I recently attended Nick Hill’s Public Sector Digital Transformation Forum event Local Gov MIDLANDS Transformation, Collaboration & Digitisation at which I did a session to introduce and talk about my Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services.
One thing which especially pleased me about the event was the extent to which the other speakers there were sharing insight and experiences which complemented the ideas in the Manifesto quite well - to the degree that rather than simply write up the other sessions as a simple event report, I can write it up as a Part Two of the Manifesto.
So, to round up what I learned from listening to Kate Hurr, Hilary Jones, Ben Proctor, and others and their presentations:
For about the last 10 years, the work we’ve collectively done to develop and improve our online services has been done so under the banner of Transformation. We could say there have been four phases of that transformation up to now:
- Phase one - 1996. The creation of the first council websites and the baby steps of development they took, starting with initially with just a handful of pages and a handful of reporting forms, eventually crystallising into comprehensive websites (some of which may have been over-comprehensive!), some of which following the standardised pattern of the Local Government Navigation List. The LGNL has come in for a lot of stick in recent years, much of which is now justified, but we often forget what it was for and what it replaced - as the first experimental council websites were created there was a lot of mish-mash of different councils putting different content on their sites sometimes without any strategy behind it, often without any actual navigation structure to enable a user to easily find that content. The LGNL was an attempt to standardise what a council website should contain, providing what at the time was agreed to be a clearly defined information architecture and navigation structure to save web managers the burden of having to make it up from scratch, and to enable users to easily know where to find any given piece of content on any council website.
- Phase two. The first online accounts started to appear, allowing users to login before making reports, which would be entered into Customer Relationship Management systems allowing citizens to receive reports when there was an update to a ticket they’d raised and refer back to the ticket ID when subsequently contacting the council to find out what was going on.
- Phase three. These online accounts and CRM systems, initially standalone entities requiring service area staff to copy and paste information from an email or a service ticket into a dedicated system used by the service to manage their own work - planning management systems, highways management systems, waste management systems, etc. In Phase Three of Digital Transformation these separated systems started to be connected to each other using what’s known as middleware or APIs, allowing the citizen’s report from one system to go straight into the other system - with integration coming back in the other direction when the request was completed - without the need for a human being to be intervening in between.
- Phase four. The phase we are currently in could be characterised by the rise of Local Government as a Platform, and Cloud-based services. As we currently are, these two concepts are more or less interlinked, and are more specifically directed at how the council itself works rather than how the citizen interacts with it. Cloud-based services are services which are not tied to a certain individual being tied to a certain specific computer, or desk, or whatever, but enable a user wherever they are in the world on any device to login to some kind of portal in a web browser, hosted by the service provider rather than within the council’s own network, and be able to access everything they need to do their job instantly. LGaaP is an aspiration by service providers and software vendors to create common services which they’ll host on a single platform and deploy to multiple organisations with changes and updates available instantly to everybody rather than each council having to schedule in those updates onto their own infrastructure.
So far, the main focus of digital transformation has been all about prevention:
- Preventing phone calls and in-person visits
- Preventing paper-based processes
- Preventing duplication of effort
- Preventing long term issues
- Preventing paper-based notifications
Some directions that future phases of digital transformation could take could include
- Artificial Intelligence-Driven Automation. I’ve written in the past about how intelligent council websites could make educated guesses about what individual users are interested in based on information which the council’s website can already determine about the user - eg, their location, the weather, the time of day or the season of the year, whether they have council tax accounts with us or not, what the pages they most often visit are, etc. AIDA could be about service areas having computers to predict things which are likely to happen based on what’s happened in the past - if it rains, which street’s bins are least likely to be collected, if it snows, where are more potholes likely to appear, if it’s hot, which leisure centres and swimming pools are most likely to get overcrowded, etc. These kinds of predictions based on the wealth of data we’ve accumulated over the years can enable us to more target and prioritise work in order to better serve our citizens before they realise they need serving - and if it’s a service where it is appropriate for that AI to act automatically, then our citizens can be better served before we even realise they need service.
- True Local Government as a Platform (LGaaP). A lot of council service delivery and service management work is reasonably common in its needs - we have services which need to send bills, take payments, instigate recovery action against people who don’t pay, make payments back to people, take requests, case manage those requests, send notifications. So why do we have separate council tax billing and payment systems, car park season ticket payment systems, penalty charge notice for overstaying parking or straying into a bus lane payment systems, and payment systems to allow people to book a bulky waste collection or subscribe to a commercial waste collection? Why do we have completely separate systems for logging and managing pothole reports, reporting bin collections which haven’t happened, booking bulky waste collections, booking a squash court at the local leisure centre, etc? True LGaaP will recognise that life can be much simpler for council staff, council service designers, and council citizens if these disparate disconnected systems were replaced with single systems which can be configured individually for each particular service’s particular needs. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of the council can continue until it’s restored.
- Two-way integration between central government and local government. There are some areas of life where the boundary between services provided by local government and services provided by central government are blurred, cross over, or are simply downright confusing. The benefits system is the obvious case here, but other services also have a degree of crossover - health and social care services are another big area, but even things as mundane as trying to report an abandoned vehicle will ultimately end up being dealt with by or require input from a central government agency or a local government agency depending on the unique circumstances surrounding the vehicle. Getting so far into a process only to at some point be told ‘ah, it’s not us you need to tell, it’s them’ is incredibly frustrating for a person, especially if you need to start again providing information you’ve already provided. The Government Digital Service have already created some tools as part of their mission of Government as a Platform - a notification service, a payment service, and an authentication service - these tools could be made available to local government as part of facilitating such two way integration.
- One common Citizen (and Business) ID for all local and central government services. Why do we need so many logins in order to interact with ‘the government’ anyway? Why do we need a separate council website login, a separate HMRC login, a separate library login, a separate leisure services login (whether or not leisure services have been contracted out to the private sector), a separate NHS login, etc? Why can we not have a single government login which will log us into any government service? Such a single government login could incorporate a personal data store for each citizen that they can share relevant pieces of data with other parties as desired / needed - you don’t need to share your leisure bookings with HMRC, you don’t need to share your tax history with your GP, and you don’t need to share your GP appointments with the waste management service. A common government identity which allows the citizen control over what data they share with what government agency would be able to simplify things for the citizen and for the government. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of local and central government can continue until it’s restored. And the appropriate security controls and measures put in to ensure data can’t fall into the wrong hands.
- Political boundaries crumble. During the whole of my adult life I’ve only ever lived in a unitary local authority area, the Metropolitan County Councils having been abolished when I was 16. I’ve never really understood the concept of two-tier local government, why you might need to go to one council to report a pothole and to another council to report that your bins weren’t collected. The websites of some two-tier local authority areas do better jobs of signposting a service to the correct website than others, but it is plainly inconvenient for the user to need to be signposted in the first place, whether that’s between district and county council websites or between local government and central government websites. It’s equally inconvenient for the user to be wanting to report an issue which they’ve noticed somewhere which happens to be near a boundary, only to be told it’s on the other side of the boundary and they need to report it again to the other council. I myself experienced how broken the process of applying for a copy of a birth certificate is a couple of years ago when it turned out I was applying to the wrong authority and I could have applied centrally anyway. A single government portal which all citizens interact with would mean we won't need to interact with different individual council / central government digital services, we’d just interact with a central common service which sends the request to or pulls the data or information from where it needs to go to automatically. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of local and central government can continue until it’s restored. Colleagues who’ve been around the block a few times might groan and this ‘this is the Local GDS yet again’ - I too have had some concerns about the concept of a LGDS, not least because of the potential for such a thing to stifle innovation - if different bodies are unable to compare themselves with other similar bodies they can’t see what works better or worse about their own service in comparison with another body’s service. But a common single government portal constructed properly need not be the single instance of the portal - a portal constructed properly using APIs would allow each individual body to put its own local flavour on to it; far from stifling innovation, a proper Open Source API-based Government as a Platform digital service would allow other agencies - public or private sector - to develop their own skins and ways of implementing the service, whether that’s a group of keen individuals who, like the Wikipedia community or the Open Street Map community, simply see a shortfall and choose to fix it out of civic duty, or commercial entities who might see an opportunity to profit out of offering their own premium services on top of the core offer.
Some of these ideas of future phases of Transformation might be easier to realise than others. Some of them might even be more or less desirable to embark on than others.
Do we even want to bring about further Transformation anyway? Is Transformation an appropriate term to use for bringing about the future of local government digital services, of Local Government Digital Services 4.0 or 5.0?
One argument has it that Transformation is irrelevant to the modern era – it's a term based on industrial-era thinking about spending money to invent a machine, deploying that machine, and measuring the return on investment in that machine; the modern era is a complex ecosystem in constant flux where tools, skills, and culture are constantly changing and evolving; it could be said that we need to do gardening rather than transforming. We need to think more in terms of planting seeds, trimming, tending, and pruning, and harvesting in a process of continuous improvement rather than the transformation model of an old-skool waterfall project with the delivery of A Thing at the end of it.
Culture and skills
Of course, part of our gardening activity has to be as much about improving our own skills and cultures as it is about providing services which are of use to citizens. First of all we need to encourage and ensure a positive culture within the organisation - we need to ensure staff are able to openly share their frustrations and their successes, being enabled and encouraged to talk about what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, and what barriers they face in doing it well and what needs to be done organisationally to remove those barriers. Culture change does not come about just as a result of doing an annual staff survey and the chief executive doing a weekly blog post name-checking ‘great team of the week’, it comes about as a result of staff being listened to when they are asked to describe a good day at work and a bad day at work.
And we need to recognise that too many of our colleagues really are, putting it charitably, not quite as IT savvy as the average 14 year old. Worse than that, too many of our colleague - perhaps too many of ourselves, in fact - wear our IT incapabilities on our sleeves as badges of honour; ‘oh, I’m not really very computer literate’ too many of us say in a tone of faux-apology. In 2019 there are too many service areas in too many councils where if a staff member wants to communicate electronically with a citizen, they’ll open up a Word document, with the council headers and footers included and the boilerplate letter formatting, they’ll type their communication into that Word document, they’ll save it to their documents folder on their computer hard drive, open up an email window, and type ‘Dear (sir / madam) - please see attached letter’.
We need to introduce mandatory IT training for all staff - not just training in how to use Word etc, but training in the conceptual bases of how to think about how ITCD can be used to improve service delivery. As well as this we need to create environments in which staff go beyond replicating a 1980s office environment with the tools we’re using, but get up to speed in using modern tools and concepts in our work, tools like videoconferencing, collaboration tools like Teams, Slack, and Sharepoint, planning tools like Trello, etc.
Rules of citizen engagement have changed – citizens have higher expectations; we need to design user-centric services which align with modern (mobile) lifestyles which are speedy and frictionless, which build trust and reassurance, make people feel engaged and consulted, with a service which is personal to them and their choices allowing targeted action, with one single place to transact.
Essential to help us doing this we need a deeper understanding of our citizens, redesigned end-to-end citizen-centric service delivery processes, and new business operating models and ways of working.