Eleven years a blogger

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According to the archive on this site, I’ve been writing this blog for eleven years today – since September 2004.

This is the 2,646th post and there have been 4,263 comments on them over the years.

Lots has changed in that time, personally and professionally. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t be where I am now without having started it.

It’s done three things, I think:

  • helped build my profile over the years, creating all sorts of opportunities
  • helped me develop my ideas, from the half baked to the barely lukewarm
  • helped me build my network of friends and collaborators

There’s a bunch of other bits too, in that I’m sure I must be a better writer now than I was when I started, and eleven years of fiddling with WordPress have taught me a load about technical stuff (mostly to leave well alone).

I’m so grateful for the folk who read this blog and respond, for the occasional kind words of encouragement I get.

On the very odd occasion that folk ask me for advice on getting on the world of digital and/or government, I almost always suggest people start blogging.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to continue for at least another eleven years.

What I’m talking about when I’m talking about government as a platform

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So, a little while ago I posted about government as a platform, and mentioned three main components that matter, particularly to us at Adur and Worthing with our approach.

However, I’ve been involved in various conversations where I’ve been confused about how other people define platform thinking, which I think goes to the root of the lot of the issues around the wider digital agenda – issues brought to prominence recently in the debate following several key folk from GDS deciding to leave recently.

For me, I defer to Mark Thompson‘s thinking on a lot of this stuff, which Sean Tubbs neatly summarised with the benefit of some of his practical experience.

This piece from Thompson is required reading on the two different approaches to platform thinking, and which he – and I, as it happens – think is the right one. He characterises GDS as a ‘web agency’ – which I think is a little harsh, but gets to the heart of the debate around whether digital is more front end design than fixing the back office line-of-business IT stack (hint: a great website is lovely, but real change can’t happen until the legacy is fixed, which itself can’t be achieved without thinking more widely about how your organisation works).

Effectively the proposition is this: that digital describes not a set of specific technologies or even approaches to technology, but rather the age in which we are currently living, and the appropriate operating models for that age. It also describes the way in which an ever increasing number of our customers want to interact with organisations.

Thus digital, and the strategy for delivering on the digital opportunity that is government as a platform, is not around technology but rather rethinking how organisations work.

Technology is a convenient way to practically start delivering on government as a platform, but it is very much the start of the process. This is slightly unfortunate as it does provide the opportunity for people to put digital, and platforms, into the box marked IT project, which is a massive mistake. Platform technology without a platform operating model  will never deliver on the opportunity.

So, the key elements for me when it comes to platform thinking are:

  • capabilities not systems – instead of thinking about solving problems with a single ‘system’ (think of that word in the widest sense, not just as in an IT system) we break down requirements into generic capabilities, which can then be put together, building block style, to create the most appropriate solution to the problem at the time
  • making use of commoditised, utility-like computing – in government, we do not need to be using bespoke technology, but instead in many instances can use what the market can provide, at a much lower cost than traditional technology – which then frees up resource for the front line (which is the key bit)
  • solutions for now that don’t limit us in future – capabilities must be designed in such a way that they are not ‘hard coded’ (tech metaphor, sorry) for the way they run now, but so they can be flexible to meet future needs which may be very different
  • create and consume – the platform must be put together in such a way that both we and other organisations can make use of its capabilities, as both creators (building our own apps) and consumers (making use of what others have done)
  • disintermediation – or getting rid of the middle men. Catherine Howe spoke a lot about this a few years ago – showing her talent for prescience yet again. We’re only now really starting to see the effects of this with the likes of Uber and Airbnb cutting out bureaucracy and using the internet to directly connect people with needs with those who can meet those needs. These are true digital business models, not just slapping nicely designed front end lipstick onto legacy pigs.

This is what has been so frustrating about some recent discussions – rather than focusing on the big picture of rethinking operating models, folk go straight into IT mode and start discussing which booking system is best, or who has the payment engine everyone should be using. The concept of capabilities is grasped, but only at the level of technology, not any further.

So, at Adur and Worthing, we are at the very beginning of delivery of platform thinking and operating models. We starting, as is customary, within the domain of technology – but we are not limiting ourselves to that, and are constantly challenging our thinking to ensure we don’t continue to work in non-digital age ways outside of tech.

With technology, we build or buy capabilities that can then be used and re-used many times to deliver appropriate solutions to needs, both by us and by others, and we are also able to consume on the platform too – so if someone else has something neat we’d like to use, we can slot it into our systems. This way of working can happen with other assets, as well as tech, though – people, knowledge, skills, buildings, open spaces, vehicles – anything.

The key is to construct our organisation in such a way that all our assets are effectively capabilities that can be used in different ways by different people – and indeed so that we can bring in assets from elsewhere on the ‘platform’. Often this this supported by digital technology, but that isn’t the starting point, nor the outcome.

For example, I’ve recently been thinking about how ‘people as a platform’ might work in the local area. How can we make the most of the people who work at the Council – and their expertise and skills – as well as those who don’t work here but nonetheless might help us make things happen?

The capability here might be an effective time banking system, enabling people and organisations to trade knowledge, skills, time spent etc without the need for money to change hands  – borrowing in expertise as needed, paid for via hours donated to the wider system previously, without the need for costly administration to link people up, make the transactions and so forth.

(On a side note, how exciting would it be for such a time-trading system to work via some kind of blockchain technology, as Lloyd talks about in this post?)

Hopefully this example is useful – a non technology asset being shared across a system, (re-)usable in a number of different contexts, supported by a digital platform, built upon off-the shelf utility technology, which cuts out the need for central bureaucracy. That’s where we need to be with government as a platform.

So, to recap: digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.

It is not about fixing on a single solution for everything, but creating an ecosystem of innovation, where different solutions can compete to deliver the right capability needed by the people using the platform.

It is not about making everyone use computers to do everything, but instead is about making use of modern, internet enabled tech to run a sufficiently minimal back office that enables us to maintain, and potentially grow, front line delivery of what customers need (see Buurtzorg – and see if you can spot me and Mary McKenna in that video).

Hoping to have a chat about this at LocalGovCamp. Come along – it’ll be a blast.

Post-post-bureaucrat

I’ve always rather liked the title of Steph’s blog and how he gives us occasional updates on how his life outside of the government machine is going. His post-bureaucrat life seems to be going really well.

I left government as a direct employee back in 2008 from which point on I was self employed, with a period working for Learning Pool as a proper employee for 18 months in the middle.

Now, I find myself employed directly by government again. Since April I was the interim Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing, but a couple of weeks ago I was interviewed for the permanent role, and I got it.

So now I have gone from being post-bureaucrat to post-post-bureaucrat.

How does it feel? Here’s a few things that have occurred to me.

1) It’s great not having to sell stuff. Over the last few years I’ve had all sorts of ideas on how to do interesting stuff, to solve tricky problems. I didn’t get to test all of them though, because first I had to sell them.

Now I have this job, I’m in a position where I can just get on and do stuff, to test out some of the thinking I’ve been doing and see if it works in the real world.

2) This is exhausting. Part of the reason why I don’t blog much at the moment and am nowhere near as active on Twitter etc is that I just don’t have the energy. There is so much to be done, and having this role, and being permanent in this one organisation, has given me a sense of responsibility for getting stuff done, which means I am working as hard as I can, all the time.

3) My attitude to sharing has changed. Another reason why I’m not as active socially online as I was before is that my feelings towards it have changed. Social media was really all I had before to market myself, and I don’t have the need to sell any more.

It’s more than that though. There’s something about working at a local authority that affects your sense of loyalty. I haven’t lost my belief that being open and sharing ideas and work with others is a fundamentally good thing. It’s just that, with finite time, energy and attention, I’m more likely to do something that’s on my todo list at work.

I actually think that I need to rebalance this a little, as there is clear benefit for work if I am engaged online, finding out what is going on elsewhere and flying the flag for our approach.

4) I’m only just starting to calm down. It is a different pace when you’re in something for the long haul rather than a short term contract. Since I got here I think it is fair to say I was working at freelance pace, getting involved in everything I could, chucking out ideas, writing papers, making things happen.

It’s important to keep up a quick pace, I think, but I’m starting to learn the importance of pacing myself, choosing my battles a bit more carefully, learning when to step back and let others take the lead on some things.

5) LocalGovCamp will be interesting. Am really looking forward to this year’s event, especially after missing CommsCamp earlier in the year. This will be my first LocalGovCamp as a local government employee, so it will be a special one, I think.

I’m hoping to run a session with others on the topic of government as a platform and also to discussions about LocalGovDigital, which I feel now I can take a full part in, seeing as I’m now a paid up member of the club.

The elements of council as a platform

A platform, yesterday

We are fairly aggressively targeting a platform approach to service design and delivery at Adur and Worthing.

Summing this up is the vision statement in our (still developing) strategy is: “To use our expertise and platforms to help the people, communities and businesses of Adur and Worthing achieve their goals.”

Government as a platform is a phrase that is bandied around a fair bit in digital circles and perhaps it’s worth thinking about what it means in the context of a local authority – hence the title of this post.

To me, there are three main elements:

1. Technology

Whilst it might not be the place we want to start, in many ways you can’t build a platform for a council without having the right technology in place first. Our approach has been to get the core tech foundations right, from which we can then figure out all the other stuff.

The essential thing to get about the technology stack is to think capabilities and not systems. Go watch the gubbins video if you haven’t already to get an introduction to this. In effect, pretty much every system is made up of similar core capabilities – think bookings, reporting, paying, case management, and so on. Rather than buying siloed systems which replicated a lot of these capabilities, the platform approach is to build each capability and then use these building blocks to put together systems to deliver services.

With this approach, you save money, have a common user interface across many systems, have interoperable systems that talk to each other, reduce support complexity and have a much more flexibility in your tech stack.

It also enables you to make use of best of breed technology, by making strategic decisions around buy or build. We don’t want to spend our time developing stuff in house that already exists on the market, where it meets our technology design principles (internet age, cloud ready, interoperable, plug and play…). However, where the market isn’t mature enough to meet our user needs, we have the ability to develop our own software that does. More on the detail on this soon – it really is exciting.

So far, so SOA. Platform technology doesn’t equal council as a platform. It is the foundation on which it is built, however.

2. Service (co)design

What really starts to make council as a platform a reality is the way that services are designed. In Tim O’Reilly’s classic talk on government as a platform, he compared the old way of delivering services to citizens as a vending machine – people pay their (tax) money in, and a service gets dispensed at them as a result.

A platform approach is less about the vending machine – where the first thing a citizen knows about a service is when it happens to them – and much more about involving service users in the design of those services in the first place.

This takes two forms. Much of the digital way of doing things has focused on the citizen or customer user journeys, and indeed this forms the starting point for all of our work. However we take just as seriously the needs of the internal user – in others words our colleagues who, up until now, have been subjected to some pretty awful software.

Our approach to digital transformation takes a truly end to end view, mapping existing processes, identifying steps that can be removed or speeded up, and developing the user stories that help inform a truly excellent user experience rather than a merely efficient one. Until this design work is done, the digital end of the transformation cannot begin.

By involving people, whether customers or staff, in the design of services, we switch the model from the vending machine to the platform. Services are no longer ‘done to’ people, or inflicted upon them, but instead built with them and their input at their very heart.

3. Let others build

We can’t call what we are doing council as a platform while the only people using the platform to deliver services is the council. What really pushes us towards a true platform approach is when other organisations are using our platform to deliver their own services and products,

This is where we really break out of this being a technology project, and into a far more interesting space where the role of the council in supporting local civic, community and business activity is redefined.

This could mean a number of things. It could mean the council effectively becoming a software developer for other organisations. Or, even more interestingly, it could mean other organisations building their systems on our platform using our building blocks of technology capability.

It would hopefully also include other organisations making use of other elements of our platform than just the technology. Our approach to service design, for example, as discussed above, could help organisations figure out the best way to deliver their products and services to meet the needs of their customers. This could be done by opening up our processes and making tools and expertise available to others to tap into.

Just the beginning…

We’re at the very start of this journey at the moment and none of the above is in place yet to the point where we can open it up to others. However, by planning for it at the start, it means the architecture of our technology and our processes will be able to deliver a platform to enable the Council to play a new, appropriate role within our local place in the future.

Rethinking performance management

There’s so much I want to blog about at the moment, but pretty much no time to do it. However, here’s a nice little thing we’re working on that might be of interest.

Performance management is one of those things that strikes fear into the heart of any public sector worker. Somehow, we’ve ended up building up processes, generating reports, all without much actual impact and little effect on the outcomes we want to be delivering.

Performance management is a part of the service I deliver, and Mark on my team who delivers this has been spending a ridiculous amount of time chasing colleagues across the organisation to get updates that he can copy and paste into reports, that then get printed for the senior leadership to not read, because they don’t have time.

There must be a better way!

One of the things that I love about the digital agenda is its realism. We deal with the reality of things, not what they would be like in an ideal world. In reality, nobody has time to read long performance reports, and nor do they have time to keep them updated. But it’s still really important to keep an eye on how various things are progressing.

So, what are we doing?

We started by shifting away from a document-centric approach. This is a recurring theme of a lot of my conversations at the moment and probably needs a post of its own to go into. It sounds obvious, but it’s the content of the documents that matter, not the documents themselves, and separating the two can have really transformative impact.

So, instead of a big document, we now have a Trello board. We have four main areas of performance measures to track, so each has a list on the board. Each commitment is a card on the board, and they are colour coded for easy identification: a simple traffic light style rating in terms of how they are progressing, plus a coloured label to identify which bits of the Councils they relate to.

Clicking on a card brings up a bit more detail – a list of the actions outstanding for that commitment, plus, if necessary, a little commentary on the latest that has been happening.

The purpose of this dashboard is to provide senior people (well, anyone really, but you know what I mean) with a quick overview of what is going on. Rather than dumping the detail on people by default, we give a high level perspective, which can then be dug down into greater detail if needed.

That detail is stored in Google Docs. Each commitment has its own Google Doc, with much more detailed implementation plans in them. They are linked to from inside the relevant Trello cards, allowing people to quickly access them.

Using Google Docs also means there is only one copy of these documents, and they don’t need to have someone copying and pasting information into them.

So, to summarise the benefits of this approach:

  1. No more big paper documents
  2. No more chasing of actions to be pasted into documents – it’s now up to individuals to update their Google Docs and Trello boards themselves
  3. More real time updates – no longer tied to a reporting cycle – if people have something to say, they add it when they have it, otherwise they don’t
  4. Much more manageable, in that we don’t have everything in a single document which is a pain to scroll through and find stuff
  5. Cross cutting issues which involve people in different directorates are now managed in a single place with no duplication

It’s also worth saying that this hasn’t cost us any money to do, and will help us to decommission a bit of software previously used for the purpose, which will save a few quid while providing a more useful service.

Importantly for me, it frees Mark up from a load of boring admin and means he can spend more time doing proper in-depth analysis of issues.

When we showed this to the folks at CLT (Council Leadership Team – the chief and four directors) they were delighted to move away from big document, paper based reporting and into something more real time. They now have the Trello board up on a big screen during a meeting, rather than looking down at bits of paper.

What’s also really pleasing is that this is a nice way of showing how simple, cheap digital technology can have quite a significant cultural impact within the organisation. Already many teams are using Trello to manage their work in a more visible, collaborative way.

Importantly though, when I was asked whether Trello was now the official way for people to manage work in the Councils, I answered no. It’s a way of doing it, but there are others out there that might be more appropriate depending on the work to be done. There isn’t a single solution.

We’re now working on the next stage of performance management and business intelligence in the Councils. It’s very early days, but we’re going to be trialling Tableau, which looks really cool. More on that soon.

The war against crap software

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The end of my second week at Adur and Worthing and it has been relentless. I’m loving it, but feeling the need to come up for air – you may perhaps have noticed I’ve been quiet on this blog and Twitter of late.

One of the big things that attracted me to this particular role was the opportunity to take on the legacy IT element of the digital picture, as well as making some pretty web front ends. So on top of working on fantastic customer-facing services, we’re also involved in projects replacing the ways we do financial management and performance, for instance.

In other words, we are fighting a war against crap software throughout the organisation.

Paul has blogged about the approach before, but it is a sensible one, making use of internet-age, cloud ready solutions wherever possible. We have the tools and are building the in house capability to create bespoke solutions where they are needed – but if there is a mature, commodity tool out there that we can repurpose, we go for that.

The first element of this begins in earnest on Tuesday, when the whole organisation switches to Google for Work to handle email and calendar. Some brave souls are already starting to use Google Drive and its associated apps to replace other parts of the productivity stack.

This will mean we can save thousands on Microsoft licences for productivity software. It will also mean – and this is more interesting – that people will start to rethink what a ‘document’ is, how they do their work, and perhaps what their work really is, at the end of the day.

This is what the war against crap software is all about. Somehow we’ve all ended up in a place where technology is seen as a blocker, as something that makes life harder. Our work has become defined by the tools we used to do it, leading us down some very dark paths. That’s not how things should ever have been – so we’re fixing it, bit by bit.

What’s been amazing is the response from my new colleagues. People are going way beyond the call of duty to make sure the Google rollout goes as smoothly as possible. I think everyone realises how important it is to the digital programme – it’s the first bit of the new way of doing things and we can’t have it viewed by others as being yet another IT project. It needs to add value and just work from the get go, and generate some momentum we can carry through to our other work.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. More soon on the wider strategy at Adur and Worthing, and some tactical pieces we’re also working on.

Do you need a digital strategy? Yes, no, well…maybe

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Interestingly, two related posts from two local government CIO types pop up in my feed reader within a few days of each other.

Firstly, Steve Halliday points to the Solihull digital strategy.

Then Rich Copley says we really shouldn’t be writing digital strategies.

Oh dear! Who’s right?

Both are.

Some organisations need a digital strategy. They are at the point in their evolution where having some of this stuff spelt out in a separate document and process is helpful.

Others though can take a different approach, with digital being embedded in individual service plans, or what have you.

It all depends. Depends on how things are structured in your organisation. What the personalities are. How these sorts of programmes and projects have gone in the past.

It’s one of the reasons why I don’t think local government needs a single digital service. It needs several, with a plurality of approaches. If there is one thing that digital teaches us, it’s that one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work.

At Adur and Worthing, I will be writing a digital strategy. It will help focus on what I need to get done to support all the services areas in what they want to achieve.

More on that soon.

Update: Jason Caplin answers the question ‘why have a digital strategy?’

Coming home to #localgov: I’m joining Adur and Worthing

Worthing beach

I’m back, BACK, BAAAAAAAAAAACK!

Am super-pleased to be able to write that I’m joining Adur and Worthing Councils in April as Head of Digital and Design.

It’s a great time to be joining a great organisation, with fresh people in senior positions wanting to make change happen to improve things for the people, communities and businesses in the local area.

My job is to build a digital service within the Councils, building the team, designing the processes, putting the technology together and increasing capability across the organisations to deliver better, cheaper, services that people actually like using.

There’s also some interesting work to be done around innovation and creativity – enabling everyone to be involved in improving the systems and the processes within the Councils. The opportunity here is to be able to develop the Councils to be thoroughly modern, digital-age organisations.

There has been a lot of talk recently about digital in local government, which I haven’t been able to resist joining in. This is my opportunity to put my ideas into practice. What’s more, working out loud is the default for me and I will be bringing this into the Councils. Luckily I won’t have any trouble from the boss on this score, as he’s into that kind of thing himself.

For me, it’s a return to full time local government – I left in 2007 to briefly work in the further education sector, and then went freelance. Most of my freelance work has been with central government, but I have been fortunate to be able to keep my eye in with occasional work within the local sector and I’ve done my best to be helpful both online and offline, at events and so on.

It’s a full time role so means that I am going to be closing the freelancing chapter in my life. I’m more than happy to do so – it hasn’t worked for me, or my family, for a few years now, if I am honest.

Being able to focus on a single mission is going to help me deliver my best work, and also free up some attention for my wife and our two kids, and having a ‘proper’ job will hopefully lead to me living a more ‘proper’ life.

I’m moving down to Worthing during the week on my own to begin with whilst I get the lie of the land. Anyone who lives in the area who would like to invite me round for dinner, please do so. Our aim is to move the family down to the south coast in time – but it wouldn’t be wise to rush that.

I’ve been ruminating a fair bit on the last few years – the things that went well, those that went less than well – and will share some of that in future posts. There are also a lot of folk who need thanking, who’ve supported me in a number of ways in the last few years.

I’ll leave things here by saying that I am so excited about this opportunity, and cannot wait to get cracking.

Paul has blogged about this here.

Photo credit: Miles Davis

The Linx 7 tablet – so bad, it’s good

linx7So, as a bit of research and development, I bought a Linx 7 tablet the other day. It was pointed out to me by my pal Paul Webster, who thought it had some intruiging digital inclusion possibilities.

First up, the bad bits. The Linx is cheap, and nasty. It has a plastic case that feels less than sturdy, a tiny screen with a fairly terrible resolution, a pretty slow processor and a measly 1gb RAM.

It also runs Windows 8, which is just as weird as everyone has told you. The most bewildering part for me, still, is that you can have two copies of the same application installed and running on the same machine depending on whether you are in the mobile view or the traditional desktop view. The universal apps of Windows 10 will hopefully fix this.

So, a pretty damning review so far. However, here is the good news: The Linx 7 is £76 on Amazon right now, and that includes a year’s subscription to Office 365. That’s worth £79. Do the maths!

The Linx also features some rather neat connectivity options. There’s a mini-USB port which is used for charging, but can also be used with the included adapter to plug any USB peripheral into the tablet – such as a mouse, or a printer say. The mini-HDMI port means you can plug this thing into a standard monitor you have lying around, and it has bluetooth so a keyboard is no problem.

What all this means is that you can have a fully operational – if slightly underpowered – PC with the full and latest version of Office running on it, for significantly less than a hundred quid. That’s frankly amazing.

Anyone who makes heavy use of their computer is not going to be able to use the Linx 7 as a replacement for their laptop or whatever. Never mind an iPad, it makes a lot of the cheaper Android tablets look and feel well made. But what it does, thanks to the price point and the provided software, is put a proper computer in the hands of pretty much anyone who can spare 75 quid.

Given that the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, cost about $500 fully assembled in 1975 (which is over $2,250 in today’s money), and did little more than flash a few lights, I’d call that progress.