Tag Archives: Government Digital Service

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)

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

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

Opportunity Knocks

Momentous event number 1 – handing in my notice.

When opportunity first came knocking this wasn’t the plan – that was to take a career break and return to Hull City Council when the offer came to an end. But because the work has nothing to do with my day job and coincided with the busiest period in Hull’s BSF programme it caused headaches.

So despite my love for local government, and despite being conscious of how hard it might be to return, I’m walking away. I’m ditching the security of a contract with 16 months left to run and my ‘gold-plated’ pension. I’m leaving the relationships I’ve built over the last 3.5 years. I’m even choosing to spend part of every week in #thatLondon.

And I’m doing all of that for six months’ work. Risky? Cavalier? Unwise? Perhaps, but I think the opportunity is worth it.

You might have read my thoughts about the significance of the single government domain on those of us in local government (Alpha(Local)Gov, Government as a local platform?). They’re proof that blogging is worthwhile because they prompted an email and a phone call and an invitation to spend the day at the offices of the Government Digital Service with the team responsible for the business bit of GOV.UK (that which is currently handled by BusinessLink).

So three weeks ago I took a day off work and travelled south. I’d asked Louise Kidney (who has swapped localgov for GDS herself) what I should expect from her new colleagues. Nothing she’d said prepared me to finish the day using a wall as my canvas to present back work I’d been set a couple of hours to complete.

Prepared or not my scrawl did the trick and I start as a Business Analyst on May 28th.

Exciting.

Government as a local platform?

Two years ago I researched and wrote a business case to replace our content management system (CMS). This was shortly after BCCDIY and I argued that we should explore the opportunity to coopt partner with Hull’s excellent local talent to build something in the open that encouraged challenge and invited contribution. I lost (“we don’t want to be leaders”) and we picked a safer option. It was approved but something killed the project after I’d moved on in the graduate scheme rotation.

The need hasn’t gone away and on Tuesday I was invited to a meeting to identify tangible benefits for replacing the current CMS that would justify spending some money. Happily there’s talk of open standards and open source so that whilst buying something off a shelf wasn’t out of the question it might not be the automatic choice it once was.

And then that evening GOV.UK‘s beta launched and it brought me back to a piece I’d written last May about the local implications of alpha.gov.uk. Continue reading Government as a local platform?