Tag Archives: Local Government

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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…

project_management

Embrace Shadow Tech or Die

Shadow Tech‘ – we IT folk do enjoy our cool-sounding names don’t we?ShadowTech

The term Shadow Tech refers to the use of consumer technology by the workforce, usually in a way that is not sanctioned by ‘Corporate IT’.

Generally speaking the IT department does not like the  business to use any technology that they (IT) haven’t selected, procured and learned how to support. The instinct of your average IT team is to declare shadow tech verboten, often citing ‘security’ as the reason.

Today’s shadow tech manifests itself in the form of iOS and Android devices. Our employees have them at home, love them and can see how they will help at work – but the IT team says “No, it’s not safe“.

‘ICT as Denier’ is a dangerous role to adopt. I’ve already written about the battle with pernicious ‘security’ but when it comes to shadow tech the real threat is to the IT department – the threat of irrelevance.

We can illustrate the risk by casting our minds back to Shadow Tech 1.0. Less than 30 years ago the IT Dept. was about number crunching and centralised computing – the mainframe was still king. Then in the late 80s and early 90s the Personal Computer (PC) started appearing in people’s living rooms. “Wow!” the people thought “These PCs are great, I can see how this would really help me with my work.”   

The IT Department said “No – that’s not how we do it – if you want some computing doing come to us and we’ll sort it out for you”. So the business promptly ignored IT and went out and bought PCs.

Shadow Tech

PCs proliferated on desktops throughout the organisation and a person in each area would often adopt the mantle of ‘the guy who knows about computers’. Within a few years we had mini-IT Departments all over the place, less control at the centre and an uncoordinated ad hoc approach to technology exploitation.

Wind forwards 20 years and many organisations have now managed to wrest control of ICT back to the centre. The PC (laptop) is ubiquitous but that’s OK because it is now approved and controlled by the IT team. Meanwhile, in the data centre, the mainframes have gone and Windows servers hum away contentedly – all is well with the world.

But hark! Here comes Shadow Tech 2.0 the iPhone and iPad started appearing in people’s living rooms. “Wow!” the people thought “These mobile gadgets are great, I can see how this would really help me with my work.”   

The IT Department said “No – that’s not how we do it – they are not safe. If you want some computing doing come to us and we’ll give you a proper computer”. So the business promptly ignored IT and went out and bought iPads.

Shadow Tech

We know what happens next because we’ve been here before.

(There’s something here that needs exploring around the importance of ‘Institutional Memory‘ in helping us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – but that’s a post for another day)

Again Corporate ICT loses control – but this time the stakes are far higher. Both the volumes of data and the sensitivity of the data in use are hugely increased compared with 25 years ago. If the end users succeed in bypassing the IT Department then there’s a real risk of a security breach (and near certain compliance problems) – and the users will find a way to use these devices at work because people are clever.

The CIO’s role in this is to act as a trusted advisor to the business. IT should be a door-opener not a gate-keeper. The IT team need to get ahead of the curve and work out how to use these amazing new devices safely. Buy lots of different models and trial different management software then go back to your business users and say “Hey, look – we’ve worked out a way that you can use these things at work.”

But it doesn’t stop there – Shadow Tech 3.0 is already upon us and its name is Software as a nephoService (SaaS). I am a huge advocate of cloud computing and SaaS and I’ve written about this before. SaaS is so good (easy to use, cheap and easy to deploy) that your users will already by eyeing it/using it. Most SaaS tools require little more than a browser – your users are able to purchase their subscription and be up and running on the new application without IT ever knowing about it. This represents a serious threat to the organisation’s data as it is unlikely that the user will have checked that (e.g.) the data is being stored in the EEC.

The CIO’s job here is not to issue a diktat “Staff must not sign up to cloud based software tools.” rather we need to educate staff as to the risk and request that they run all such proposals past the ICT Governance Team so that they can do the due diligence/legwork around security. Sometimes there will be a genuine reason why a SaaS application should be blocked in the corporate world (e.g. DropBox *shudders*) – but usually this stuff is safe to use.

This is ICT adding value to the organisation and it’s a pointer towards ICT’s new role (the inexorable movement from the management of tin and wires to the management of data and risk).

So, be a door-opener not a gate-keeper because, guess what, Shadow Tech 4.0 will be along any day now…

Door-opener not gate-keeper

Door-opener not gate-keeper

 

Your Call is (Probably) Not Important to Me – In Praise of Email

We all have a strained relationship with our email inbox.

For many people Outlook is work (other email clients are available :-)).outlook

That little orange icon on our desktop can contain a world of pain and email has been getting a bad press recently. Some commentators have bemoaned the fact that people often think that they are ‘doing’ work when they are ‘doing’ email.

Strength of feeling is such that there’s even been a suggestion that email should be turned off outside of working hours.

You’ll hear no such complaints from me – I like email. The beauty of email is that it is an asynchronous communication mechanism. An email lands, you glance at it, triage it and if it’s urgent you act upon it. More often than not you delete it or leave it alone until it needs attention.

Compare this to that most cursed of devices – the telephone. “Answer me now!” it screams.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

How often have you seen colleagues chatting around a desk – discussing a work issue – when the desk phone rings and the owner of the phone interrupts the conversation to answer it? What this person is actually saying is “I don’t know who is calling or what they want but this unknown person is more important to me than you are.” How rude!

Even worse than the phone is the Johnny-come-lately of synchronous attention seekers – INSTANT MESSAGING (IM). IM is basically email that you have to reply to immediately. It allows people to tip-tap-tap on your computer screen “Pay me attention, talk to me, stop what you are doing and talk to ME ME ME!” No matter how trivial the message – you have to drop everything and get involved in a text exchange.

My time is precious and I have to focus on the important stuff. Email allows me to do this, the telephone (and IM) don’t.

So I’ve long since abandoned the use of landlines. As, I’ve written before I have now diverted my work landline to a message asking the caller to email me. There are, of course, people who I need to be very responsive to, so my boss (etc) is now in the habit of calling my personal mobile. More often than not people will now email me with a quick “Rich, plz call me” – because they know this is the quickest way to get hold of me.

You've got mail.

You’ve got mail.

I like email – it allows me to control my day. I recommend you try giving up on your desk phone – it’s liberating.

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: