An applications strategy fit for digital?

There’s been lots of debate lately about the best approach for local government applications and digital services. As councils work to manage further dramatic budget reductions and to meet the demand for more personalised services, our legacy business systems are very often among the key factors which hold us back and limit our ambitions.

Some colleagues have pointed out that the traditional way we source and run our applications feels rather medieval (I think that there’s some truth in that); there are lots of voices arguing for more use of cloud and open source solutions (which I think should definitely be part of the answer, but in my view it will take a while before they are providing a significant proportion of the services we need); and some people are making the case for a unified pan-local government approach to address challenges such as delivering digital services (which I’m not convinced by — a ‘one size fits all’ approach may indeed reduce some technology costs, but I don’t think it is the right model for local government where different types of council have different responsibilities and are driven by the need to respond to their local demands and priorities).

But I am convinced of the need for change. In a rapidly changing technology landscape, and as the future for local public services is debated and shaped, I think it’s key that we look at our applications strategies and get them fit for a future which is uncertain but which also holds exciting possibilities. There’s a real opportunity for IT to make a big contribution, and the way we design our applications portfolios will have a big influence on the choices available to our organisations.

What’s the problem?

The current local government application vendor market feels tired and I don’t think that it’s fit for a more complex future which will force us to work in more agile ways (enabling use of a wider range of devices, more flexible working scenarios, and new partnerships with a wide range of people and organisations). For example, all too often we find that suppliers tell us that their support for mobile working depends on a specific type of device or that they don’t have a mobile solution at all — a very 1990s approach! And similarly, often the APIs we need to join our systems up and make our information work harder for us are variously absent, unreliable and poorly documented, or only available for very significant extra cost.

The problem is that a ‘rip out and replace’ strategy requires money (which is scarce), needs to fit in with our investment cycles and has to compete for resources along with other major changes to the way we run our businesses. The answer has to be based on business need, not just our technology philosophy.

What might the answer look like?

I don’t think that there’s a quick or easy answer to this, but there are some key principles which will help us build our way out of our current legacy ecosystems and move us to a more flexible future. We need to look hard at our applications strategies and make sure that they are fit for purpose. I think that it’s essential that we:

  • Build enterprise architectures which include the key capabilities that will allow us to bring together a wide range of solutions, including cloud based services.
  • Create an environment where new suppliers are encouraged to come into the local government market — challenging the traditional providers and rocking a few boats. (So I’m definitely supportive of the open systems alliance which Camden are championing)
  • Be pragmatic about cloud. Cloud services are definitely going to be an important part of our toolkit, but often when we’ve looked at cloud options it’s become clear that they would actually significantly increase our costs (not to mention requiring a shift from capital to revenue funding which is also quite challenging). Cloud is important and its value to us will only grow, but we need to learn how to use it well.
  • Be positive about open source, but not dogmatic. And where we are able to use open source solutions make the code for any developments we do available for other councils to reuse. (See my previous post here: https://bytherye.com/2013/04/20/sharing-our-digital-endeavours/)
  • Make sure that mobile solutions are based on web standards, not device specific software (unless there’s a compelling reason for using native apps — this blogpost from the Government Digital Service gives some good pointers for making that decision: https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2013/03/12/were-not-appy-not-appy-at-all/). It’s essential that we are able to take advantage of new developments in the rapidly changing mobile market, not get locked into a particular device ecosystem.
  • Make open architectures with standards based APIs key factors in our procurement decisions. I’ve been inspired by some of the examples I’ve seen where companies are using open, component based, architectures to deliver amazing business results (Bechtel provide a great case study for this). But many of the ideas and challenges will be reminiscent of the days of e-government, and we will need determination and stamina to address these and learn the lessons of past experience.
  • Consciously avoid getting too deep into any one supplier’s ecosystem. We need to make sure that we make it as easy as possible to change suppliers when they no longer meet our needs, not get stuck moving at their pace of innovation.

Over the coming months we’ll be reviewing our applications strategy, and I’m determined that we build a new approach based on these principles. It won’t be a quick fix, but I’m convinced it will pay significant dividends if we get it right.