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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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Let the Information Flow

lifebloodInformation is the lifeblood of any organisation and, as is the case with actual blood, the consequences of the flow being blocked are just as serious as the consequences of some leaking out.

Clearly it’s essential that public sector organisations protect the data that they hold – that’s a given. None of us want to fall foul of the ICO and, much more importantly, we have a duty of care around our citizen’s data. Getting one’s data security house in order is key concern of any CIO.

But we have another duty – a duty to share information. Public sector organisations must share data internally and externally. Information is what we do – it’s our currency, our raw material, our tool and our product.

Back in 1999 Bill Gates wrote a book called ‘Business at the Speed of Thought‘ in which businesshe set out his vision of how technology could transform an organisation. The point that Gates made repeatedly is that the speed that we do business is largely dictated by the speed at which we exchange data.

We do business at the speed of information exchange – if the information flow is blocked then we are in big trouble.

We should view any change to the organisation which impedes information flow with suspicion. This includes changes which are made in the name of ‘security’.

One of my favorite quotes is:

“A ship is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for” 

(there is some debate about the origin of this quote but it seems likely that it was first used by John A. Shedd in 1928. I use this quote too often at work and at home – but it’s applicable to so many situations)

“Information is safe on a server, but that’s not what information is for” 

If you want your data to be completely secure you should put it on a server, locked in a data centre and pull out the network lead. But that’s not what data is for.

Over-zealous security measures will impede the flow of information and your organtisation will be less effective. Most of the controls in the PSN code of connection, for example, are very sensible – but a few are draconian/ill-conceived and they have been implemented to the detriment of organisational effectiveness.

A big part of the role of the modern CIO is to be organisational warfarin – an antidote to the coagulating effects of pernicious ‘security’. If a security measure seems over the top to you then you need to push back.

Information is the lifeblood of the organisation – let it flow freely.

Featured post

Let’s Replace Council Websites with Local.Gov.Uk – a GDS for Local Government

140 characters is not a lot of space, but sometimes a tweet can contain a very big idea. In December 2013 Dominic Campbell (@dominiccampbell) tweeted:


“I reckon it would be possible to build a GDS platform for all #localgov for the price of the new Birmingham Library website” 

If you’re not sure what GDS is then click here.

GDS certainly seem to have no appetite to attempt to tackle local gov – they have too much on their plate already. They have offered to share code, standards, APIs, frameworks etc – the philosophy being that we create a service of ‘small pieces loosely joined’ (a phrase which was originally used as an analogy to describe the Internet) – this means that responsibility for implementing this stuff would be devolved to individual Councils. It’s nice of the GDS to offer to share this knowledge, but I don’t think it’s quite the right approach – we’re already a community of small pieces, loosely joined and we’re in a mess, we’re fragmented. FragmentsRather than being handed a set of tools and the message – “This is how we did it for Central Gov – knock yourself out!” – I would like to see the creation of a Local Government Digital Service which oversees the standardisation and improvement of all things digital in Councils. For the purpose of this discussion I’m defining a Local Government Digital Service as simultaneously being a philosophy, an IT strategy and a central team of people capable of delivering it.

So what problems would a Local Government Digital Service solve, what would the service look like and how hard would it be to create it?


What problems would Local GDS solve?

This bit’s easy – there are 326 Local Authorities (LAs)/Councils in England (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Districts_of_England).

That’s 326 organisation doing, pretty much, the same thing. In terms of IT this means 326 websites, 326 email systems, 326 social care systems, 326 planning systems, 326 education systems etc etc.

This is not quite true as not all LAs have, for example, responsibility as a LEA – but you get the idea.

I estimate that an averaged sized Council will be running around 75 different ‘line of business’ applications – by which I mean the ‘serious’ software that’s used to underpin service delivery, I’m excluding client installs such as CAD or pseudo-systems like MS Access databases and spreadsheets.

326 x 75 = 24,250 software applications. 

So the first benefit of a Local GDS is obvious – increased efficiency through removal of expensive duplication.


The second benefit is around the user experience. Council websites vary in quality enormously – by implementing a single site which features the beautiful design principles of Gov.uk we can standardise content and quality and thereby vastly improve the user experience. Local.Gov.Uk anyone? (The LGA own the local.gov.uk address at the moment – we’d need to shift them)

OK – so it’s a no-brainer, if we could make Local GDS happen then there are serious benefits to be had. But how do we make it happen?

What would Local GDS look like and how might it be brought about?

Part 1: Serving Out Information from Local.Gov.Uk

Councils don’t need to have a website each – we can replace them all with a central Local.Gov.Uk site. Many visitors to Council sites are looking for information rather than wanting to interact/transact with the Council. The same is true of Gov.Uk. Gov.uk is largely about information dissemination – GDS went through the various departmental websites, binned a lot of dross and then re-presented the important info in an accessible way. This bit is relatively easy to replicate for a Local.Gov.Uk:

  1. Identify those bits of information which are common across Local Gov.
  2. Create a Local.Gov.Uk site (same look and feel as Gov.uk) and populate it with the important information.
  3. Cull the old Council sites which are now obsolete.
  4. Save a fortune on Content Management Systems and hosting costs.


Clearly we will need to have a site which recognises that not all parts of the country are the same – some Councils have coastline, some have ports, others have zoos, some have motor racing circuits – the list goes on and all these things bring with them policy and service delivery implications which are not standard across all Councils. Furthermore, as already mentioned, not all tiers of Local Gov have the same statutory responsibilities – not all Councils act as the LEA, for example. These things shouldn’t be a barrier to Local.Gov.Uk though – any transaction/search would begin by capturing the citizen’s post code and the resulting information can be tailored accordingly. Imagine how great it would be for the user of the service to not have to care about whether their area is covered by more than one Local Authority, each with different responsibilities. It reflects poorly on us that we expect our customers to concern themselves with this kind of organisational detail.

Part 2: Transactional Services via Local.Gov.Uk 

A single national web presence for local services would be a huge achievement, yet it would still be just the first step on a much longer journey. Standardising the information we push out is the easy part – delivering transactional services online is where the big challenge is – but this is also where the big savings can be realised.

MyAccountMost Councils have already started implementing some variant of the ‘My Account‘ or ‘Your Account’ service. Often these have the Council’s name appended ‘My Sheffield’ or ‘My Manchester’ and these services will give the citizen some ability to interact with their Council in a way which directly replaces the need to make contact via other channels (telephone and face to face).

This is great news – Digital by Default, Channel Shift – excellent – it’s where we need to be and it’s self evidently the right thing to do. But it’s no small task to make a ‘back end line of business system’ accessible to customers – it’s hard to do and costs OldModela huge amount of money. There are integration tools to buy, APIs to buy, then you have to think about authentication (this is tricky) and finally the Council will create a new website (branded to look like its main site) from which the customer gains access to the back-end data.

Typically it might take a Council 2 years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to get to this point. That’s OK though because as we all know the cost of an online transaction is a fraction of that of its face-to-face counterpart – the investment pays for itself quickly and many times over.

Fine – but ALL the Councils are on this journey – we’re all building identical architecture to do the same thing. We’re all trying to bring about channel shift in isolation.


This is clearly bonkers – but Local.Gov.Uk gives us a way out. We can begin rationalising this model a layer at a time.

First, as already discussed, we remove the need for Councils to host and maintain their own websites. We replace this layer with the elegant simplicity of Local.Gov.Uk:


Next the Local GDS team uses the GDS’ well documented iterative development techniques to write integration with the Council’s back-end systems. This would be done starting with those systems that are most common and/or have the highest volume of transactions. This is not as onerous a task as it might sound – the mission critical systems in Local Gov are shared between just 4 or 5 suppliers. In terms of authentication – we’d also jump on GDS’ ready made identity and authentication tools to crack that (thorny) problem – by the time Local.Gov.Uk goes live nearly all our customers will have registered with Gov.Uk for one service or another.


Once we’ve got to this point it becomes clear that Councils no longer need to procure 326 different instances of each system – why don’t we work together to get bigger, better, cheaper contracts from our suppliers? Delivered as SaaS of course – we don’t need any tin in our data centres:


I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned the Public Services Network (PSN) in this PSNdiscussion yet. PSN would be a key enabler of Local GDS – PSN is the secure network that joins it/us together and, potentially, could be the place where many of the SaaS systems are hosted – in effect PSN would be a secure cloud for Local GDS. 

Next Steps?

I’ve been ‘doing’ digital in Local Government for (too) many years – so I appreciate that all of the above will be hard to bring about. A significant challenge to Local.Gov.Uk/Local GDS will be catconvincing all authorities to get on board. In a presentation at the 2013 SOCITM conference (see video at the end of this post) GDS’ Mike Bracken (@MTBracken) said – “It was the devil’s own job to get 24 departments to agree to adopt Gov.uk”. Imagine that challenge scaled up to 326 Councils? Ouch. I pity the shepherd who gets the job of herding those cats.

A second major challenge to the Local GDS model is that it threatens the profits of the major software suppliers. The big suppliers – you know who they are – are very happy to sell the same software to 300 customers. Much less attractive is a joined up Local Gov wanting to to buy a small number of shared instances of these applications. The procurement and legal dimensions will be complex – but maybe G-Cloud can help us with this?

A further challenge will be in resourcing Local GDS – but logic tells us that there must be a way to do this by better using existing resources across Local Gov. Let’s assume that each Council has a web team of, say, 4 people – some are bigger many are smaller, but 4 feels about right – that’s roughly 1300 people currently involved in maintaining Council websites.

Add the various IT departments in to this and you’re looking at a standing army of over 20,000 people already employed in local digital services. If we could avail our selves of just 0.1% of this resource (20 people) then we’d be able to create a nascent Local GDS. Or, and this is probably more realistic, if each Council contributed a small amount each year we would have ample funds to make Local GDS a reality.

So, to return to where we started – could we build a GDS platform for all Local Gov for the price of Birmingham’s library website? Well that website cost £1.2m to create and £190k per year to run (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-25033651) – this feels like more than we’d need for Local GDS in year 1, but not enough in terms of ongoing costs.  If each Council agreed to subscribe to Local GDS and paid just £3,000 per year we’d be able deliver a Local.Gov.Uk platform which would:

  • Remove the need for individual Council websitesSave-Money.
  • Significantly reduce software support and maintenance costs for a range of systems.
  • Allow for headcount reductions in web/digital/IT teams.
  • Begin to move away from local data centres.

That’s what we used to call an ‘invest to save’ business case in the olden days.

Who could lead on Local GDS? It’s got to be SOCITM hasn’t it? A ready made team of experts in digital government who know what’s needed to transform Local Gov and who are champing at the bit to get cracking.

babyYou may say that I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one. If we start small, keep it simple and take baby steps we can do it. 

Here’s Mike Bracken’s presentation at SOCITM 2013, well worth a watch:

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?


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.


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?!?


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?

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.







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.


Indie Music Radio

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

We Need a Local GDS with Muscle and Teeth

SOCITM have come out in favour of a Local GDS. Or at least I think they have.LocalGDS

Briefing number 68 is a tentative affair – the 8 page document includes a lengthy discussion (pages 1 through 6) of things that have failed to work in the past. It is not until the end of the briefing that we see some cautious exploration of what might work in the future.

I’m a big fan of SOCITM (and I’m a SMSITM too, a Senior Member of the Society of IT Managers) but I think they are in an impossible position. It is not reasonable to expect a group of IT managers to give an objective opinion on a proposal that means IT managers should lose control and power to a new Local GDS.

What we’re lacking here is some enthusiasm, some tub thumping – come on people, let’s make things better! We do not need the optional, toothless advisory service proposed by SOCITM, here’s why…

Central GDS works because:

  1. It is supported at the highest level of government.
  2. It has authority to tell departments what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

Central GDS succeeds at the macro level for the same reason that successful internal Council ‘digital’ programmes succeed at the micro level. When a Council ‘gets’ digital and does it well it is because:

  1. It is supported at the highest level of the organisation.
  2. It has authority to tell departments what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

SOCITM’s version of a Local GDS will not work because it fails to incorporate any of these 4 success factors. Rather there is a strange deference/respect for localism and an odd assumption that individual authorities must be allowed to say ‘no thanks’ should they wish to.

Let’s not forget why the idea of a Local GDS was proposed in the first place – it’s certainly not because everything is hunky dory in Council IT departments. We need a Local GDS to tell (not ask) Councils how to steer a way out of the highly inefficient, complex, fractured and duplicated IT landscape that we find ourselves in. We are desperate for a Local GDS, but only if…

  1. It is supported at the highest level of Government (both Central and Local).
  2. It has authority to tell Councils what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

Given that ‘big’ GDS are doing so well I propose that they form a Local Government team within GDS and crack on with sorting out the tangled mess that is Local Government ICT.

We know from experience that centralisation (outside of Local Gov) works. The much maligned eGovernment programme of the early 2000’s was hugely successful in odpm_logochanging Local Government’s attitude towards ICT. In the space of a few years many Local Gov services were dragged (kicking and screaming) in to the digital age. We didn’t like it, but we did it because we had no choice and, when the dust had settled, we could see that real improvement had been delivered. It wasn’t perfect, but it brought about real changes.

But I’m not just talking about a Local GDS that offers guidance and sets rules and targets (although that’s clearly part of it). We need to go beyond the eGovernment model and create a Local GDS that makes things.

termsLet’s take a real world example to demonstrate what this might look like. Take a moment, if you will, to visit this page: https://www.gov.uk/school-term-holiday-dates

Enter your postcode and you’ll be directed to the school term dates on your Council’s website. This shows that GDS are already aggregating some Local Gov data and representing it to the citizen – albeit it’s presumably just a database with a list of URLs at the moment.

Pretty small stuff? Yes, but it poses some interesting questions.

Why don’t Councils simply routinely post their term dates, in an agreed open standard, to a central location so that all and sundry (including Gov.uk) can mash it up/use it as they see fit? Then once that’s been done, why do we need a term dates page on our local Council site? Why doesn’t Gov.uk just act as an aggregator for this data?

This train of thought leads me to question whether local.gov.uk is really what’s needed. Why create a new layer? Why not go further and leave it all to Gov.uk? Clearly term dates are easy – but I’m willing to bet that most of the pages on a Local Authority (LA) site contain information which could easily be output direct from back-office as a CSV.

This is a key thing that I would want from my new Local GDS – a set of open standards and cloud1associated policies which compel Local Authorities to submit certain datasets to Gov.uk. In this way we can gradually build up a central repository of data and scale back our own websites. Who knows, when the time comes to renew the CMS contract perhaps we won’t need to bother.

But let’s not get fixated on this ‘one website to rule them all‘ idea because that’s just the tip of the iceberg. GDS used gov.uk as a Trojan horse to smuggle in a shed load of platform and process reengineering behind the scenes. My proposal is similar – that a Local GDS (within ‘big’ GDS) could aggregate data at the centre and that this would be a vehicle to engineer a wholesale re-imagining of the way back end systems are managed. More on that in a moment, but before I leave the ‘one website’ topic I want to dispel a persistent myth.

“If you have a central website then whither accountability, whither democracy and whither independence!?“

This is the most oft-repeated argument but also the most specious. The URL of the website via which citizens consume a Council service has no relation to or impact on the accountability of the service. To claim that a Council without a website is democratically unaccountable is to claim that democratic accountability did not materialise until the dawn of the Internet in the 90s.

The proposed aggregation of data and systems in no way diminishes a Council’s accountability or contactability, indeed most LAs already have a web presence using at least some elements of which will be geographically distant from the LA.

I think what SOCITM et al are arguing is that if you use a central website how do you know which LA you’re dealing with? Who is providing the data? I personally can’t see how this matters but there is a simple way around it. The first step in any transaction would be to capture a postcode – from then on the website look and feel can be ‘skinned’ to brand it with LA colours, logos, contact numbers etc – this is child’s play.

FlexingKey Activities for Our New, Muscular, Local GDS

It’s not just about creating open standards, aggregating data and re-presenting data through Gov.uk. We need a Local GDS that treats Councils in the same way that Big GDS dealt with the 25 Central Govt. Departments that they are currently fixing. Here are some more things I want to see from a muscular Local GDS, starting with the open data/open standards mentioned above:

  • Local GDS to create a set of open standards to cover all Local Gov data and to mandate that LAs must produce data extracts and upload them to an online location provided by LGDS.
  • A new policy that all planned Local Gov ICT procurement activity valued at over £10k must be published in an online register (hosted by LGDS). This register must be consulted before any new procurement with a view to fostering joint procurement and reducing the dispiriting duplication across UK Local Gov.
  • A new policy that a reasonable percentage of Local Gov ICT spend must be with SME suppliers.
  • The introduction of a policy whereby any new Local Gov ICT project valued over £250k must be first justified to and approved by Local GDS.
  • A policy that all Local Gov ICT procurement activity must give a preferential weighting towards cloud/SaaS. This will help suppliers to become cloud ready (more on why this matters here) and, more importantly, it will help Councils to begin emptying their data centres.
  • The cataloguing and categorisation of UK public sector data centres to identify a small number of locations that could act as sites for aggregation of Local Gov data centre activity. These locations will be made PSN ready (if they are not already) and rack space to be offered at low cost to Councils. This, along with SaaS, will allow Councils to work towards being unencumbered by infrastructure.
  • The creation of a handful of regional ICT ‘seed hubs’ – groups of people around which strategic activity can accrete. These hubs can offer advice to Councils at the region/city region level. Membership being mandatory with a view to aggregating ICT activity/strategy and thereby dragging ICT activity out of Councils and standardising it at a higher level.
  • Mandate the use of PSN circuits. When PSN Roam goes live mandate the use of that too. This will mean that any public sector employee can go in to any PSN connected building and use PSN Roam wifi to get back to their own network.

All of these proposals are aimed at blurring the lines between Councils and fostering closer working across the public sector generally.

Clearly LGDS is going to need some investment – upfront and ongoing. But this will be peanuts in comparison to the year on year savings. This is the same ‘invest to save model’ that has worked well for Big GDS.

I call on someone, anyone and everyone to lobby Cabinet Office/GDS to create a Local GDS under the wider GDS umbrella. I call on the LGA and SOLACE to support this proposal and to pledge their individual Local Authorities to engaging fully with Local GDS in an effort to end the shocking duplication caused by 400 LAs doing the same thing in the same way without talking to each other.

In Praise of Babel Fish and Boundary Spanners

We’re all busy. In the public sector our huge workloads are compounded by the unending need to cut back on spending in response to ‘austerity’ (I don’t believe ‘austerity’ really exists, it’s just a convenient untruth, but that’s a post for another day).

Given the challenges facing us our instinct is to get our heads down and crack on – it’s difficult to find the time to do otherwise.

There’s a danger, though, in retrenching. If we retreat in to our organisational silos then we are likely to lose sight of the big picture. Organisations need boundary spanners – those rare individuals who can sit across divisional boundaries and understand the Babel Fishwider world. If you think for a moment I’ll bet that you can identify your own boundary spanners – people who seem to be involved in everything, people who can talk in the language of other departments. Maybe you’re a boundary spanner?

One of the things that boundary spanners do is act as an organisational babel fish. My favourite of all Douglas Adams’ amazing creations, the babel fish (when inserted in one’s ear) allows one to immediately understand anything that is being said – even if it’s said in a language we’ve never heard before.

Boundary spanners can speak the language of the whole organisation, not just the discrete area which we might consider to be the ‘day job’. Anybody at any level of an oganisation can be a boundary spanner but it’s an essential skill for leaders. A departmental leader should hold the service for which they are responsible at arm’s length. A good CIO, for example, must be as close to the business uniBoundary Spannerts as they are to the ICT department. This places the CIO in a position to effect 2-way translation – ie to explain to the ICT team what it is the customer really wants and to clarify/simplify the information which flows back from the ICT team to the customer.

Professionals in any discipline have a tendency to communicate with laypeople using impenetrable language strewn with 3 letter acronyms. A good leader and boundary spanner will ensure that this doesn’t happen – they’ll be a babel fish.

Another key role of the boundary spanner is to act as a ‘critical friend’. Using IT as an example again (because that’s my area) the CIO/boundary spanner will challenge the business units to clarify their thinking when it is apparent that the customer is not really sure what they want (or, more importantly, what they need). It works the other way too – the CIO boundary spanner should push back hard on the ICT team when they are saying, for example, that something can’t be done. Why can’t it be done? Are you sure? What if we do it another way? All this happens behind the scenes and can go a long way to keeping VIPs happy elsewhere in the organisations.

Sometimes boundary spanners emerge naturally – perhaps because a good leader intuits the need. Sometimes it’s just that the individuals concerned are a bit nosey and like to know what’s going on. Don’t worry though, if you don’t have boundary spanners you can make them – it’s not hard. I recommend ’embedding’ people in other departments – go talk to the various business units, attend their management meetings and, importantly, try to take a step away from your own service area and view its performance in the context of the organisation’s strategic direction.

I’ve talked about IT here but all parts of the organisation need boundary spanners – particularly the corporate support services such as HR, Finance and Legal. The cartoon below (and oldie but goody) illustrates the dangers of not having enough boundary spanners involved in any activity…


RT, MT, HT, DM, OH, #hashtag, @mention. What’s all this gubbins then?

Public Sector stuff

I use many digital channels to share my ideas, help people and promote organisations doing useful things. But Twitter only allows 140 characters, so I have to be brief.  To save characters, I use abbreviations and other techniques to type more with less.  However, not all my followers understand what I mean.  Hence this blog post.

RT = Re-Tweet = your tweet is very well typed and I’ve decided to share it, as is, without changing a thing.  Well done you!

MT = Modified Tweet = your tweet has a message which I want to share, but I’ve had to modify it before doing so.  “Could do better”, as some teachers used to tell me (please feel free to ask me why I’ve modified your tweet and I’ll happily tell you).

HT = Hat Tip = Congratulations, you have inspired me.  I may not have RT or MT your original…

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