A new digital architecture for councils of the future

I’ve been fortunate to speak with a lot of councils during 2018 in my work with the new Local Digital Collaboration team in the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). I’ve learned about their plans for service transformation and delivering better outcomes for people who live and work in the local area, working in partnership with other public services, the community and voluntary sector.

I’m seeing an emerging new digital architecture in some of these councils, which is diverging from the traditional approaches taken by most of local government in the past. There are a number of characteristics to this approach:

  • Starting with user needs, based on user research, not “business requirements”
  • Designing responsive digital front-end services, assumed to be used on mobiles first
  • Defining RESTful APIs for the front-end services to use
  • Creating and re-using canonical data sources, registers
  • Publishing open source code on GitHub for other councils to use
  • Sourcing discovery and delivery from SMEs specialising in service design and digital development, rather than traditional local government mid-tier vendors
  • Using G-Cloud or Digital Outcomes & Specialists frameworks to increase the pace and flexibility of procurement

In most councils, we see some or even all of these three styles of applications and data architecture, most of which have developed organically rather than on purpose.

In some of the councils I’ve been talking to, I’ve seen conscious and deliberate attempts to rethink this architecture, creating something that purposefully supports the kind of organisations that they want to be.

Making this architecture real needs skilled service designers, delivery managers, developers and product managers. Whilst some of those skills can be found and developed in-house, others really require the services of experienced suppliers — Hackney and Stockport have commissioned organisations like Futuregov, DXW, Unboxed and ThoughtWorks — and delivered high-quality services together.

So this approach is really happening, and councils like Stockport, Hackney (and Bristol before them) can point to real live services that have been designed to meet user need. It’s a clear and logical response to the failure of the local government market to offer modern solutions that meet user needs at a better cost. But it’s not the only response, in part because it requires a willingness to disrupt traditional methods and take (calculated) risks by CDO/CIOs, with confidence and support from senior officers and political leaders. As a result, it is still only found in a minority of councils, and many others have to take a different approach.

One of the reasons for this divergence is simply that variation in the size and capability of councils is so wide, ranging from small districts of 200 staff to large unitaries and boroughs of 5–10,000 staff. Small councils will simply never have the budgets to commission significant development, or the internal staff capacity to do it themselves. But this does not mean that they are stuck with old-school approaches and legacy systems.

As a sector, we really need to find solutions that can be adopted by the 200 districts, not just the large city unitaries, Metropolitan and London Boroughs. I’ve spotted several examples of a blended principled-pragmatic route that breaks out where possible and works with constraints where unavoidable.

In Tunbridge Wells they’ve created a digital team with user research and service design skills, and worked with the supplier of their online forms product — Abavus — to move towards a more iterative approach to the development of services that meet user needs.

In Adur & Worthing, they’ve invested in service design thinking and skills and adopted a low code platform from MATsoft to deliver digital services at a cost they can afford.

Even in Hackney, for some lower volume services they have chosen to use the Outsystems low code platform instead of commissioning development in Ruby on Rails.

There’s also the potential for smaller councils to get the benefit of the investments made by the likes of Hackney. Stockport, Camden and Bristol… by adopting the open source products they have created and made freely available. Rather than commissioning a supplier or developing it yourself in-house, simply take a copy of the front-end code and integrations, and reuse it.

In reality, it’s not that simple. There are a number of barriers to contend with. Because councils have such different combinations of infrastructure and software systems its entirely likely that the products that Thoughtworks, DXW and PFIKS built with Stockport, Hackney, Camden and Bristol can’t be used in many other councils. Even if there is no software compatibility barrier, the capability to host and maintain them won’t be there — or will be dependent on an outsourced provider with no incentive to reuse free/ low-cost software.

Of course, the suppliers involved could offer these digital products as a service, priced appropriately for smaller councils — so, for instance, you could buy the digital platform that Bristol developed with PFIKS through their G-Cloud service.

During my conversations, Paul Brewer, Director of Digital and Resources in Adur & Worthing District Councils made a striking point. People working in councils need to experience the service design process, to be a part of the discovery, co-design the alpha, and contribute to implementing the beta — this is a critical part of the journey to the organisational transformation that the service needs to go through in order to understand and meet user needs.

Dropping in a service design from another place, complete with interaction design patterns based on a good discovery of user need, and technical patterns based on disruptive new ways of delivering digitally would prevent the council from truly changing to be a better, more adaptive organisation. I found myself agreeing with Paul, having seen the transformational power of a service team seeing and hearing the stories that discovery brought to light in benefits and care services.

But I still think there is value in councils sharing the outputs of their digitally enabled service transformation projects with each other. Even if there is a need for each council to experience discovery and to deliver the new service together, I don’t believe Paul was arguing that council delivery teams want to duplicate the pain and effort involved in solving the technical issues of integrating with a back office system API, or even re-inventing the best front-end design patterns, once it’s been determined that the user need requires a digital service.

If we can work as a sector, supported by the new central Local Digital team, to create reusable service and technical patterns, based on good user research and design, we can reduce the time and cost involved in designing and delivering digital services to our citizens. So it’s very exciting to know that in October 2018, nearly 400 expressions of interest in collaborative projects were submitted by councils to the Local Digital Fund. Out of these, clusters of collaborative work were shaped, bringing together councils who can discover and prototype ways of meeting user needs in common ways. And in November 2018 full applications for Discovery and Alpha projects were submitted — at the time of writing, we are all waiting with interest to hear who’s been successful.

Whilst there are some open questions to be worked through, these new approaches mark a significant departure from the legacy of inflexible, poor quality business systems, that didn’t meet user needs for staff, let alone enable digital services so good that citizens preferred to use them. As suppliers begin to respond to these new demands from local government, through the TechUK sponsored projects supporting the Declaration, I believe we will begin to see real practical products and services that councils will want to buy.

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