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barriers and lay the foundations that will allow us to get off the treadmill of endless incremental updates to outdated technologies.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/)

Designing the future of work

A new year and a new commitment to updating this blog a bit more frequently than once every year… I’ve decided that little (ie more than I can fit into a tweet) and often(ish) might be the way to go. Let’s see…

A theme that’s popped up in quite a few of my conversations recently has been how to design a work environment that’s fit for the modern age and which will help our organisations attract our next generation of superstars. It’s a tricky and fascinating topic, full of competing tensions:

  • how do we shift our management cultures from managing activity to delivery of outcomes?
  • if trust is key to this (I think it is), how do we shift our attitudes to risk, especially if the consequences of something going awry could lead to reputational or financial damage?
  • when we design our services, processes and technology how do we get the right balance between the needs of our more experienced staff and those of the newer generations, who are likely to be more familiar with Snapchat than the tools we thought were cutting edge in the 1990s but which often still prevail today?
  • and how can we make sure that work is meaningful, harnessing our people’s motivations to deliver the best results?

I suspect that there isn’t a template answer to this (and I don’t think it’s a sector specific challenge — this applies to public and private sector organisations) and that the key is to tune into the organisation and find the right stepping stones to get moving in the right direction. But I’m sure that the answer is not to simply maintain existing paradigms and try to squeeze those into new technologies and ways of working (which will probably get you to this sort of thing: http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/4/29/11541614/apple-watch-running-windows-95-video).

Here are a few of the links which I’ve found thought provoking:

  • this video on the future of work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G11t6XAIce0&t=6s (I thought this was a great explanation of the idea that ‘work is a thing you do, not a place’)
  • Matt’s #noPC challenge: https://mmitii.mattballantine.com/2017/01/05/nopc/ (my take on this is that it’s about more than just not restricting people to using PCs to get their work done, there’s a real need for purposeful focus on designing services and tools that enable the widest possible choice and flexibility)
  • Ben Thompson’s analysis of the impact that Amazon’s Alexa might have on the future of computing: https://stratechery.com/2017/amazons-operating-system/ (‘normal’ / ‘what I’m used to’ is not the same as ‘eternal’, and be mindful of the potential for shiny things to lure you into a vortex you weren’t expecting…)
  • and I also found Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the Millennial generation really interesting: https://youtu.be/hER0Qp6QJNU (15 mins, watch it through)

Sharing our digital endeavours

A few weeks ago I attended the first event of what will hopefully become a thriving community of local councils using open source web platforms (Open Councils — Drupal Public Sector Exchange). This was a group of public minded web folk who are passionate about using open source software to deliver better, cheaper local digital services, and it was great to have the opportunity to talk about the work we’re doing at Lambeth to build our new website www.lambeth.coop (which is based on the Drupal open CMS). You can read much more about that here: www.madeinlambeth.co.uk.

So, how can we best take advantage of collective resources to meet local needs?

I’m cautious about the concept of creating an equivalent of GOV.UK for local government (although I am a huge fan of GOV.UK). Undoubtedly local councils share lots of areas of our work in common, where we operate in the context of national and even European frameworks. But I think that a ‘one site to rule them all’ approach will struggle to reflect the different challenges of urban and rural areas, and the different priorities that have been set by local communities and their elected representatives.

I think that the most promising prospect for shared success lies in learning from the approach behind thriving open source communities such as Drupal and WordPress. These have been used to create myriad web experiences of huge variety, but with a common code base and a vast array of plugins where developers have packaged their code to be used by others. This open economy of shared work has transformed the tasks of making information and services available online for individuals and organisations (even large organisations who have historically invested in expensive proprietary code), and I think we can build on this to create equivalent shared value for local digital services.

Some key areas where we can focus are:

Sharing our code. As well as using open source platforms we can also make our developments open for others to use, adapt and improve as they wish. We have made our code open using GitHub (https://github.com/LambethCouncil) and will share the modules we develop for others to use across the Drupal community.

Sharing our learning. The Government Digital Design Manual (https://www.gov.uk/service-manual) and Digital Monmouthshire’s writing guide (http://digitalmon.wordpress.com/) are both great examples of where valuable learning can be shared even if the code platform is different. This is letting us focus on what matters locally without redoing what is often months of work others have already done.

Sharing our data. I think the council digital service of the future will be based on digital services, not just a website. At Lambeth we are already hearing demand from the community to get access to our data and content through APIs so that it can be reused in other ways — something we are keen to encourage (https://bytherye.com/2012/08/05/a-big-step-forward-in-opening-up-our-data/).

All in all, it feels like there’s a bright digital future for local government. One where we can focus on local priorities, save money and gain pace through sharing and build a thriving open community of innovation and code. Exciting times indeed!

Digital Lambeth

[This first appeared as a guest blogpost on the G-Cloud blog]

At Lambeth we are rebuilding our digital services. This is a key part of our strategy and our goal is to create a completely different online experience for our citizens. Not just providing clear, useful content and excellent transactional services, but also using our new www.lambeth.coop website as a core part of changing the way we interact with citizens and sharing our data openly.

We’re moving fast thanks to a combination of a great team, an agile, delivery focused approach, an open source platform (Drupal) and learning from the excellent work that the Government Digital Service is sharing. You can follow our journey through our blog: www.madeinlambeth.co.uk.

At the heart of this is our in-house team, which includes people who’ve got involved from our local community and through ‘hack day’ events which we’ve run together with a great group called Good For Nothing. But there are also some areas where we need specialist help, and we’ve just completed a purchase through G-Cloud to source Drupal expertise to help us build an online collaboration platform. We plan to use this as one of the ways that we’ll give local people the opportunity to get more closely involved with Lambeth’s work — from helping to shape our plans right through to actually working with us to help deliver excellent local services.

We’re moving really fast with the project and we want to get the first iteration of this part live by the beginning of March. G-Cloud has been the perfect way to buy the services we need to make this happen. The process of selection is simple, and we’ve found it very easy to short list suppliers, clarify where needed and then commit to buy quickly.

This is our second purchase through G-Cloud (the first was mobile device management — see my earlier post on this blog), and while we expect that we may have to use other procurement routes to meet some of our needs (we’ll judge each case by its merits) we are committed to using G-Cloud as the first place we look for cloud services, whether large or small.

To make this simple, we’ve worked closely with colleagues in our legal and procurement teams to update our local procurement rules so that they now fully recognise G-Cloud. By putting the effort in up front to complete this last autumn we’ve addressed all their questions and made sure that we can easily buy through the Cloudstore. I’ve been really pleased with the support we’ve had from our colleagues and we’ve also found the G-Cloud team extremely helpful in working through any concerns which might have caused problems.

Our positive experience so far makes us confident that G-Cloud will play a big part in our ambitious plans for the future.

Footnote: if you’re interested in getting involved with our exciting digital project we’d love to hear from you! In particular we’re recruiting for Drupal web developers, find out more here.