Category Archives: Work

Fragile states and digital foundations

When crisis hits it puts unexpected pressures on infrastructure. In some cases the state or its civil society is resilient and can cope but where the physical, societal or administrative fabric is already fragile then issues are compounded and recovery becomes harder. And then there’s the impact of war.

The world has developed coping mechanisms for dealing with this. Government aid and development budgets kick in, international organisations mobilise and individual donors dig deep to help meet needs. And lots of time, money and thought continually goes into making sure that the quality of those coping mechanisms gets better. But the scale of the need can be overwhelming.

Digital can be a huge enabler and a powerful tool in helping to support those responses. Today is the Techfugees conference. That’s a great response to a crisis that has reached the tipping point in the public consciousness. It’s brilliant that the conversations don’t end today but will be followed by efforts to deal with problems: the Techfugees hack day tomorrow, Ich Bin Hihr in Berlin on Saturday and maybe also Code for the Kingdom in London over the weekend. People are getting together to unify around solving identified needs rather than fragmenting into delivering well meaning, but not yet validated, ideas.

Digital skills and digital talent are good in a crisis and there’s a lot that can be done in swarming on the symptoms of a problem. But those skills and that effort is so much more valuable when it’s applied up stream as part and parcel of how public goods and public services are understood and delivered in the first place.

Britain has a long established bureaucracy with sophisticated models for collecting tax, issuing permissions and accessing support from the state. Behind that sophistication is a lot of complexity and reliably under a nearby stone will be some antediluvian technology or arcane policy.

The creation of the Government Digital Service, and our transition from peripheral to very much in (not of!) the machine is addressing some of those challenges.We’re passionate about placing people at the heart of how we design public services, we know that it will lead to better outcomes and usually it will save some money too. But often we’re unpicking the sins of the past. The web we’ve woven over decades is going to be impossible to untangle by ourselves and that’s why this is only something we can do with colleagues across government, collectively.

Unfortunately I think it’s still going to take us a long time. And most probably won’t be the first to realise a vision of the future which I saw a few months ago. Tom Loosemore invited me to go and see the handiwork of a small band of guerrillas plotting a revolution. Their idea of a natively digital state is amazing and it was brilliant to see the reaction to this being shared at the Code for America summit yesterday.

Tom presented a version of this at our all-staff event and as he showed how future Tom might start a business in minutes I was struck at the opportunity that existed, not for us, but for those countries at the other end of the Human Development Index from the United Kingdom.

The first nation to create new institutions that make the most of the internet will win.

And win big.

The opportunity is huge.

A number of countries have taken bigger, or smaller, parts of what we’ve done and applied it to their context. On the whole they’re countries like us, where there’s been stability for a length of time, and where the state structures are fairly well established. I don’t think they’ll be the ones to take Tom’s challenge and run with it.

Last year I wondered whether institutions could heal themselves or if brand new was the only way. We’re having a good go at renewal but what could a country achieve if it had more of a blank slate?  There would be different challenges to overcome but there’s no reason why in 2 or 3 years’ time it’s countries who are fragile today couldn’t be leading the conversations about service design and user needs in the context of government.

So I’m excited that over the next few days people are gathering together to use technology in ways that will address the symptoms of a crisis and provide practical ways to help people access safety, health, and education. But I can’t help but think about the moment peace falls and the diaspora of war returns home to start rebuilding. When they do maybe it will be with Tom, Richard and Paul’s vision as the blueprint for solid, digital foundations.

 

Pride (In the name of GOV.UK)

On Friday 19th December 2014 when the final agency switched on its pages we celebrated GOV.UK being ‘organisation complete’.

Three years ago one of the four things Baroness Lane Fox told government to do was ‘fix publishing‘. She recognised that hundreds of different publishing platforms could do a good job in isolation but required the public to understand the complexity of government and that approaching similar needs in bespoke ways was expensive and inefficient. It wasn’t the first time government had recognised the complexity of its web estate and we’ve stood on those broad shoulders to successfully replace over 600 websites with just the one.

That achievement is only really the end of the beginning but I’ve been reflecting on my highlights so far, in anticipation of what’s to come. I’ve got seven. Continue reading Pride (In the name of GOV.UK)

Can these bones live?

This is a post about an Old Testament prophet, but it’s not about theology.

It’s also a post about local government, but it’s not about a local Government Digital Service (GDS).

Last week I sat and watched as one of my colleagues showed off government’s digital wares. Not wares built in the GDS offices in Holborn but the work of people elsewhere in government. It’s going on in almost every department. It’s happening across the country. And it’s happening at pace.

It’s a great party. But it’s invite only, and local government hasn’t been included on the guest list.

And it doesn’t look like local government is going to organise one itself.

There’s a consensus that a radically different approach to local government IT/digital delivery is not just a nice to have but something of an immediate imperative and there’s been a lot of debate about what that might look like and who might start that fire.

One of the organisations that local government looks to for leadership is the Society of Internet Technology Managers (Socitm). Last week I joined my GDS colleagues Tom Loosemore and James Cattell at Old Trafford for their annual conference and it was there that I saw Tom proudly highlight the paradigm shift in central government.

Not every local authority has Socitm membership anymore; there are some doubts about their supplier-led model and I’ve seen Better Connected, their flagship annual survey of local authority websites, come in for some criticism over the last few years. But this two day event should be a valuable resource for IT managers around the country to come together and share their successes, inspired to return to their desks confident that they can play the transformative role that their jobs offer. To hold these roles given the possibilities of the 21st century is an opportunity to cherish.

Sadly, it didn’t seem like that’s the case. James has written up his experience of the event and I’d have to echo his disquiet at the number of delegates who had been at a conference paid for by their local citizens for membership of a group that doesn’t always get the most positive reviews and who had chosen to leave early:

…350 delegates came to the conference. Only 55 were left for the panel discussion. That means 295 people missed the most inspiring part of day 2…

Eleven years ago I had a very profound conversation with my friend Dave. We were sat at the university library cafe talking about a particular institution and how the associated baggage meant you might as well tear it down and start from scratch.

And then Dave dropped Ezekiel into the conversation.

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

In his vision Ezekiel is told by God to prophesy tendons, flesh, skin and life over those bones, he does and the valley is transformed. In that context it’s a message of hope for his people.

In my conversation with Dave it was a check to our enthusiasm for imagining what a new institution might do if it was free from history.

And in the context of last week it’s a relevant observation about the value of existing networks, of active relationships and of institutions that might otherwise be past their best.

As Carrie said to those delegates who were left:

once upon a time this room was full of rebels

Can they roll up their sleeves and get stuck in so that those bones can change by themselves? Failing that there needs to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that’s willing to flatten some mountains or straighten some paths.

Either way, local government, and the public sector as a whole, need to get past the navel gazing and crack on with delivering.

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

Ezekiel does as he’s told and that valley of bones is transformed with life. I wonder what the next year will bring for localgov and its digital journey. I’ve got my own opinions. And I’ve got some hope. But something has got to give, and give soon?

Local government digital service and the GDS design principles

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

This is the final entry in a series of blogposts unpacking my opinions about the local government digital service debate. In the first post I set out my opinion that a single entity with the mandate and resource to address the common needs of the public is overdue; in the second I wondered about what that might mean from a democratic point of view; my third wondered about the distinction between building and buying services and my fourth explored how this might work in practice. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers and want to know where my assumptions are completely barmy!

In this series of posts I’m expressing an opinion. I find the idea persuasive and the need obvious for a local government digital service. I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers! I think your position on this matter will have a large amount to do with whether you think Baroness Lane-Fox’s cry of “revolution not evolution” is as appropriate in the local context as it was centrally. I believe it is. Happily, local government doesn’t need to revolt from scratch – GDS doesn’t have all the answers but we’ve got some very useful experience about trying to bring all the things together. I think the GDS design principles are brilliant and so to conclude I’m going to think about what they might mean in a local context.

Start with needs*

*user needs not government needs

Local governments have different priorities, different political makeups, different challenges and different histories. They are all unique. And our experiences as citizens can’t be separated from the characteristics of where we live.

But are our needs unique?

The Local Government Services List says not always. It’s imperfect but it is a helpful starting point for the user needs of a resident in any given postcode: if services or information can be described in a consistent fashion then why can’t they be surfaced and accessed in a consistent fashion?

Do less

Continue reading Local government digital service and the GDS design principles

Local government digital service: how might it work?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

In this series of blogposts I’m unpacking my opinions about the local government digital service debate. In the first post I set out my opinion that a single entity with the mandate and resource to address the common needs of the public is overdue; in the second I wondered about what that might mean from a democratic point of view and in the third I gave some thought to where services come from already, and could come from in future. In this post I ask how it might work in practice and finish off the series by considering the relevance of the GDS design principles in the context of local government. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers so please comment and tell me where my assumptions are completely barmy!

I don’t think I know the answer to this piece of the puzzle but but from my standing start I think there are a few possibilities for how you might create a local government digital service.

Fundamentally this must start with someone having enough mandate to formally recognise the activity that already exists and do a proper Discovery about what 21st century local government digital services could, or should, look like if they were being created from scratch. The Discovery phase of a project is the place to get all the hopes and concerns expressed and understood. It neither prescribes, nor proscribes, a particular approach but gives the space to test some ideas and come up with an idea of what your prototype might look like.

It was interesting that DCLG hosted the event that they did and that the department’s digital leader commented on the resistance to the idea of GOV.UK. So perhaps central government is beginning to think about funding something centrally from the top down to create something akin to GDS. Such an approach would need to work alongside the experience and expertise within councils and make sure it isn’t felt to be an imposition on local authorities whilst still maintain its ability to achieve the disruption it needs to. A centralised approach may be effective in delivering services free from the legacy overheads but it may prove difficult to build the relationships between local authorities that will actually result in consistently world class service design.

Continue reading Local government digital service: how might it work?

Local government digital service: build or buy?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

In this series of blogposts I’m unpacking my opinions about the local government digital service debate. In the first post I set out my opinion that a single entity with the mandate and resource to address the common needs of the public is overdue and in the second I wondered about what that might mean for democracy. In this post I think about where services come from and in the others I wonder about how it might work in practice and finish off the series by considering the relevance of the GDS design principles in the context of local government. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers and want to know where my assumptions are completely barmy!

In the debate about meeting localised user needs in a coherent fashion it can be forgotten that it’s something that actually happens every day. There is a precedent for local residents to administer very postcode specific activities through a single product that is managed and delivered centrally.

They are not perfect examples of services that would be given the Digital by Default Service Standard seal of approval but that’s even better – they give the local government digital service lessons to learn and opportunities to iterate.

A first example would be the Blue Badge service. It is a piece of policy owned by the Department for Transport but which is administered by local councils. The digital service gives a consistent experience to the person who wants to apply for, change or renew their blue badge. That is a veneer on top of a complicated process but the complexity is hidden from the public allowing the service to be administered according to the local characteristics of the relevant council. The service is showing its age and has certain usability issues but here is a common user need served by a common digital service to administer a central government policy in a very localised way.

Continue reading Local government digital service: build or buy?

Local government digital service: democracy

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

In this series of blogposts I’m unpacking my opinions about the local government digital service debate. In the first post I set out my opinion that a single entity with the mandate and resource to address the common needs of the public is overdue and here I wonder about what that means for democracy. In the other posts I thought about the distinction between building and buying services, asked how it might work in practice and finish off the series by considering the relevance of the GDS design principles in the context of local government. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers and want to know where my assumptions are completely barmy!

In the fanfare and celebration of what has been done in the last two years it can be forgotten that central government had brilliant pockets of service design being delivered by exceptional civil servants. UKGovCamp had been instrumental in joining the dots between those people and created the conditions where GDS could thrive. It is absolutely not the case that everything was rubbish and suddenly GDS made all things new.

And one of the brilliant things about an event the Department for Communities and Local Government recently hosted to stimulate the debate about collaboration between councils was getting to spend the day with a room full of people committed to public service delivery. Whatever might happen in transforming the approach of local government it must acknowledge that the commitment and self-organisation of those brought together by UKGovCamp for central government is exemplified by LocalGovDigital who are dragging their sector forward in the margins of their day jobs.

Continue reading Local government digital service: democracy

On a local government digital service

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

I think local government would benefit hugely from a disruptive approach to providing digital services and meeting user needs. I’ve thought this for some time. This is the first of a series of blogposts where I unpack why I think what I think; the second talks about the threat such ideas have to local democracy ; the third about the provenance of services themselves; the fourth about how such an organisation might work and the final post considers the GDS design principles in the context of local government. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers and want to know where my assumptions are completely barmy!

There is a conversation about digital government that does not go away. It is all the fault of alphagov.co.uk and the birth of the Government Digital Service. Does local government need a digital service for itself?

It’s an opinion polarising conversation.

While I was working for Hull City Council I wrote a couple of things that led to my joining GDS. GDS has a very specific focus on central government, and central government only. And there is plenty to keep us busy. I’ve worked on different projects and learnt huge amounts but there is an obvious gulf between the mandate we have to support digital service design across our sector and the inconsistent patchwork of innovative practice in local government.

Continue reading On a local government digital service

Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

In which I hold forth about the situation in a country where I’ve spent a mere three months over five years. So this is tube-written opinionising not in depth, on the ground knowledge.

Sierra Leone is holding elections very soon and I was alerted to a fund raising campaign by  the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights via Anthony Zacharzewski‘s post on the Demsoc blog. That’s an appeal to raise a not insignificant amount of money with the aim of supporting local media in order to prevent a return to violence.

Two things strike me about this.

Continue reading Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

I Love #LocalGovCamp

Yesterday I was at 2012’s LocalGovCamp at Maple House, Birmingham.

I started the day on the wrong foot – way too near the start of introductions line. Even though I knew it was coming I couldn’t marshall my thoughts into giving my single word about why I was there. All I could think of was Nick’s (@psfnick) profane suggestion from the previous night.

The words I should have chosen

Relapse. I didn’t go to UKGovCamp because I’d begun to feel like a fraud. As much as I’d contributed beyond my job title in Hull my roles had never gone hand in glove with unconference conversations. So I’d go along and hear great things, maybe contribute an opinion or two of my own but then return to work and be unable to execute anything. When the next event rolled round I wouldn’t have anything to share, or any progress to report.

There is something recharging about being exposed to a collection of brilliant minds with a blank canvas invited to share and think and plan and do but as much as sectoral camaraderie is a great thing there’s little point if it ends up as talking and not doing. And that’s all my contribution felt like.

Continue reading I Love #LocalGovCamp