Month: April 2019

How can open standards and reusable cubes help solve problems for local places?

Originally posted on

Assorted colourful Lego building bricks

Let’s look at the value of creating a product as a standards-based cube. Take the idea of a service directory – a data source that people with needs can search to find services that might meet them, and in which service providers can publish their details, so that connections can be made.

Over the past decade a number of providers have built their own directories and often linked them to their proprietary products for children’s or adults social care and family services. Each directory would be limited to a specific council area. And probably limited to an organisational remit – it may have been commissioned by the council to host a wide range of social care services but it’s likely it didn’t include NHS commissioned services, or things commissioned by Early Years to support wellbeing and pre-school education. So a person trying to find services would need to find and choose the right directory before they began searching for services. And often would find that the service directory was categorised in a way that made sense to experts who knew the terminology.

At the February 2019 MHCLG Local Digital Roadshow in Bristol, I listened to Tom Dixon from Devon County Council describing a common problem that the “Open Community” collaborative project aims to tackle – how should people living on the geographical boundaries of a local authority find services that are nearest to them, when the data is trapped inside separate directories? This and other issues are the reason that the project wants to develop a standard for service directories so that data is described in a common way, and APIs could be developed to enable searches across multiple directories.

So let’s assume that Council A has bought a standards-based directory service from Placecube, and that neighbouring Council B has bought a standards-based directory from another provider. Because we’ve both implemented the same data structures and APIs, a front-end website, or app, or aggregation service can interrogate both directories with ease and present results to someone looking for services that are hyper-local to them… just like you’d expect from a “search this area” interface on a map.

Image of several council websites accessing standard structured data on services in an open community directory
Council websites could access standard structured data on services in an open community directory

Building products to standards that mean they can connect to each other in known and repeatable ways helps us to move the market further towards the commodity end of the evolution axis. I reworked the Wardley Map from my last blog post to indicate where a range of activities and assets required for local digital services could move up the axis, deeper into the product + rental area.

Of course this assumes that a number of things change in Local Government – that the emerging improvements in collaboration that we have seen as the Local Digital Fund supports multi-council projects will be sustained, and that they will produce the kinds of valuable products that enable reuse. We need user research that’s published openly for all councils and suppliers to share through something like Hackney’s User Research Library, and service patterns and design guidelines published in the way that the VerifyLocal team did – perhaps through the evolution of Pipeline and better signposts to council code on GitHub.

In my next post, I will focus in on how Placecube thinks of “reusable cubes” and the standard attributes that they need if we are to build an open ecosystem where multiple suppliers can provide a variety of services to organisations working across the network to support better outcomes for people in their local place.

Why do we need a new approach to digital?

Originally posted on

People who know local government often say that a standardised solution will never work, because councils have all created slightly different versions of the processes and organisation structures that support the delivery of what look like identical services on the first glance. But this needs to change if we are to meet the financial challenges that have become the new normal after ten years of austerity – which despite government promises that “the era of austerity is at an end” will have real on-the-ground consequences for reduced public services for years to come. This is particularly true for councils who have been some of the hardest hit by budgetary, social and health related pressures.

Local government needs to focus its attention and funds on the complex “wicked” problems that need systemic solutions which harness the capacity and creativity of the local ecosystem. All of the basic transactional services should be delivered by well-designed digital services based on open standards, that remove the need for councils to duplicate spend hundreds of times over.

This hasn’t been offered to councils yet – instead they’ve had to choose between expensive packaged products that aren’t designed based on user needs, or even more expensive investment in user research, service design and development to build really great bespoke digital services. Placecube’s Digital Place breaks this binary choice apart and offers a combination of well-designed services, built on user research with open standards, intended for easy adoption and reuse, supporting sharing across councils. Rather than charging premium prices to every council, making the public sector pay multiple times for the same code, we have designed a subscription that gives access to all of the service cubes designed and built with councils, and keeps adding cubes for reuse. This frees councils to put their limited funding into the activities that will really tackle the complex social and economic challenges of their local area.

Evolving local government digital from bespoke to products + rental

“The simplicity of standard building blocks allows higher orders of complexity. But those standard building blocks didn’t appear out of nowhere, they started as something novel and they evolved.”

I spent some time thinking about the state of the local government market for digital services recently, and used Simon Wardley’s mapping approach to plot out what I’ve seen over the past five years or so. My assessment is that, in general, councils are paying over and over again for the same bespoke activities and duplicating the building of solutions that really could be shared.

A Wardley Map of current practices in building local government digital services

Recently we’ve seen other vendors making their pitches to the market for reuse on so-called “common platforms”. We often find ourselves nodding in agreement at the starting point of these explanations – as they describe the laudable idea of finding ways for cash-strapped councils to share solutions to common needs. But all too soon these pitches take a familiar turn, one that I’ll caricature as “buy this large lump of (our) expensive software in order to share” – this is just lock-in by another name, and doesn’t move us forward as a sector. Meaningful reuse of common solutions can’t be dependent on an organisation’s adoption of an expensive proprietary platform.

In contrast, Placecube’s Digital Places are containers that can be quickly filled through a system of building with reusable cubes. Of course we want people to buy from us – but we don’t want to be the only company that provides cubes. The problems of a local ecosystem will always need a wide range of organisations and communities to come together to address them – more quickly than any single organisation can do in isolation – and the data and solutions required need to be able to work together to enable this to happen. That’s why we see open standards as a critical element to this approach. When we talk to digital leaders across the public sector they often express their frustration that they can’t simply connect one system to another, tap into a common data source with ease, and share services across organisational boundaries without costly joint development to break down barriers that suppliers have constructed.

There is now a growing resistance to purchasing opaque self-contained systems and proprietary software right across local government, who instead of being offered an alternative that meets their needs are increasingly looking to themselves and opting to develop technologies and digital services in-house, preferring to make the mistakes that can be fixed openly rather than risk continued vendor lock-in, inflexibility and cost hikes. For many vendors, who are struggling to adapt their business models and practices, this has started to seriously impact their results but this is perhaps the inevitable consequence of digital change once the easy efficiency-by-squeezing approach has been all but used up. Fundamental digital reinvention is upon us.

In my next post, we will look at a more detailed example of how an open standards based digital service could be created that moves us further through product + rental, towards commodity services, supporting a whole place approach to change.