On collaboration

I thought that this article from the Economist on collaboration that a colleague pointed out to me last week was an interesting read. It warns that in this age of Slack, chat rooms and instant messaging we are at risk of ‘over-collaborating’.

I can see the sense in this argument, and I definitely recognise how precious focused time has become, and also the challenge that both individuals and delivery teams face in preventing continuous interruptions from affecting their work. It made me think a bit more about what ‘collaboration’ means to me and the role I think it should have in how we get work done.

On reflection I think there are possibly two separate dimensions to how collaboration tools are changing the nature of work.

1. There are some aspects of collaboration which, in my view, are purely positive. For example, working together on the same document (moving away from what was essentially the distribution of electronic pieces of paper to working collaboratively as a team on shared information) has taken away loads of low value work and effort merging feedback and edits, and has also changed the character of the work we do together.

Since adopting Google Apps for Work my team and I now very rarely send each other copies of our work in the way we did before, and it now feels distinctly odd if we aren’t collaborating in real time on shared documents and information.

2. But many collaboration tools are also rapidly increasing the volume and speed that information flows at. I am convinced by the qualitative benefits that social tools like Slack, Google+ and Yammer etc can bring by making teamwork more open and shared, but do agree that they can also add to a sense of being overwhelmed (amplifying some of the well documented problems that email causes us: https://bytherye.com/2015/11/02/is-email-here-to-stay/). There can be some respite in picking up a new communication tool that only a few people are using, but it often won’t be long before take up grows and it becomes yet another crowded space.

Part of the answer to this is likely to be technology getting ever smarter and helping us filter out the information that’s most important and deserving of our attention (which will be one reason why the big technology companies are investing so much in artificial intelligence developments). But I think this will only take us so far, and it will also be essential to think very hard about how we manage our own time, work styles and our expectations of others. A very human challenge…

Is email here to stay?

This post from @ballantine70 hit on a favourite topic of mine: Five hurdles between us and the death of email. Are we doomed to suffer with email for ever? What gives email its staying power? And am I missing something which explains its popularity despite the regular complaints I hear about “email overload”?

Personally, I think that the biggest weaknesses of email are:

1. The assumed SLA

‘I sent you an email so I expected that….’.

I think that this is one of the main reasons that people become overwhelmed by email, and also for work getting stuck as people wait for replies rather than finding more effective ways to collaborate with their colleagues. (I once heard this described as ‘trying to deliver a project by mail order’)

2. The escalation effect

It seems to me that email is often written as casually as an off the cuff text message, and then read as seriously as a memo from the Chief Exec. This mismatch often seems to result in major rows (and also potentially long term working relationship issues) that wouldn’t happen if the issue had been discussed with a less formal approach (by which I mean a quick call or chat — but I’m also seeing brilliant examples of how instant messaging and social media tools can work really well in a business environment too).

3. The time vortex of pseudo-collaboration

I dread to think how much time gets lost in business as people try to knit complex discussions held by email and multiple versions of documents shared by email back together into a coherent form. And that’s before you factor in how much valuable stuff also inevitably gets lost in the process…

A joined up instant message thread, comments on a social media post, and genuine collaboration working together on a single document are transformational in their impact on the pace and quality of work.

We’ve been seeing brilliant examples of how teams are using Hangouts instant messaging and video meetings, Google+ and real-time collaboration on documents to totally change how they work together — for the better. And this includes working with partner organisations. It’s really exciting to see how simple, user friendly, web based tools are helping to make work more collaborative and more productive.

I think Matt’s absolutely right about the importance and the sticking power of email, but I’m also convinced that there’s a better way to get work done now that we’re well into the 21st Century. My favourite initiative is ‘Project Zero’ which is the name that one of our front line service teams have given to their plan to banish email and use better tools for their internal collaboration and communication. It’s not the kind of thing you’d typically associate with working in local government, but I have a feeling that they’ll make it work! 😀

 Watch… a few thoughts after my first week

An ever so slightly geeky digression.

As an avid iPhone user I was intrigued to find out what an Apple Watch would offer. I think it’s interesting to consider whether the emergence of the ‘smart watch’ is just a fad that will soon vanish (in the way that Google Glass seems to have disappeared off the radar for the moment), or whether we really are at the start of an important new stage in the way that we use technology. I realise that Android smart watches have been around for a year or so now, but as those currently require an Android phone they haven’t really been a viable option for me.

So, ten days ago I got a knock at the door and, with roughly the same level of excitement as my six year olds unwrapping a Lego set, I set to opening up what turned out to be a remarkably heavy box given the size of the contents. These are some initial observations on how I’ve found the experience so far and where I think that this new category of device might be important in future.

The short version: I’m really quite liking the Watch. It’s a very nice device, has lots of potential, but unless you’re a bit of a geek I’d probably recommend waiting a bit before leaping in.

The longer version: having used a Jawbone Up for some time a couple of years ago, I was fairly familiar with the life tracking dimension of wearable devices. The Apple Watch misses out some of the features that I liked about the Up (notably sleep tracking), but is definitely quite a different device in the range of things it can do. The main things that have struck me so far are:

1. The battery life has been a very pleasant surprise. So far I’ve comfortably got through the day with at least 50% battery life to spare, and I just about managed to get it to last two days when I gave that a go. I expect this will reduce as I get into the habit of using it more, but the fears that the Watch wouldn’t make it through a full day seem quite misplaced based on my experience.

2. Notifications are handy — but only if you filter them down quite significantly so that you only get alerts for the stuff you care about most. I’m already fairly stringent with which apps I set up for notifications on my phone, but I’ve cut out about half of those from the Watch as I didn’t want a constant tapping on my wrist to become yet another source of distraction. I’ve seen quite a few people observing that they check their phone less frequently once they get a Watch and I think I’m finding the same. It’ll be interesting to see whether that gives a noticeable benefit in reducing time wasted grazing stuff on the phone and possibly also the phone’s battery life…

3. Apps need careful thought to get the most from the Watch’s user interface (I thought that this post did a good job of explaining the thinking process that goes into getting it right). Just like with apps for smartphones, too much or too little results in a poor user experience, but where developers have got it right I’m finding that the Watch can be a genuinely useful device.

My favourite discoveries so far include:

  • Quick actions. For example, I like that I can quickly tick things off my ‘to do’ list using the Watch.
  • Remote control. I’m finding it really neat to be able to choose which music and podcasts I want to listen to without needing to reach for my phone (I rarely use Siri for that when I’m out and about as (a) I feel like a bit of a prat — although I realise that it’s arguable whether or not using my Watch to do this has a similar effect!, and (b) I’ve not found it very accurate). This is my favourite feature at the moment.
  • Walking directions are also a nice feature when I find myself somewhere I’m not familiar with.

But while I like getting notifications for messages and priority emails on the Watch, I am a bit sceptical about using it as a communication device. I’m not sure how to reply with a preset short message without unintentionally coming across as a bit curt, and while Siri oddly seems to be more accurate when I’ve used it on the Watch, I can’t see myself rattling off replies using dictation. But maybe that’s just a personal preference?

edited to add: this evening brought an example of how to get it wrong when developing apps for the Watch. I was excited to see that the National Rail app had added an Watch app, and was pleased to see that they’d trimmed down the features for the Watch. But what’s with giving you the full departure board details for your ‘favourite’ stations (in all directions), and not the details for your ‘favourite’ journeys (i.e. the thing you might actually want to quickly check without fishing for your phone!)? Hopefully that will get fixed soon enough, but honestly!

5. I haven’t been in the habit of regularly wearing a watch for a while, but I have heard a few people comment that they don’t think that they could see themselves leaving their treasured timepieces at home in favour of a smart watch. It’ll be interesting to see if that remains a barrier to adoption for people, or whether smart watches become sufficiently useful that people change the way that they think about their watch.

6. If smart watches do become genuinely useful and widely used, its going to be interesting to see what impact it will have on our mobile strategy. Currently we’ve chosen to favour responsive web design rather than native apps (in line with the principles articulated by Government Digital Service in their post here). But as the Watch doesn’t have a browser this could need to change. I don’t think that’s an urgent issue right now, but it is one to keep an eye on to make sure that we don’t get caught out.

7. My final observation is that morse code could well be in for a renaissance as a tool for gossip using Digital Touch! But I might wait until a few more people have an Apple Watch before I get the old code books from my Scouting days down from the loft…!

And the really short version…

An interesting model for supporting BYOD

As I’ve blogged before (probably too many times!), taking a much more flexible approach to the types of devices we enable for connection to our systems and services feels like an inevitability, and something those of us responsible for providing business IT services need to be prepared for. A Canute style refusal to accept this seems like a great way to make ourselves irrelevant in quick order.

As well as the much discussed security issues that we need to figure out, this also presents complex new questions for how we provide support to our users.

  • How much support do we provide for personal devices and how much help do we provide to our users for getting their access set up?
  • What do we do if a BYOD device breaks?
  • How do we manage the transition from a highly standardised device model to one where we’re actively encouraging diversity?
  • And how do we manage the cost of this?

I thought that this model from Steve Halliday in Solihull looks like a really interesting approach. I like the idea of a points system, and think it could be a useful way to embrace this new world while also keeping control of costs and offering a clear proposition to our users.

Food for thought!

Early adventures in exploring social tools for smarter working

We’ve just ‘gone Google’. It’s still early days, but now that we’ve moved everyone over from our legacy Microsoft Exchange platforms to Google Apps for Work I’m seeing lots of really encouraging examples of people beginning to use Google Apps’ powerful collaboration capabilities to rethink the way that they do their work. That’s a blog post for another time, but one area I’m particularly interested in is how we can use Google+ to add a new dimension to the way we work, and I thought it might be useful to share a few examples of that here.

I’m very conscious of long standing advice from lots of experts who’ve spent time looking at enterprise social networking that a ‘fire and forget’ approach rarely works (I’ve put a few links to resources I’ve found helpful below). Just turning on Google+ and hoping it will magically become a valuable business tool isn’t likely to be very successful. So our current exploration has been around quite clearly defined purposes, and I’m very encouraged by what those have already achieved.

Supporting the Google transition

An obvious place to start was to use Google+ as part of our support for the Google transition. As well as the usual change support (online information, floorwalkers, optional training sessions etc), we set up a Google+ community and encouraged our users to join that to ask questions about functionality and share tips with each other. We’re using this to answer users’ questions, as well as publishing a regular ‘tip of the week’ highlighting useful features which people might not have found yet, and we now have over 160 people signed up (with a healthy upward trend in membership). But the thing I’m especially excited about is seeing our users helping each other out, often getting in with responses to questions more quickly than I or the other people in my team can. I think this has the potential to be a really useful addition to the standard ways we provide ICT support. It’s helping us foster a more open discussion with our users and giving the ‘gurus’ across our user base the opportunity to share their knowledge much more widely with other colleagues (making the traditional ‘water cooler’ advice more visible and available to all). It also means we can flag if a piece of advice might not be the most appropriate answer to a query.

We’re now planning to widen the purpose of this group to cover other questions about the services we provide (we asked our users and they thought that was a good next step).

Building our sense of team

Working as a shared service means that our team is spread across several different locations, which amplifies the usual difficulties of making connections between people who are working on a wide range of different projects and operational work. Creating a team space in Google+ isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ for this, but is showing some promise. Since we set up our team Google+ community last year we’ve used it for:

  • Regular updates which I share with the team to highlight work we’re doing and keep people informed. I’m finding this more effective than broadcast by email, as it provides the opportunity for follow up questions and is helping open up the work being done across the team.
  • It’s also starting to become a place where other team members share information about work they’re doing and ideas they’re looking at. I’m really keen to see this grow and become a ‘normal’ part of how we work together. I’ve found the connections I’ve made through Twitter etc incredibly useful in helping me with my work and getting new ideas (after being very sceptical about it before I signed up), and I’m keen to see if we can replicate some of that for our work within the team.
  • We’ve also experimented with using Google+ events to get people across the team involved in our service planning. Too often this is an exercise carried out by a small number of people and can result in service plans which others don’t find relevant to the work they’re doing. I definitely need to refine the approach a little, but the recent event we ran involved about 20 people from across the team (split roughly 50/50 between people in the room and those joining online) and brought out some really good ideas which we can use to shape our work. This felt like a good result from a first attempt, and the feedback from the people who took part was positive too.

Encouraging innovation across the Council

We’re also seeing some interesting examples of where colleagues outside ICT are exploring this opportunity. This includes:

  • The use of communities to get people across the Council to contribute to the thinking about our future strategic direction. I’ve seen some really interesting ideas and perspectives being shared through that, and as with our team community it’s good to see a wide range of contributors being given a platform for their thoughts.
  • Other colleagues are also looking into how this could be a useful tool to help with work across a range of partners, including the voluntary sector, where we are working together to shape policy and service change.

Early days, but encouraging stuff!

Useful resources

There’s lots of handy advice on how you can get started with social network tools in your organisation. Some of the resources I’ve found especially useful include:

Rachel’s @allthingsic blog has lots of useful information, including:

Gartner’s book ‘The Social Organisation’ is also very useful, Chapter One is available for download here.

And if Google+ is something you’re interested in looking at in more detail, here are some guides on the features available:

Positive signs from the PSN?

I was surprised to find that it’s approaching six months since I last posted here. I’ll make sure my New Year’s resolutions include a commitment to do better in 2015…

I think a good topic to get myself back on track is to write something about the working group I had the pleasure of chairing on 9 January, where we looked into the thorny issue of PSN compliance for councils who want to enable access for unmanaged devices (aka Bring Your Own Device). As I’ve blogged before, I think this is a much bigger issue than simply letting users use their own smartphones to access their work systems. Council IT teams need to be able to support a growing range of partnerships with external organisations, many of whom are likely to use their own IT kit — including voluntary sector and community groups, and it’s essential that our security arrangements strike the right balance to avoid creating unnecessary barriers to delivering local services.

I felt that we made positive progress in getting to grips with some key issues and agreeing how we can work together with the Government Digital Service to find solutions to these. Some aspects felt more encouraging than others, but all in all I’m feeling increasingly optimistic.

First, a disclaimer:

  • This is not an ‘official’ statement on behalf of anyone, it’s just my take on the discussions last week.
  • The event was held under the Chatham House Rule (I checked — there’s only one! http://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule#), which is why I haven’t referenced any specific details from the councils who attended the workshop.

What was the event about and who was there?

The event was well attended, and encouragingly included representatives from across local government, including districts, counties, and unitaries from across the UK. You can find an outline of the day here: https://lgaevents.local.gov.uk/lga/frontend/reg/thome.csp?pageID=10333&eventID=38&eventID=38.

In the morning, we held a closed session for local authorities to share practice and discuss our concerns. We used this to shape the agenda for the afternoon.

And in the afternoon we were joined by representatives from the Government Digital Service PSN team and PSNGB (the suppliers’ organisation). We put the questions that we had developed in the morning to them, and this stimulated a lively debate.

The event wasn’t expected to come up with all the answers (and it didn’t!), but we did get some useful clarifications and agreed some follow up activities which will now be taken forward using a ‘task and finish’ approach. We also discussed a broader range of issues than just unmanaged devices (possibly an indicator of poor chairing on my part!), and this gave us the opportunity to get some useful clarifications on other aspects of the PSN’s direction.

How did the discussion go and what happens next?

From the work we did in the morning session we identified four main areas which we wanted to focus on during the afternoon. These were:

1. How will the future direction for the PSN connect in with other compliance requirements, in particular health and the Police?

It was generally agreed that from a local authority perspective we often find ourselves having to take account of very different information assurance approaches and different interpretations of standards such as the new ‘OFFICIAL’ marking scheme. This can result in highly complex ways of working in order to meet the requirements of our various partners.

This was a tricky question for the PSN team to answer. They don’t have jurisdiction over many of the organisations involved, so finding a way to join things up is going to rely on collaboration rather than edict. They asked us to let them know where we come across these challenges, so we need to use our existing networks (for example WARP and regional SOCITM groups) to feed those through.

This will be something which continues to be an area of focus for the Local Government Association’s PSN programme board, which is working to make sure that local government is part of influencing the direction for Information Assurance that our partners take. Given how complex this is I don’t think that this is going to be a quick fix, so we’ll all also need to continue to work with partners on a local level to find ways to enable sharing of information, and share good practice to help others do the same.

2. Will the PSN take account of the needs of local government and the partnerships we rely on as they develop their compliance requirements?

The response to this was encouraging. We were given a clear statement that the PSN approach will be adaptive to reflect the different types of organisation who need to connect. Larger organisations will be expected to demonstrate a greater level of maturity in their information assurance arrangements, and smaller organisations will have a lighter touch. This was good to hear, and in my view demonstrates a big step forward from the days of ‘zero tolerance’ in 2013.

3. What are the implications for councils from the changes to the PSN Code of Connection which have been announced recently, and how can we make it easier to get consistent advice on acceptable ways of enabling access for unmanaged devices?

Throughout the discussion the PSN team put a lot of emphasis on listening and collaborative ways of working, and it’s clear that they are hoping to engage in a very different way to the ancien régime.

In terms of the high level approach, we were given a clear steer that the notion of ‘PSN originated data’ is definitely gone. In the future the PSN controls will focus on managing risk to the network, and data owners will be able to make their own risk decisions in terms of the ways that data is made available. The key being that where you are sharing information you need to be clear about what the data owner considers acceptable, and abide by their requirements.

In my view this is a welcome change, but it does have the effect of making things more complex (which is ever the way with a more pragmatic approach — and in my view is preferable to the alternative of ‘levelling up’ to whatever is needed by the most risk averse organisation). We will need to work together to figure out a way to make sure that advice to authorities is consistent.

In terms of specifics, there’s still a lot of detail which needs more work. For example, a question asked by several attendees was whether ‘container’ based solutions for providing access using unmanaged mobile devices would be acceptable for PSN connection if your whole network is in-scope (i.e. you have a ‘flat network’)? The current answer seems to be ‘no’, as CESG advise that these types of solution pose an onward risk back to other connected organisations. This was subject to some discussion, and it’s clear more work is needed to establish what will and won’t be acceptable to the PSN.

But we did get clarity that there are acceptable ways of providing flexible access while also complying with the PSN Code of Connection requirements. For example, thin client desktop access with no data on the end user device is in principle acceptable, subject to making sure that the design meets the PSN security requirements. And the PSN team will also be happy to review designs before they are implemented to advise on whether or not they will be acceptable.

We agreed that a good way to take this forward would be to establish a ‘library’ of approved solutions. This mustn’t be restrictive as technologies are changing rapidly, but it will help councils make sure that they are aware of the existing options available and avoid rumour and misunderstanding leading to incorrect assumptions about what would not be allowed. Nick Roberts (@socitmpresident) and I have agreed to meet with the PSN team in a few weeks time to sketch out a process and template, with a view to then drawing on the wider local government community to help produce this library. This will include giving thought to suggestions for the best way to share this information for future reference.

4. Finally, how will the growing use of cloud services be reflected in the PSN requirements?

A number of people were also keen to get a clearer understanding of the PSN’s position on cloud services (for example the use of Google Apps for Work and Microsoft Office 365). We didn’t get too deep into the specifics of this (as it wasn’t the core topic for the day), but the key message was similar to those for unmanaged devices — the essential requirement for PSN compliance will be the need to demonstrate that the design mitigates any onward risks to the PSN network.

So in short, my main conclusions from the day were…

  • The PSN do not have a blanket ban on providing access using unmanaged devices, but it will still be essential to demonstrate that security architectures mitigate onward risks to the PSN network.
  • The risk appetite of the data owner will be key, and we are all going to need to make sure that we’re clear about that as part of our information sharing agreements.
  • The PSN team are committed to working collaboratively with councils to develop architectures that will work, and recognise that local government has specific needs which need to be reflected in the Information Assurance approach.
  • We need to do more work together to develop clearer guidance which will help councils feel confident that they know which approaches will be accepted, and we can then continue to develop that over time to make sure that we keep up with technology change.
  • And that’s going to be best done if it involves people from across local government. The number of people who made the effort to come to the workshop suggests that it will be no problem getting people to help make this happen!

Thinking about ‘Think Digital’

I enjoyed Dave Briggs’ Think Digital webinar. I thought it was a good walk through some of the key principles which should underpin a different way of delivering public services. I jotted down a few notes as I listened, picking up on the key point which stood out to me. You can listen to the webinar here: http://vimeo.com/m/101912478.

I thought that ‘Permission’ is a very useful concept. I think that digital leadership is less about showing the way and setting a specific agenda, and more about creating an environment where people can innovate in a constructive way (which involves setting guidelines and parameters, but has to allow for creativity — because that’s where the magic is).

‘Death of one size fits all’ is also spot on. But we also need to respect complexity and invest in the foundations needed to enable agility. We need to make sure that ‘digital’ doesn’t just become a justification for random online stuff, with a plethora of websites that baffle our users and create obstacles to genuinely user-focused services. This is particularly challenging in a public service context where we do so many different things. Core capabilities, such as identity / sign on, need to be built to be reused, and I’m very drawn to the ‘Government as a Platform’ model.

‘Should we really be doing this?’ also makes me want to ask whether ‘this’ is a thing we need to be doing in the longer term (which means we need to plan for sustainability and it may be best to join up with other organisations or groups who already specialise in the topic at hand), or whether the need is point in time (in which case a home gown and ‘throw away’ approach might be just fine).

I wonder whether the points could be grouped into themes? e.g. What you do… How you do it… How you make sure that people are doing it right… I’m not sure about that, and it may just be my inner yearning to write local gov papers…!

And my own experience suggests that the iterative / ‘minimum viable product’ approach (which I endorse) can be a challenge for users — who often struggle to adapt to that way of working. I wouldn’t underestimate the effort required to reposition expectations, especially in the public sector where there seems to be an unhealthy appetite for ‘IT disasters’…

All in all, I thought that Dave’s approach is a really useful outline of how we should approach making digital work in government. And now I’m off to persuade some other colleagues to take the time to watch it too!

Defining digital

Never one to miss the opportunity to get involved in a debate on a topic I’m interested in, I thought I’d add my tuppence to the ‘what does digital mean?’ question which I’ve recently seen discussed…

Matt Jukes posted a piece mulling over the question on his blog.

Phil Rumens made feel nostalgic for our first CD player here.

And Gavin Beckett described how Bristol City Council are defining digital here.

I guess it’s easy to ask whether it really matters how we define digital. But as the focus of government and business at large shifts to seeing ‘digital’ as a core part of successful business models, it seems sensible to make sure we’re all clear about what we’re aiming to achieve. And when you see how digital is helping companies like John Lewis to grow their online and offline business, and Uber to transform urban travel, ignoring digital seems naïve at best.

For me ‘digital’ feels very similar to Gavin’s definition: it’s about technology, but it only works if it’s based on a fundamental rethink of how services are designed, putting the user need first and foremost. It isn’t just about popping a website at the front of the same old ways of providing services. And this applies equally to internal services (intranet etc) as it does to citizen facing services.

The implications for our architectures, systems, business processes, ways of working, information and relationships with citizens and other service users are huge. Interesting times indeed!

One Local Gov Digital: some further thoughts

An otherwise slightly frustrating day has been brightened up by some really interesting conversation about local government digital today. A (digital) coffee with @bmwelby at the start of the day was followed by an equally good (and also digital) pre-lunch chat with @PhilRumens, @pmackay, @_BforBen and others.

My first observation was how easy it is to use tools like Twitter, Google+ and Google Hangouts to bring people together to discuss common topics of interest. Having seen another of my local government IT colleagues take the bold step of allowing access to the ‘normal’ internet earlier this week, I’m amazed that we still have to put effort into making the case for removing some of the Stone Age barriers which stand in the way of our users getting stuff done. Nothing we talked about today was sensitive, and I feel better off for having had the opportunity to connect with colleagues who are working on the same challenges I am grappling with (with zero travel cost to the public purse too!). And I know that it’s not just tech enthusiasts who want to have these sort of easy collaboration tools at their disposal to help them with their work.

Some broad areas of agreement emerged from these conversations (although the other participants may want to correct or clarify my recollection!):

  • I think we all recognised the importance of reflecting localism, and the need for local government digital to be firmly plugged into the different communities which councils serve.
  • And we were also very focused on trying to make sure that councils can offer their residents and businesses the best of digital technology and service redesign, and make sure that we use shared endeavours to achieve this for the lowest possible cost. We made several references to work which has been developed from the recent Local Gov Camp event, exploring ways to help make this easy.

We discussed several ways that sharing could be useful, in particular:

  • Sharing our roadmaps so that we can easily check where other councils are working on similar areas and spot opportunities to collaborate.
  • Sharing the processes and content we produce as we redesign services for digital.
  • Working towards shared standards so that we increasingly build reusable components that other councils can use, and sharing our design principles and lessons learned to help other councils get the most progress for least cost.
  • And this would be supported by making our code open source too (although I realise that this isn’t a new idea, and others have pointed out that code which is already open source isn’t always being reused).
  • And we should also be sharing our data, ideally as open data.

What I found particularly interesting about the conversations were the challenges we will need to address to make this possible. Key issues which struck me as particularly important were:

  • The need to adopt clear principles of sharing as the foundation of a collaborative approach. It seems self-evident to me that using something like the Open Government licence would be in the best interests of local government as a whole. But I don’t think that this is an accepted principle in all quarters, and as councils look towards income generation to help offset the effects of budget cuts I can see this becoming an area of some debate.
  • The need to pick the right tools to enable the different elements of sharing. Tools like GitHub are perfect for sharing of code, but there needs to be something to bring the various components together in a user-friendly form to create a ‘hub’ for digital collaboration that will be useful for techies and non-techies alike.
  • The need for a ‘gravitational force’ which can draw digital collaboration together. From the perspective of the councils I work with, we’re already benefiting enormously from sharing together and with other councils whose work is helping us drive forward our digital change. But too often this relies on use of our contact networks and keen enthusiasts publicising their work. This is powerful and effective, but also somewhat haphazard. It would be great to see a ‘core’ for local government digital collaboration, building on what feels like promising foundations and becoming the natural first reference point for sharing digital work.
  • And it isn’t all about what councils create. Citizen hackers and a range of groups are creating useful digital tools which could be used much more widely. It would be ideal to use our work to provide a way for the products of their efforts to be made available for public benefit too.

One Local Gov digital?

There’s been a conversation bubbling around lately about the need for a single Local Government Digital Service (one LOCAL.GOV.UK if you will). If memory serves, the current round of this discussion was kicked off by @dominiccampbell, and I’ve read some interesting contributions to the discussion since. These include:

I’m not at all convinced that the argument makes much sense: ‘digital’ is a much bigger thing than ‘websites’, and local government is not the same thing as central government. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be looking to share services and to do our work as efficiently as possible. The two councils I work for have had their budgets cut by c 40% / 50% between 2010 and 2018, and our focus is absolutely on protecting the money we have left to maintain the frontline services our communities rely on. But having had a year’s experience now in leading work to put in place a shared technology platform across two councils, I think it’s easy to understate the complexity involved in making shared services succeed. A shared digital platform across several hundred councils would be enormously challenging.

I think the place to start is to understand the business of local government. The ‘local’ bit really matters, and councils need to respond to a great variety of local needs. And that’s before you get into the complexity of different responsibilities across different types of council. I don’t find a single local government website plausible — Councillors will (rightly) feel strongly that their council’s digital presence needs to reflect what matters to local residents, and this will inevitably mean that content and emphasis will need to differ across boundaries.

The array of legacy business systems will also mean that an apparently neat solution of one local digital service will be highly complex. Different approaches to insourcing vs outsourcing; security vs flexibility; different contract timescales; and the growing use of cloud services inevitably mean that the information and processes needed to enable true digital services are not simple to join up. And unlike central government, there isn’t a lead agency for each service area so similar work can often be done very differently across authority boundaries (to pick a simple example, some Councils charge for garden waste collection but others don’t).

But I’m not even convinced that ‘one’ is the best answer here. Other colleagues have commented on how the current local authority software market feels very tired, and even medieval in its nature. We desperately need to encourage new suppliers to enter the market and help us drive innovation in local service delivery. I think that a monolithic approach will mitigate against this and take us back to the old fashioned monopolies which we need to move away from. A local approach means that we can encourage small and medium sized enterprises to test out new ideas at a manageable scale, and provide an environment to incubate new ways of delivering services. I’m convinced that variety can be a strength here.

Overall, my main concern about the suggestion of one digital service for local government is that any ‘win’ from savings on content management systems will quickly be lost many times over in lost opportunities for service change and the complexity of governance issues. But that’s not to say that there isn’t much which we can share.

A model based on sharing and reuse of technology, content, service redesign and digital principles has a lot to offer for local government, and I see lots of examples where that’s already happening. Examples include:

There’s lots more potential here, and I’m sure that we can keep pushing hard to make more of these opportunities. But I think it’s important that we focus on what’s practical and best suited for the environment we work in, and that we work iteratively to build momentum across the sector. There’s too much we need to do to spend time on Grand Schemes which won’t actually address the big issues we need to fix.

But overall, I think the argument is probably best made by @MartinHowitt.

‘nuff said.