A Digital Detente

A fairly common theme in conversations I’ve had over the years has been the struggle between ICT and digital teams — where the IT team are perceived to be the ‘department of no’ and the digital team have acquired a reputation for being all about creating whizzy websites, but not caring much about the steady sustainability that’s needed for ‘proper enterprise systems’ and security.

I think it’s time we put this behind us.

It’s time for ICT to get with the programme

A fundamental purpose for the IT team should be to provide a platform that makes it possible to deliver digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them. Security can not be fit for purpose if it results in services which are so difficult to use that people don’t use them, or worse leads to workarounds that actually put sensitive information at greater risk. And all the architecture and robust systems management in the world will be useless if it isn’t able to move at the speed of business.

Obviously, this isn’t without its challenges. In a complex business environment (especially somewhere like local government with hundreds of different services which are usually reliant on legacy systems) the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra of digital native companies like Facebook isn’t a good fit (in fact, Facebook dropped that too as it had reached a scale where it needed a less cavalier approach). Many of our key systems have their origins in the e-government days of the early 2000s and whether or not these are fit for the internet age largely depends on suppliers over whom we often have frustratingly little influence.

We need to find ways to extract ourselves from these legacy platforms, leapfrog technology barriers and lay the foundations that will allow us to get off the treadmill of endless incremental updates to outdated technologies. Fortunately, there are lots of opportunities for us to make a start on this, using platforms that can be deployed in a fraction of the time that systems implementations used to take and by adopting modern open standards that will allow us to start taking greater control over our destiny. It’s not without complexity, but accepting that Yet Another Big System Procurement isn’t the answer is probably a good place for us to start.

(As an aside, @Matt’s podcast here is worth a listen for a more in depth look at reasons why corporate IT is often the way it is: https://wb40podcast.com/2017/06/19/wb40-podcast-episode-27-the-why-of-corporate-it)

And ‘digital’ will be a flash in the pan unless it can work in harmony with ICT

I think it’s equally important to make sure that ‘digital’ doesn’t become an ivory tower that exists in glorious isolation from the wider systems and information ecosystem that digital services need to be part of if they’re to be truly valuable and sustainable.

I’ve long been a fan of the GDS Design Principle of ‘Do the hard work to make it simple’ (https://www.gov.uk/design-principles#fourth). I think this applies as much to the systems and information context as it does to understanding user needs and service design. While ITIL-esque management practices can seem bureaucratic and frustratingly cautious, there are underlying principles at the heart of them which are important and shouldn’t just be dismissed.

I actually think that lots of the skills involved in digital ways of working can be enormously valuable for the management of ICT platforms too. So an effective and mutually respectful collaboration can have huge benefits in helping deliver better services for our users.

Time for a manifesto…

At Hackney we’re fortunate that the Council has organised the traditional IT responsibilities and digital roles together as part of a single integrated team. The Council is also clear that this combined function is not a ‘back office’ service, but actually needs to be at the heart of how we continue to deliver better services for the borough’s residents and businesses in spite of the severe cuts to our funding by central government.

Some years ago I mused about the need to replace IT strategies (and indeed ‘digital strategies’) with a manifesto that sets out what we’re for and how we’re going to work together: https://bytherye.com/2013/08/28/does-ict-need-a-manifesto/. We’ve now done this and have created our ‘HackIT manifesto’ which sets the principles that we will follow to make sure that all areas of our team are working together with a shared focus: https://bit.ly/HackITmanifesto. We’re applying this to all aspects of our work and it’s proving a very effective tool that we can use to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in the right way — with digital and ICT working together and learning from one another.

(If it’s of interest, the team blog about the work we’re up to together here: http://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/)

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