Author Archives: Richard Copley

There Are Only 10 Types of People

I made an off-the-cuff remark about the tendency of people to use this image to illustrate articles about ‘digital’. It appears to depict some binary instructions traversing the walls of some kind of weird quantum tunnel. Or perhaps the tunnel is supposed to represent an Internet connection, who knows?

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The Binary Tunnel

In the same publication, on the same day, we find a similar image used to illustrate a different story – this time we seem to be looking at a funky binary cube.

binarycube

In response to my plea to photo editors to step away from these abstractions of ‘digital’ Jeni Tennison asked the (not unreasonable) question “What are people supposed to use instead?!?

Jeni

I started to reply to Jeni but only got as far as “Well, they could always use…”

What could they use? What image conveys ‘digital’? My problem with the binary cube/tunnel is that binary code is literally (and I mean that ‘literally’ literally) as far from the end user experience as it’s possible to get. Binary is the bottom layer of computing – the language of the machines. Very few people in the world have ever or could ever code in binary. It’s an old joke:

“There are only 10 types of people – those who understand binary and those who don’t”

OK Mr smarty pants, what image could we use to put at the top of all those articles about ‘digital’? Well, I’m as guilty as the rest – this is a logo for the Sheffield City Region CIO Forum that I designed a while back. Spot the binary?
SCR CIO

To my shame, the ones and zeroes mean something – 010000110100100101001111 codes for the text string ‘CIO’. Sorry.

The image below is my take at representing ‘digital’. It’s not very good (I’m no designer) but it does try to depict digital in use in a way that most humans would recognise. Photo editors everywhere – I give it to you, copyright free. You are welcome.

DigitalImage

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, you, get off of my cloud!

An interesting thing happened this week. A supplier contacted us to let us know that they are moving some of the cloud services they deliver for us to a new data centre (in this context I’m defining ‘cloud’ as ‘stuff that is hosted by someone else – usually the system’s vendor’).

The didn’t let us know this as a courtesy – they had to let us know because the changes will necessitate some IP/routing changes at our end.

This got us thinking – in many cases, technically speaking, a vendor could shift their systems to a new location without letting the customer know. Indeed, much of the attraction of cloud/SaaS from my point of view is that all that stuff is opaque to me. As long as they are keeping my stuff safe I really don’t need to what else they are doing.

A colleague of mine pointed out that the vendor could be moving stuff to China – we just don’t know. I’m not sure of the wisdom of choosing China here as an example of the ‘Wild West of Data’ but the point is valid – the UK Data Protection Act requires that we keep our data within the EEC.

Needless to say (I hope) whenever we let a SaaS contract there are clauses in there about security and it’s made explicit that the data must stay in the EEC. So if the supplier was to move storage to China they’d be in breach.

That’s sad though isn’t it? I drew 3 conclusions from our ruminations:

  1. How frustrating it must be for suppliers not to be able to move infrastructure to wherever works based for them. Inevitably this must mean that we’re paying more than we might otherwise.
  2. How archaic the DPA is in its stance on data location. I’m pretty sure (but willing to be proved wrong) that the ‘keep it in the EEC’ rule pre-dates the Internet. It needs updating to reflect the global nature of our networks.
  3. All of this might be irrelevant. I’m not entirely sure that the people hosting our data always know where it’s all sitting/going. Database sharding technologies mean that it’s quite possible that a single database is split between several countries at the same time. If the supplier has data centres across the globe will they definitely have ticked the ‘keep it in Europe’ check box?

Time to do away this with geographic paternalism. If we’ve checked that our suppliers know what they are about, from a data protection perspective, then who cares where the ones and zeroes reside?

To paraphrase The Rolling Stones – “Hey, you, do what you want with my cloud!”

Indie Music Radio

Lessons for the Public Sector from the Evolution of Early Life

Nobody is really sure how life first started on this planet but there are lots of ideas and we’ll have an answer soon. Fortunately for me this gap in our knowledge doesn’t matter because I want to focus on how life evolved immediately after its first appearance and something we know quite a bit about.

The first life was restricted to the ocean and ‘life’ back then meant a soup of single celled organisms floating around and not interacting much. This kind of life is known as ‘prokaryotic‘ – tiny single cells with hardly any internal differentiation – no nucleus, just a blob. Prokaryotes are still around today in the form of bacteria.

Then, about 1.5 billion years ago, an amazing thing happened.

Some single celled organisms found themselves on the inside of another single celled organism. Sometimes the big cell was ‘eating’ the other, but this wasn’t always an intentional move – it was just that one organism had somehow managed to cross the cell wall of the other:

This would usually result in the death of one or both of the organisms – or neither organism would really notice and nothing would change. And so it went on for millions of years. Sometimes though, when one organism consumed another there would be a wonderful coincidence which meant that both organisms benefited from the new arrangement.

CapturedSymbiosis – or to put it another way – teamwork!

This is how the first multi-cellular organisms came about, and these are known as eukaryotes. Humans are an example of a eukaryotic organism. Bear with me – I’m getting to the public sector bit……

Evidence supports the idea that eukaryotic cells are actually the descendents of separate prokaryotic cells that joined together in a symbiotic union. In fact, the power station of all our cells – the mitochondrion – seems to be the “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter” of a free-living bacterium that was engulfed by another cell, perhaps as a meal, and ended up staying as a sort of permanent house guest. The host cell profited from the chemical energy the mitochondrion produced, and the mitochondrion benefited from the protected, nutrient-rich environment surrounding it. This kind of “internal” symbiosis — one organism taking up permanent residence inside another and eventually evolving into a single lineage — is called endosymbiosis.

The 2 organisms working together are more efficient and have competitive advantage over the single celled guys. Natural selection did its stuff and……wind the clock forward a billion years…..to the arrival of us lot sat staring wistfully out of office windows.

It’s important to understand that each organism had to give up A LOT in order to make the symbiosis work. Taking mitochondria as an example – the host cell was glad to benefit from the energy produced by the mitochondria but as the new symbiotic organism grew and become ever more complex it absolutely depended on this energy. Similarly, the mitochondria loved the protection afforded by the host cell but it had to entirely give up some pretty basic controls – including the ability to reproduce independently.

The Eukaryotic Public Sector

SoupI imagine that you can see where I’m going with this. With very few exceptions our public sector bodies are like the single cell prokaryotes swimming about in a soup of inefficiency. But LOOK OUT – someone is adding a toxin to that soup – an ingredient called AUSTERITY. It’s time for us to evolve or die.

Now, it just so happens that my Council has an excellent ICT service (this is true) and that there is a bit of spare capacity within the data centre (also true). We would happily be engulfed by a, say, local NHS Trust and deliver their IT for them – in return we’d be rewarded with life giving cash.

And maybe that Trust, or perhaps a neighbouring university, has an excellent, say, Finance service that we could consume. Maybe there could even be a quid pro quo deal where we don’t need to exchange real cash. In this way the cell walls come down and a much more sophisticated set of public services evolves.

It’s not easy of course. As already noted it is necessary for each partner to give something up if the eukaryotic organisation is to be created. The thing that you’re losing is sovereignty over some functions. To my mind the kind of protectionism/sovereignty that we typically see in the public sector is a crime. ‘Sovereignty’ is really little more than macho chest thumping and posturing. It is a dog, scent marking its territory. We need to grow up.

Sure, it’s scary. If my Council does your IT then it’s going to be hard to roll that back – very quickly the new eukaryotic organisation can no more return to doing its own IT than I can get rid of the mitochondria from my cells and start generate energy by installing a solar panel on my head.

Nonetheless – it’s the right thing to do and, really, it’s the only thing to do. I’m not scared – if there’s any IT service out there (public or private) that can do a better job than ours at the same/lower cost then I absolutely 100% want them to take it on, because that’s the right thing to do for my organisation and the people we serve.

There are many services that we’re duplicating for no good reason. Legal, HR, IT, Finance, Audit, Procurement – there really is no local dimension to these services – they could be done from anywhere by anyone.

Symbiosis – yes please.

teamwork3

Indie Music Radio

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?

Not just a digital strategy – it’s a business strategy for a digital age…

By fixating on the need for a digital strategy document we can often forget that the real goal is a set of digitally enabled business strategies or service plans.

You don’t just need a digital strategy – you need all of your service areas to write service plans and strategies that exploit digital.

Digital shouldn’t be handed down from the top of the organisation – it should bubble up naturally from the people who are tasked with delivering services. The business areas should be irrepressibly enthusiastic about using technology – they shouldn’t need coercing.capture

This is why our new strategy was co-produced with the various business units in the Council, with the aim of pulling together all aspects of the organisation’s digital work under one roof.

And here it is – our Digital Council Strategy 2016 to 2019:

Click here to see RMBC’s new Digital Council Strategy

 

 

 

 

Darwinian Forces are at Work in the Public Sector

Local Government has spent 5 years cutting back. We haven’t just cut to the bone, we’re now darwinscraping the bone. This activity has taken massive amounts of cost out of Local Government and we have achieved savings on a scale that the 2010 versions of ourselves would have derided for being so large as to be the stuff fantasy.

Despite this we find ourselves with a set of 2015 Local Authorities which are not so different from their 2010 counterparts. Certainly our organisations are very much smaller in terms of headcount – but we persist in doing the same things in the time honoured fashions.

It’s time for us to call an end to the half-decade of inward focus – of salami slicing and thinning out – that work is at an end. We must now look outwards as we enter the second half of Local Government’s Decade Horribilis with our eyes on the real prize – changing the way we work by blurring, or entirely removing, the boundaries between many of the public sector organisations.

Like it or not ‘The State’ is in rapid retreat and the shrinkage won’t be reversed anytime soon. There are Darwinian forces at work here and only through the clever use of data and technology will the smart organisations have the requisite tools to evolve their way back from the brink.

It’s all about information – how we create it, how we store it, how we protect it, how we share it and how we exploit it. Clever exploitation of information and technology will help Local Government and the wider public sector to, not just survive, but thrive.

Austerity Bites

Up and down the land, as austerity bites

All the Friday nights are leaving ‘do’ nights

In the pub on the corner colleagues (now ex) chat and mingle

On the side, back in the office, they’ve left scotch eggs but no Pringles


On the wall a line (on A4) once seemed funny, no doubt

‘Due to budget cuts the light at the end of the tunnel must now be turned out’

To the office cleaner (English A-levels) the sentiment seems Kafkaesque

(He’s in a bad mood – they know they are not allowed to eat at their desk)


Under halogen spots the remaining M&S chocolate cake goes dry

In the pub on the corner Estelle’s trying not to cry

She’s worked there since school, 30 years, scaled middle-management heights

It’s true what they say – austerity bites

By endless-world-of-cubicles1@Copley_Rich