Tag Archives: GDS

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.

Digital = Automation (or how to keep your looms clog-free)

Pretty much every meeting I attend these days involves some discussion of ‘Digital by Default’ or ‘Channel Shift’.do-it-online

Often these meetings see me waxing lyrical about digital things and trying not to roll my eyes when someone says “But what about the people who are not online?” (someone ALWAYS says this – I’ve blogged on it here).

Recently, in one of these meetings, I had something of an epiphany. I was being challenged by a non-believer over digital’s business case when I realised that what I was failing to get across is simply this – doing things digitally means that a computer carries out tasks that would previously been done by a human. D’oh!

Digital = Automation

Pretty obvious huh? But once I’d stopped using the phrases digital by default and channel shift and started using ‘automation’ instead I found it much easier to get the message across. We automate processes to make them cheaper, faster and better.

4.1.2

Spot-welding robots on a car production line can get through many, many more cars per day than a human workforce – and they don’t need to sleep, it’s a 24/7 service.

Similarly, by automating a process and putting it online we make our services faster, better and cheaper (and 24/7). Why are online services cheaper? Largely because humans are expensive things to employ and online services don’t need as many humans.

As this graphic shows, an online transaction is MUCH cheaper for the council than a face-to-face equivalent (I believe that these figures are from some SOCITM research). channelshift

As well as helping me explain why digital is better, these thoughts of automation led to a further insight – the reason we’re finding it so hard to ‘do’ digital is that it is being resisted by our own employees. Let’s travel back in time 400 years or so to help me explain….

A ‘sabot’ was a type of wooden clog worn by poor people in 16th century Europe (bear with me, this does have something to do with digital).wooden-shoes

When automatic knitting machines and looms were invented the peasants feared for their jobs. The new looms could make better quality clothes and they could do it much faster than the old hand-looms.

In an effort to protect their jobs the disgruntled weavers threw their sabots in to the inner workings of the loom in order to smash the machinery. From this action we get the word ‘sabotage’. 

This is a lesson from history that we could do well to pay attention to today. Everyone apart from the saboteurs thought that the new weaving machines were a great innovation. The manufacturers could make more clothes and blankets, the consumers got better clothes at much reduced cost. The loom makers were prized for the technical prowess. Everyone was happy apart from the people who used to do things the old way.

turkeyNow, as then, the people who are most likely to block an innovation are the people whose livelihoods are threatened by it. Turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas.

It’s hard for a large public sector organisation to ‘do’ digital. But why should this be? Our customers want it – they prefer to do things online. The leaders of the organisation want digital – it saves them money and allows for headcount reduction through automation.

The only people who don’t view digital as self-evidently the right thing to do are the humans who will be displaced by the automation of these transactions.

There is a way to approach this problem that keeps everyone happy. It’s essential that we don’t attempt to hard-wire a link between digital/channel shift and financial savings. This seems counter-intuitive, I know, but if you start your digital transformation by saying “We’re going to channel shift and this will mean we can drop headcount by 10 people by the end of the year” you’re going to find that your looms fill up with clogs and the project is suddenly very much harder than you thought it was going to be. You can’t really ‘do’ digital to processes unless you take the process owners with you – hearts and minds.

Instead, the message should be “We’re going to do digital/channel shift because it will ease your paperworkloads and help you cope with recent headcount reductions – we know you’re buckling under the strain and this project will help with that. What’s more – our customers will get a better service.”

You back this up by not taking any departmental/service budgets to fund the digital projects. Instead you fund this transformation at the centre knowing that there is a self-evident invest-to-save business case. For a small investment you’ll reap big savings.

In a year’s time, when the project is up and running, the people on the ground can see that they now have much less work to do and you find that you can now accept all those voluntary severance applications that you had to turn down last year. Headcount shrinks – incrementally and without too much trauma.

In summary – don’t get hung up on trying to predict the savings you’ll make from digital. It’s impossible for you to accurately put a figure on what you’ll save and to try to do so will result in resistance from the process owners. Instead, be resolute in the belief that automation is self-evidently the right thing to do and know that, to paraphrase Field of Dreams..

If you build it, the savings will come.

FOD

 

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:

dctweet

“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?

477px-England_Adminstrative_2010

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.

Print

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.

LocalGov

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.

duplication

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:

New1

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.

New2

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:

New3

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: