Why do we need a new approach to digital?

Originally posted on placecube.com

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.

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