers will prefer this channel over telephone contact. At the same time we will reduce the number of hours during which we are contactable via phone.
  • Business case driven: there will be a business case associated with everything we do. Usually this will be a financial business case (i.e. we will ‘invest to save’) but there are other types of case for change and some things are self-evidently the right thing to do.

What do you think?

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