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

crapsoftware

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.

If your interested in what we’re doing and would like to know more, grab me [email protected]

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

map

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?’

Skills for digital transformation

gds-skills

The Government Digital Service has released a big list defining the skills needed for transformation.

It’s certainly comprehensive. It’s fair to say that it is more a list of skills that people need rather than the details of what goes into those skills, or how you start to equip a team with them.

However, for anyone putting together a team to tackle digital transformation, it’s a great guide for what people you’ll need on board.

Building on minimum viable capabilities

Interesting way of describing things from Methods:

Some rough notes on local gov and digital

There was a debate raging late last week about the needs of digital in local government (again). I wrote up some thoughts to share with everyone – I was feeling somewhat limited by the 140 character confines of Twitter – and I may as well post them here too.

The GDS has set out, in the service manual, a pretty good template for how an organisation should go about ‘transforming’ services to make the most of the internet.

It covers taking a user-centered approach; delivering using agile, iterative methods; the importance of good design; and the need for measurement and continuous improvement.

This could easily be taken and given a quick edit to make it work within the local government context. Local government would benefit from having a consistent, shared set of processes to use get this stuff done.

Different councils will use these processes and get different results depending on their context. However, the shared process means they can share experience, staff and other stuff with one another and all be talking the same language.

What local government really lacks across the board is the capability to deliver this change. The service manual talks of what is needed in the multi-disciplinary team. The vast majority of councils do not know what these roles even mean, let alone have people able to fill them.

This is not to be critical of councils or the people working in them. GDS had to go on a massive recruitment drive to bring this talent into central government. Local government needs to find a way to do the same.

However, many councils are too small to justify having full time permanent employees doing these roles. They cannot afford them. Also, even if they could, they would find it incredibly hard to recruit anyone of the required standard. There just aren’t enough to go around.

So, a shared capability pool is something that ought to be looked into. Something made a lot easier by having a shared process, mentioned above. Councils could pool together locally and create a shared digital service. Counties could provide a service to local districts. Private sector suppliers could have consultants available for hire that cover all the necessary roles as and when they are needed.

The other thing GDS has done is built technology platforms and services. The big one is the single domain project, with the publishing platform. This is not the place for local government to start.

With lots of councils using the same process at a similar time, with shared people delivering it, it will soon emerge that lots of councils will be working on transforming the same services at the same time. This should lead to conversations about collaborating on developing digital services – those building blocks that all public services rely on, like booking, paying, registering, emailing, web-hosting, data storing, consulting, etc etc.

So, by creating a shared set of processes, working out how to develop the needed capability to deliver, and then emerging collaborations on technology, a local ‘digital service’ starts to form. Only, it’s not one organisation, it’s not a central gov imposed thing, nor a big fat IT outsourcing contract.

Shared CDO – looking for alignment

A key role for any CDO in an organisation is looking for, and creating, alignment.

The obvious one in the digital sphere is looking for alignment between the organisation’s preferred outcomes, and the needs of the people who use its services or products.

Take channel shift as a fairly obvious example. The outcomes that a council wants to see are more people using cheaper channels to access services and interact with it.

The needs of the people doing this interacting are to have efficient, usable services that let them get the help they need with the minimum of fuss.

By aligning these two things, a strategist can easily plot a course where developing high quality online services gives both sides what they want.

Not aligning them, by focusing too much or even exclusively on the organisation’s outcomes, will lead to failure to achieve either side’s objectives – because even if people want to use online services, they won’t if they are poorly designed.

It is possible to think of alignment as a tool for making things happen. Within an organisation, there will be many different motivations and objectives. Senior leaders want one thing. Service managers another. As CDO, you will have your own.

Rather than trying to convince people to do things they don’t feel they want to, the better approach is to consider what their preferred outcomes are, and align them with your own.

Finding this alignment allows you to build a shared sense of purpose and mission, and will reduce the friction you get when people feel like you are trying to make them change against their will.

What attributes does a shared CDO need?

After a brief hiatus, here’s another post on the idea of the shared chief digital officer. The others are here.

So, what does a shared CDO look and sound like?

Firstly, perhaps it’s a good idea to say what the shared CDO is not – and that is just a rebranded CIO, or chief information officer. The role of CDO is not an IT position. Instead, it is a strategic role where end user needs and the objectives of the organisation are aligned.

So, what are the things we should look for in a good, shared CDO?

  • people and outcome focused – and definitely not solution focused. The CDO must be totally bought into what the organisations want to achieve for their people, as well as a focus on the needs of those people themselves. This should be what drives the design of the solutions, rather than picking tools first.
  • influence and persuasion – hugely important will be the ability to be able to convince senior people across the organisation and those in political roles of the importance of digital, especially in terms of the new ways of working, focusing on user needs with agile methods
  • strategic – the CDO has to be able to take a strategic view, freeing up practitioners to get on with what they do best whilst providing the vision so everybody knows where they are headed
  • great communication – being able to communicate what can be complex issues and technical issues to different audiences is key. Being able to come up with a narrative that will bring different groups on board with transformation activity is a key skill
  • networked – a shared CDO needs access to a large network, in terms of finding support and advice, examples of good work elsewhere and so on. Equally, having a network of suppliers in the form of SMEs and freelancers will be vital in filling in gaps in capability on the team
  • open – the shared nature of the position means that the CDO cannot be anything other than open in the way they work. This means not seeking credit, but ensuring that the delivery of outcomes alone will be the evidence needed that the role is being done effectively. Sharing knowledge, experience, tools and processes openly will help embed them in the organisations the CDO works with
  • technical understanding – whilst the CDO is not a technical role, having an understanding of how the mechanics of the web and other technology works is really important. This will help keep those delivering technology on board, as they trust that the CDO knows what they are talking about, and will also give others confidence in the CDO’s ability to deliver
  • team-building – as mentioned several times in my recent post on digital innovation, building the digital transformation team is a key role for the CDO. This requires the right skills to do so – a collaborative attitude, the ability to get people to buy into a vision and to provide just enough leadership to motivate people without getting in their way
  • thorough understanding of and commitment to user centred design and agile – a bit wordy, but these two things are absolutely vital to the CDO role. They are, in a way, what separates digital from other ways of working. Not only must the CDO be totally fluent when it comes to user focus and agile, they must truly believe in it. Anyone pretending will be found out pretty soon.

That’s my list. I’d be interested to hear what others might add, or indeed take out.