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.

From LocalGovCamp 2018 to UKGovCamp 2019…

From LocalGovCamp 2018 to UKGovCamp 2019…

Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video

I’m so late publishing my reflections on LocalGovCamp 2018 that it’s now possible to make it an article about UKGovCamp 2019 and my experiences across the two events ?

LocalGovCamp 2018 – my tribe is growing up

Back in 2014, Catherine Howe shared her seven (now 9) tribes model at my first LocalGovCamp. Coming back to Birmingham in September 2018, I felt even more part of a tribe than ever before – maybe because this was the first year since I left Bristol City Council and I’m looking for that sense of belonging more intently.

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to work for and with a lot of great people – some new, some I’ve known for years. And for me, LocalGovCamp 2018 was mostly about seeing them all and getting the chance to chat, hug and smile from ear to ear over two days. From Cate McLaurin, who I worked for at ACAS, to Rob Miller, Henry Lewis and Matthew Cain, and of course Linda O’Halloran, Paul Maltby and Egle Uzkuraityte of the MHCLG Local Digital Team who I worked with on the Local Digital Declaration and Fund until October 2018.

This was a major part of the event – having Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak choose LocalGovCamp to announce the fund open for expressions of interest demonstrates that people recognise the value of this self-organised practitioner group. Of course the other groups that represent the sector are important – we need to reach Chief Executives and senior leaders through Solace, Councillors through the LGA and IT Managers through Socitm. But we know that digital ways of thinking and delivering change have tended to overtake the traditional bodies in many industries and LocalGov is no different.

That said, it was clear that the people attending LocalGovCamp now are from a broader cross section of the community, and that the majority of them are able to attend on a work day now. I saw Heads of Service, CIOs, and more councillors than ever before. And the intensity of the Friday workshops (and perhaps the night out) were the reason that the unconference on Saturday felt a little emptier and lower energy.

Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video

Even so, we had some really valuable conversations during the day, including me pitching and running a #Failcamp session at the end of the day that of course I can’t quote directly, but did lead to some really honest sharing. My thanks to those who joined us, especially the colleagues who opened up about their part in the response to the Grenfell fire, in which people from councils all over London piled in and worked whatever hours it took in order to ensure that the skills and things that people needed in the aftermath of a massive failure were found and provided rapidly.

The LocalGov Digital Steering Group is thinking about how we evolve LocalGovCamp in 2019, reflecting on what went well and what could have been better – more news on that soon I expect.

UKGovCamp 2019 – visiting other tribes

And so to UKGovCamp 2019 – I was really pleased to get a ticket in the lottery, and even more so as I spotted friends and colleagues tweeting about theirs. Again, I was looking forward to that sense of belonging to a community with shared concerns and values. Over the past year I’ve met more folks working in Central Government departments and so there were lots of familiar faces to make me feel at ease. That said, I still feel enough of a sense of self-consciousness when I’m in a new place to have been aware of the really positive way that the organisers and Campmakers all worked hard to welcome new people and be there to give people support.

Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video

I knew before the pitches started that I wanted to spend just as much time loitering about in the corridors and open spaces, chatting to people I already knew, as I did in sessions. The danger of this approach of course is that you can end up missing some great discussions, but that happens even if you go to every session. Dan Barrett has very eloquently said everything I wanted to say about FOMO and wanting to talk to more people – so just read his excellent post 🙂 I had a good day, but like Dan, I always leave feeling that I missed out on many more people and chats (and that includes you Amanda despite loitering to the extent that I felt stalkerish ?)

Cate McClaurin’s weeknotes reminded me of Satori Lab’s reflection questions, and it’s a great idea to use them in a blog post. Like her, I’ll pick a few out…

What held me back?

I was very conscious through the day that I’d taken another step away from my roots as a public servant since LocalGovCamp. I was still working in the MHCLG Local Digital team there, and spent a lot of my time talking directly to colleagues about signing up to the Local Digital Declaration. By the time I arrived at UKGovCamp I had joined my new company, Placecube, and was conscious that I was in a new relationship with my former colleagues. For all that we can talk about being “loyal to the network” and despite feeling confident that my personal values and mission haven’t changed one bit, I can’t help but feel a sense of constraint around talking to people about my new role. I didn’t want people to feel I was selling at them… it would have been different if we’d been sponsors and were chatting at a stand of course – maybe next year 🙂

That said, I feel very comfortable that my new company are there to “do the right thing” and have something of real value to the sector, that will help more councils to work in a way that meets the principles outlined in the Local Digital Declaration. And I am bringing the values, beliefs and behaviours that I developed over 20 years in a council to the work I do. Seeing folks like @jukesie, Mary McKenna made me more comfortable that this is a path well-trodden – and of course Kit Collingwood is just stepping onto it too!

What frustrated me?

Frustrated is probably a strong word for this, but it’s close. Before I can explain what I was “frustrated” with I need to set the scene.

The first session I attended was “Culture is the problem? Or is it? Why aren’t we in charge?” pitched by Benjamin P. Taylor and Chris Smith. Ben kicked off with a couple of anecdotes – one of which I recognised immediately, as it was about our shared experiences trying to transform Bristol City Council. Indeed he whispered “please don’t heckle” to me with a grin before he started 🙂

The discussion kicked off well following these anecdotes, but then just as I thought we were nearing the point of naming the heart of the issue, we spiralled away from it. It’s not surprising in an unconference that people bring divergent thoughts to a discussion, so it’s no criticism, but this is what I found somewhat frustrating – despite curving back round towards it a couple of times, we never really landed back on what I felt were the core points about leaders as human beings, with their tragic flaws as well as super powers. Of course these were just my key points, and at the time I didn’t want to force them into the discussion, so instead I tweeted my thoughts:

Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video
Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video
Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video
Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video
Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak addressing LocalGovCamp delegates by video

It’s all too easy for us to expect leaders at the top of organisations to be able to make all the “right” decisions and take the actions that seem so obvious to us. But do we make those decisions and take the right actions in our roles, every day, every week? I certainly wasn’t perfect when I led Digital Transformation. So as we sat there discussing how culture needs to change, and asking why weren’t in charge I admit to feeling a bit frustrated that there isn’t a simple answer to this complex human problem…

What did I learn?

I joined a session on Wardley Mapping run by Jonathan Drew which helped to reinforce my learning so far – but I‘m going to talk about that in a different blog post, or this one will never get published! ?

Whilst in the pub I had the pleasure of spending some time with several very experienced people, who I won’t name as what they were saying wasn’t for public consumption. It was strangely affirming to hear one of them talk about how after a particularly intense stretch of plugging away at transformation, that involved trying to work through and around some very powerful senior people, they had needed a break from wrangling difficult Directors and gone on to work on something much more concrete and tractable. Even superheroes need some downtime, rest and restoration… made me feel a lot better about how I’ve been feeling since leaving Bristol. I’ve certainly been taking care of myself this past year, spending more time with family, working with people who want to work with me, and share my values.

I think it’s time to step up a gear now ? More on that over on the Placecube website…

Placecube’s Digital Place – Building an ecosystem of digital services based on common service patterns

Originally posted on

In my career to date, leading digital for Bristol City Council, and then working with the MHCLG Local Digital team on the Declaration, several things have become clear to me.

  • Our services and the whole business model of local government need to be designed afresh, based on an understanding of user need, if we are to adapt successfully to continued austerity and the impacts of Brexit – the new normal.
  • There has been good work by a small number of leading councils, tackling a small number of the many things councils do. But it’s been limited to those councils and has cost them a lot of money and time.
  • As a sector we cannot afford for every council to spend the budget and elapsed time to design every one of their services from scratch. It just won’t happen… too many councils will fall off the financial cliff edge before they get very far.
  • The answer can not be for the majority of councils to remain trapped in their current forms with their current IT and digital products and services. Nor can it be for one single system to replace the hundreds in use across the UK – there is no political or commercial support for a single Local GDS, GOV.UK or the equivalent of the ill fated NHS National Programme for IT.

So, what can we do?

Working with the MHCLG Local Digital team last year I was privileged to be part of the collective drafting and publication of the Local Digital Declaration. I support the intent behind it – when a Service is designed in the internet age, the user research, interaction and content design / service patterns, data structures, API and integration definitions should all be published openly so that they can be implemented by other councils and by suppliers who want to support this good practice.

Once there is a recognised pattern and model for implementation of the digitally enabled service that meets user needs, councils should expect their suppliers to offer products built on those patterns – and not to extract a premium for it!

Re-use will lead to reduced costs for a better outcome, and if councils across the country can adopt them easily and cost-effectively, it will contribute to a massive reduction in cost across the sector.

The great digitally enabled services that were built by suppliers with councils like Bristol, Hackney, Camden, Stockport and Southwark are largely based on open source code which in many cases has been published openly on GitHub.

But it’s not easy to pick them up and place them down into another council with different technical infrastructure and back-end systems. We need to pay attention to the standards needed to wrap these systems in a way that makes them interoperable and portable, with clean boundaries and well-defined services and interfaces.

If we can define a set of ecosystem standards that enable multiple building blocks to be used together in a way that ensures they will fit – like Lego™ – we will move further towards the vision of local government as a platform that people like me, Dave Briggs and Mark Thompson have been writing about for the last few years.

That’s the vision we have at Placecube – we want to create that ecosystem based on open standards, where we can provide a re-usable set of building blocks “Cubes” based on the work we’ve done with Bristol and Camden, for other councils to adopt easily and cost-effectively.

But unlike many of the legacy suppliers in the local government market, we don’t want to lock customers in and push you to buy everything from us – we want to be able to easily incorporate the best digital services from other suppliers, who have already understood user needs, worked to design services and then realised them with new code.

We invite them to work with us on the common standards needed to ensure services can be composed together by councils who want to re-use the great work that has already been done.

And whilst councils are the democratic centre of the local place, we know that people, businesses and visitors to the area interact with hundreds of other organisations, that provide services, advocacy or information advice and guidance. Our vision of an open ecosystem is more than just councils being able to use better digital services, it is to digitally connect the network of organisations in a place, enabling them to provide or access data, services and to collaborate on meeting community, individual and local business needs.

What’s Next? Chapter Three…

What’s Next? Chapter Three…

I’ve just joined MYGOV – a digital product and services company with a mission to do the right thing. After 20 years in local government and a year working with MHCLG on the Local Digital Declaration, it’s time to put my efforts into being the kind of supplier I wanted to buy from!

Just over a year ago I began the second chapter in my working life. Leaving Bristol City Council after nearly 21 years, I worked as an independent consultant and an associate with Perform Green, helping a range of public sector organisations with digital strategies, roadmaps and architecture. I also wrote and published a number of blog posts that tried to articulate the thoughts I’d been developing over my time as Chief Digital Officer in Bristol.

And through the year I had the pleasure of working with the MHCLG Local Digital Collaboration Unit and GDS to deliver the Local Digital Declaration and the Digital Leadership strand of the Local Digital Fund.

When I left Bristol I didn’t have a grand plan. I just knew that I wanted to do something completely different in style but still true to the values I held dear. As the year progressed I began to realise I had effectively moved from trying to deliver my personal mission* in one organisation, to helping a central team try to deliver it across the whole sector. As I neared the anniversary of becoming independent and the end of my time with MHCLG I began to see that there was a natural next step — to take my passion for doing the right things in local government and work for a supplier offering digital products and services to councils.

When I worked in Bristol City Council as Chief Digital Officer, we wanted to deliver better services to our citizens and businesses, doing user research and applying service design and digital to produce more “internet age” ways of doing things.

Using the technology, software and suppliers that we had inherited over the previous 20 years wasn’t very helpful… too often there were no APIs, the user experience was woeful and failed to meet modern accessibility and usability standards (including not working on mobile devices) and the systems were built in such a way that they could not easily be reshaped as we designed services to meet user need.

So we spent a considerable amount of time and money on building new digital services and the underpinning platform to run them on. We also reshaped the capability of the council, investing in people’s skills in discovery, design, software development and operational management of live digital services.

Across the country a number of other councils have gone through the same thought process, and responded in a similar way – Hackney, Stockport and Camden are good examples. But very few councils have been able to commit the budget needed to get started on this path, and all of those that have are also clear that redeveloping systems for all of the services they provide is not the answer – the duplication of costs and elapsed time it would take to finish all of this work are simply not tenable.

So what’s the answer? Some have turned to low code platforms as a way of reducing the cost of development and enabling a wider pool of people to contribute to the development of digital services without the need to train an army of developers. Others have looked at sharing as a way to lower cost and spread the value of money spent by the sector – this could be enabled by publishing openly to source code repositories like Github, or it could go hand in hand with low code, in that most vendors talk about the ability for other customers to use the modules built on their platform. However, in both cases, it’s non-trivial for the next council to pick up the code or module and integrate it into their environment – especially where they do not have the same technology infrastructure or the in-house capabilities required.

There are a large number of councils that are likely to find themselves in this situation, seeing good work done by the larger unitaries and boroughs, but not able to benefit from it directly. Do they have to resign themselves to whatever the legacy providers are willing to tweak in their products?

I think there is a third way – well designed digital services, built with councils for councils based on user research, using open source software and open standards, that can play nicely with other services and are provided as a supported service, at a cost that is affordable to smaller councils. Genuinely interoperable services and components

I’m pleased to be joining a company that believes it’s time to offer councils this choice, one that supports councils that have signed up to the Local Digital Declaration.

Individual councils can’t #fixtheplumbing on their own, nor can the small central Local Digital Collaboration Unit wave a magic wand. Every part of the system involved in the delivery of local public services needs to perform their part. If suppliers don’t step up and offer the products and services that councils want to buy or collaborate to design and implement, then the Declaration will be difficult to implement.

All of this was in my mind when Jason Fahy approached me with the offer of a role in his company that will ensure they focus on user needs, building in a way that councils want, using open source and open standards to do the opposite of locking customers in. And so from December, I begin chapter three, working as Head of Product Research and Innovation for MYGOV.

But of course, as Jukesie said when he first left public service, I’d like to think I’m still #loyaltothenetwork ?

* calling it my personal mission is perhaps pretentious tosh… but on the other hand, why should millenials get all the purpose driven careers 😉 Looking back over the past 15 years I’ve been focused on helping local public services design and deliver better ways of meeting people’s needs, enabled by open technologies. (Whether that’s in the form of digital services, “Smart City” projects or reshaping the way councils think of their business model and role in relation to the rest of the place and it’s communities.)

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.

Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 — why is the UK absent from this global marketplace?

Sign welcoming visitors to the Smart City World Congress

Walking around the Smart City Expo floor last week, surrounded by pulsing lights and sound from vast booths populated by countries and cities from around the world, I am constantly aware of an absence… where is the UK? Where are the cities and regions that are doing so much to innovate and develop better places for people to live in? How can other parts of this global buying community find the amazing startups and SMEs that could generate trade with the UK? Surely this is something that we should all be thinking about this month — November 2018 — as Brexit deals are drafted and unravelled in real time before our eyes?!

It’s clear that China, the Nordics, the Netherlands, and many of the Middle Eastern countries see this as a significant opportunity — their stands sprawl for 100’s of square metres, cleverly constructed so that each city or region has a zone to showcase their projects and the companies who partnered to deliver them.

And then I found Leeds City Region — and enjoyed a great conversation with folks from the LEP and City Council. They flew the flag well, and had a really positive story to tell. Steven Blackburn and I were able to talk with a number of other global City CIOs about common problems and opportunities to learn from each other during the day, and I’m sure Leeds City Region companies were able to make new contacts and generate interest.

Of course we know how challenging these years of austerity have been for the UK since 2010. It’s very difficult to get approval for something that looks like a foreign “jolly” — but that’s surely a shortsighted view. The UK needs to establish new trading relationships we are told, and we know that the value of economic growth in our local areas far exceeds the savings we could ever make within councils — so why aren’t we looking for ways to construct a coalition of cities and the companies that work in and for them, to source the funding required to exhibit, and draw in the local business communities, incubators and investment partners who could make this happen?

I’m no expert, but I was acutely aware as I spoke to the folks in the Council of Global Cities CIOs that it felt different to be from the UK. It felt like we were separate, stood apart, unable to properly join in with the conversations about collaborative projects. As we met, news about the draft Brexit deal emerged, the Cabinet met, and we eventually heard they had reached a majority agreement — but then of course it only took one night for the resignations to begin… there’s a strong sense that none of us can talk about the future because we have no idea what it will be. Meanwhile the rest of the world plans, and develops and spreads the word about the amazing innovation and smart outcomes they have achieved.

Of course there are still many amazing projects in progress right now — it was a pleasure to represent Theo Blackwell at the CIO meetings, to meet people from the Smart London and Sharing Cities teams and cheer them on at the awards ceremony.

I also enjoyed meeting the folks from Umbrellium and hearing about their Starling Crossing product. Bristol was represented on the European projects stand for their work on REPLICATE. But I constantly wondered — what will happen once we have left the EU? (Assuming that we do ?)

Back in 2013 our own government department for business estimated the Smart City market to be a $408 billion opportunity in 2020… this year market analysts have forecast the market will grow to $2.57 trillion by 2025. Next year at Smart City Expo 2019, will we see a UK pavilion, confidently marketing our cities, regions and companies to the world? Maybe some of us should find a way to make this happen. To steal a phrase from Theo and Andrew Collinge what we need is a coalition of the willing and able…

This is #MyOneTeamGov

This is #MyOneTeamGov

One Tea Guv mug, full of tea to help me write this post about OneTeamGov

In October 2017 I left Local Government after nearly 21 years building my career in Bristol City Council.

I loved working for the council — Bristol was my home town, I was born and brought up there, and I’d chosen to move back after six years away at university. Working for the council wasn’t my Plan A… although it turned out that my PhD in International Conflict Management and experience as a community mediator were valuable as a frontline Housing Officer and later on when negotiating the challenges of digitally enabled service transformation with people who feared for their jobs.

So, I’d grown over the years in a succession of roles, moving from Housing into Housing IT Support, setting up the first Intranet in the Housing Services department in 1999 and moving into Corporate IT Strategy in 2001. When I got the opportunity to help the new Director of Transformation create an Enterprise Architecture service in 2009 I grabbed it with both hands. By 2012 I was persuading colleagues that this new Government Digital Service seemed to have some good ideas, and that agile digital ways of doing things were better than our traditional programmes, projects and “Big IT”… and that led eventually to my role as Chief Digital Officer in 2016.

We did some amazing work in Bristol, genuinely transforming services based on user need, ripping out rigid legacy systems and replacing them with cloud hosted digital technologies. And so much of our success was based on the network of colleagues across the country that were also breaking new ground and sharing their experiences — successes and failures. The LocalGov Digital practitioner network gave me a new home to go to whenever I wanted to share my frustrations, anxieties and of course my elation when it went well.

But all things must come to pass, and in 2016–17 it became increasingly obvious that Bristol City Council was no longer the organisation I had loved for so long and I made the difficult decision to leave.

Since then I’ve been happy to work with some amazing folks in Perform Green (many of whom are ex-Defra and related agencies, sharing public service values) and had some amazing clients (including Cate Mclaurin at Acas/Hackney, Rob Miller at Hackney, Nicola Yates at FCC, Paul Maltby and Linda O’Halloran at MHCLG) but I have missed the community of colleagues I had in the council.

I spotted the emergence of One Team Gov through the people I follow on Twitter… many of whom I’d originally met through LocalGov Digital, at LocalGovCamp or GovCamp. This new network, with it’s inclusive membership and openness to anyone who shared their values, offered me a way to stay connected to people working in government. So when Gemma Phelan started to canvas support for a One Team Gov West meetup I was immediately up for it.

One Tea Guv mug, full of tea to help me write this post about OneTeamGov

Lunchtime meetups in Bristol ensued, and it’s been a real pleasure to meet new people from the Defra family, Bristol Uni, some of my old team from the council, and several other digital suppliers in the region. I’ve even made it to one of the Westminster breakfasts when I was up working with MHCLG. Everyone in the meetups has been welcoming, interested to hear all the voices in the room, and open to sharing challenges and concerns — trusting the group to keep confidences.

In my career within Local Government I saw on many occasions a “them and us” attitude to contractors and suppliers. Now, I’d be the first to challenge those suppliers who have maintained dominant positions in the local government market on the back of poorly designed pre-internet age products, and are still intent on milking their cash cows rather than innovating to meet user needs more effectively at lower cost. But, I have also challenged my teams over the years to examine the easy prejudices we fall into about “profit motives” and the idea that somehow people directly employed by councils (or the Civil Service) are automatically more altruistic and less motivated by money. After all, I don’t think I ever met someone working for no salary…

I’ve worked with, and now believe I am part of, companies that have been founded by people who are inspired by public service values and an ethos of finding the best ways to meet people’s needs. Founders and Directors of these companies genuinely want to create products and provide services that are valuable to government and citizens, at a price that sustains them and enables them to grow — making profit, but also returning value to stakeholders beyond shareholders. These companies and the people who work for them can be trusted to hold to ethical positions, so that their participation in communities like OneTeamGov and LocalGov Digital is genuinely about sharing in the values of the network and advancing the cause.

So OneTeamGov has been a great addition to the community I look to for moral support, ideas, and a constant reminder of the passionate public service people who are doing their best to make a difference. If that sounds like something you are looking for too, follow OneTeamGov on Twitter, read some of the other great blogs about OneTeamGov, and find your nearest meetup on the OneTeamGov website

Launching the Local Digital Declaration

Launching the Local Digital Declaration

Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of supporting Paul Maltby and his newly created Digital Directorate in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government as they work to establish a new role for the centre, focused on co-producing a shared vision of great digitally inspired change in council services, and providing the capacity and capabilities needed to enable collaboration.

Linda O’Halloran described the Local Digital mission of her new team in a recent post on the new MHCLG Digital blog

while councils can easily see the benefits of moving towards more standardised ways of using data and digital technology, no individual council can make it happen…

…Our aim is to enable these kinds of cross-sector projects to happen and to demonstrate government’s commitment to driving a more open, flexible and interoperable… local service market.

As part of this mission I’ve had the task of speaking with dozens of councils — districts, counties, unitaries, Metropolitan and London boroughs — and learning just how widespread the appetite and ambition is for digitally inspired service design. It’s been exciting to discover the depth of knowledge and skills, and the openness to sharing and learning — things you guess and hope will be the case, but now we can say with certainty are true.

I know that in my previous role as Chief Digital Officer for Bristol I would have welcomed the opportunity to collaborate across the country with open arms. Our launch of the Local Digital Declaration today with over 40 co-publishers shows how many others feel the same way. And this is just the start. We know that dozens more councils are interested in getting involved in the next stage, over the summer, as we develop ideas about the highest priorities for collaboration and work towards the first projects that will get investment from the Local Digital fund.

If you’ve read my other blog posts you’ll know that I have a view that digitally inspired business model change is the most important element of local governments response to the challenges it faces. But that won’t be possible if we don’t #fixtheplumbing and ensure that the basic digital technology infrastructure, skills, mindset and leadership attitudes are fit for purpose.

Today’s launch is the next step along that road.

“It Depends” a response to Ben Holliday

“It Depends” a response to Ben Holliday

I have a lot of time for the folks at Futuregov, and when I see a Tweet or blog post from them I’m usually smiling, nodding and sharing it to spread the word. Their brand of irreverence, ambition based on technical competence, and deep empathy for the people served by local public services, makes them stand out as one of the new breed of suppliers we need to help transform how problems are addressed for people and communities.

So I was surprised to find myself frowning and shaking my head in disagreement on reading Ben Holliday’s recent post “It Depends”

Now, to be fair, he’s writing from the perspective of a Designer, and talking about his concerns with the phrase within the design context. But I took issue with a couple of fairly fundamental things Ben says in this post:

“‘It depends’ is a passive voice. It feels like a state of inaction.”

For me, that’s a very narrow reading of the intent behind “It depends”. I see the phrase as very much an active state — it’s the start of an inquiry, an active interrogation of what’s happening, what’s the context, and what are we trying to achieve. What’s the purpose of our action — knowing which, we can be so much more effective.

Ben talks about making decisions, saying yes or no, as active, and the essence of design. But doing this without asking the questions that lead from “it depends” mean that we could be acting without purpose, without clarity of intent, and successfully moving towards the goal of meeting needs would be purely random.

I don’t see “it depends” as conflicting with decision making. Far from it. As a Chief Enterprise Architect between 2010 and 2016, I frequently answered a question about what we would do with “it depends”, had a discussion about purpose, understanding of the problem, options and trade-offs within the space of half an hour, and then made a decision and directed a course of action.

Perhaps the problem here is seeing the phrase as an ending — a singular response without further dialogue. I can’t speak for the Design profession, but that’s not how it’s used in Enterprise Architecture — it’s telling that the original Tweet that Ben references includes a reply that says:

Very annoying. While that answer is nearly always true, it’s lazy and certainly doesn’t answer the question being asked by colleagues or clients. It’s a sad excuse for people unwilling to say “I don’t know but let me find out.”

As Tom Grave’s has said, “I don’t know (but I know how to find out)” is another part of the Enterprise Architect’s mantra — along with “It depends” and “Just enough” — these are prescriptions for action, not inaction.