When did local government IT become the aircraft carrier

December 11, 2013

The analogy is often used of certain large bodies being like the aircraft carrier that needs substantial time and space to complete a change of direction. Two years ago when attending the launch of the Government Digital Service  (GDS) I had been most insistent that they adopted the good practice that was available in local government at that time, for given the conditions local government IT was playing under, with frequent changes of legislation and guidance from government most local authorities had, with their IT departments, maintained a focus on the citizen.

Observing from afar over Twitter the recent SocITM 2013 conference I could only observe that with the ascendance of the GDS, roles had been reversed and local government IT in the form of lots of boats like some Dunkirk rescue mission all strung together was having a great deal of trouble manoeuvring, whilst GDS had become the agile one.

This is obviously not a full and fair comparison between all local and central government as the on-going failures by the Department of Work and Pensions to implement Universal Credit in a timely manner confirms, and also that some local authorities have done great things, whilst some have largely disappeared.

The question is how does one turn around that string of little boats (they are in comparison to central government). Some people observing suggested joining a many together and then one would the budgets and labour force, but would one have the management? That is the tricky part – local authority senior management and the elected members have always wanted to steer their own boats however small and insignificant they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but change is needed.  This is what I thought was going to come out of SocITM nearly two years ago as I took my redundancy, but it does not appear to have happened. I may have missed something but the fact that Mike Bracken of the GDS is still offering this week to work with local government, as I heard him say he would two years ago tells me something different.

Local government has had to cope with drastic cuts, redundancies and reorganisations galore since I left, but the bigger vision of turning the aircraft carrier seems to have remained a futile hope as budgets shrink further and staff disappear.

Please tell me it’s not true?


Local Government Digital Service

November 18, 2012

In September 2012 I wrote about the Local Government Data Service but since then we’ve seen the publication of the central government Government Digital Strategy, and yet again questions have been asked about why local government hasn’t one or doesn’t get a mention. My riposte is that local government was doing this before the GDS, and it was largely set out in the Socitm publication Planing the Flag. Meanwhile Socitm has published a briefing entitled “The new Government Digital Strategy: what should local public services take from it?”

Whilst the Socitm briefing is largely a promotion for its website take-up and channel benchmarking services, all that is required by any local authority is to actively gather feedback from its service users about the different channels on offer and to use this to improve them. If this makes possible a shift to channels that are truly cheaper to deliver by web or telephone all well and good. I am, of course, ignoring the ‘digital by default’ diktat within the central strategy. In national terms this means the sharing of best practice amongst local authorities and a lot of cooperation by suppliers in helping to improve delivery, not just raking in short-term profits. This is where open source and open data come in – if the commercial applications use apps that can be cross-fertilised with others and the data can be similarly exposed (securely) across applications the benefits to both councils and citizens will soon become general.

Whilst the Cabinet Office report admits that “most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS”, instead of ignoring local government and starving it of resources, central government needs to cooperate properly and assist in making these changes real. So whilst I congratulate the GDS on producing its strategy I will observe whether it gets the rest of central government to cooperate, and whether it actually cooperates with those areas where “most public services are provided”. I’d also appreciate it if there were fewer questions about why local government isn’t do the GDS thing, and a greater appreciation of the fact that it was there first, just with much less of a marketing team…


Local Government Data Service

September 7, 2012

There have been a couple of blog posts and a lot of Tweets recently from well-known characters in the local government web scene regarding establishing/creating/facilitating a Government Data Service (GDS)* but this time for local government. The only concern I voiced was that we had trod this ground before in various formats, including some of the early e-government projects/programmes.

Some of the posts/Tweets were by Carl Haggerty – The Local GDS question – again… and Stuart Harrison – Local GDS: A Skunkworks for Local Government , along with Dominic Campbell and probably others I’ve failed to mention (apologies!). Whilst I no longer have any real involvement in this, not being an IT manager, member of Socitm committees, member of the Local CIO Council (LCIOC) etc anymore I have been party to related conversations over the years including a discussion with the GDS team themselves at their launch who had obviously seen the reality that a lot of the contact with the citizen is at a local government level so were busily (or should I say agilely) developing at least one app for a local government service – I did offer to trial it in a large rural area since it was obviously based upon a city-dweller’s personal experience, and have no idea what happened to it in the end. A Local GDS would have taken this into account (hopefully) whilst the GDS could have focused on the ‘big data’ at their end.

Carl gave a good lead on the LGDS concept by saying it exists already, which it does in many ways, if informally as far as the local government hierarchy is concerned – but there are too many in government interested in controlling things, so it may need to avoid strangulation. Carl mentions talking to the LGA and since they have been in involved in various meetings with Socitm and the LCIOC, they should (in theory) help with the joining up? One of the ‘bodies’ mentioned was LeGSB which has been on the scene for years and been quietly productive – thank you Paul Davidson – which is quietly doing some related work, since one of the fundamentals is getting some STANDARDS in place if this is to work across 400+ LA’s.

I agree with Carl in that it needs some clear thinking, we’ve been here before and there is a tendency for great ideas to be strangled by bureaucracy and people wanting to make a name/well-paid-job for themselves. I don’t think the GDS team is a great example for local government, they’ve been spoiled with the central government budget, although they have learned to consult the end-user, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

Don’t let it get too southern-centric, there are citizens past Birmingham. Some good work has been going on in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so don’t ignore them either. A quick audit of what is happening and has happened is probably worth doing (LGA?) and then decide what quick wins can be made from some agile working across multiple boundaries. But please, please, please don’t reinvent wheels.

* References to ‘data’ should of course be ‘digital’ – brain operating on another planet that day – reminded when making cup of tea in GDS mug.


Counting the cost

July 14, 2012

A recent debate on the Socitm Linkedin group went back to the validity of channel shift calculation most recently raised in “Can channel shift be forecast?“. However, this has been an ongoing question for a long time as posts such as Channel accounting in 2009 will emphasise.

I continue to argue that end-to-end costs have to be assimilated, within reason, into such costings, and the major savings need to be revenue ones. A recent post on The Register revealed that 20% of the Information Commissioner’s Office budget went on IT. I wonder how many local authorities spend near that? This may be a reason why some LA’s are less able to respond in detail to some of the requests they get? Geoff Connell of the London Borough of Newham, an old acquaintance announced on the Linkedin forum that “Newham Council has saved £12M per annum so far through a major channel shift programme. Less than 40% of our customer services transactions are now carried out face to face. Over 30% go through our online self-serve portal and we have over 20,000 registered (and active) users. We have over 98% online purchases for parking permits, 30%+ for bulky items, green waste, etc, etc.”, which I wouldn’t argue with, knowing Geoff, but they have property to rationalise that will make a capital saving. There may be some revenue savings and these need to be the main component for any ‘calculator’ using the transaction cost figures that Socitm and others bandy about.

The debate will continue forever no doubt, but some of the presentations from the recent Socitm/Headstar #BPCW12 conference in Birmingham were revealed to be available at  http://bit.ly/channelshift.


A digital nation

May 3, 2012

A new report from Canada examines Provincial and Territorial eGovernment Initiatives. Entitled ‘Becoming a Digital Nation: An Evaluation of Provincial and Territorial eGovernment Initiatives‘ PDF, 89 pages, 8Mb. The report notes in the Introduction that in the report, in order to” provide context for this assessment, we applied the same methodology to three other jurisdictions: California, Massachusetts, and Wales. Our study indicates that Canada’s provinces and territories are doing well in this comparison with four provinces ahead of the international jurisdictions and all the  others competitive.” Which may upset all three, although they all did pretty well compared with the Canadian average.

Interestingly the latest usage statistics are provided on page 7: “Most recent data show over half of Canadians (56.5%) use the Internet to search for government-related information, while 26.9% utilize the Internet to communicate with their governments”, which may assist those concerned about the limited UK usage! I’m please to say that Socitm’s ‘Planting the Flag’, that I played a small part in producing has been used as a part of the background material and the methodology employed in measuring the web sites is not unlike that used in Socitm’s Better Connected exercise.

Of the 13 jurisdictions studied, it’s hardly surprising that there is some difference between the most populated territories and the lesser ones. There are also issues around the number of languages with not just English and French being required in many places, but in some there are native languages to deal with.  As a summary the report states on page 48 that: “Areas of improvement focus on providing more advanced ways for citizens to give or get more information through online Contact Us forms or feedback surveys”, which I’d always argue for in the form of feedback loops.


Top management team

April 10, 2012

In the wake of the Socitm Better Connected 2012 review and reports, a further report has been published aimed at the management of UK local authorities. Better Connected 2012: a briefing for the top management team picks up on some of the results of the annual study along with opinions of those involved. It’s only 16 page so the £50 price tag is a little steep, unless you are a subscriber. The author(s) promote what they describe as eight ‘simple, clear points which can act as guiding principles’, unfortunately number eight is ‘we want public services that are more transparent’, which isn’t at all clear to me – is that the policies, data or management that needs to be ‘transparent’? The other seven are equally ‘simple’.

The service picked on and discussed around mystery shopping is that of public libraries. Possibly one of the more difficult to manage in these turbulent times with high asset value, regular revenue costs and an unpredictable market. If the library service concerned has an old software application, they’re highly unlikely to get a new shiny, all-singing one in the current climate – instead they are likely being compressed and expected to do more with less. Ultimately it may be said that going online with the latest applications, and encouraging self-service will cut a few librarian posts, but it’s a fine line in the costings.

I heartily agree with the statement on the eighth page that “council leaders and managers must accept that the main purpose of the website is to deliver services”, but currently policy dictates that it isn’t necessarily the council that is delivering services now, and the private and third sectors have their own opinions as to what their route is once they’ve taken on services and it isn’t necessarily transparency of ease of customer contact. Similarly, the twelfth page argues for lots of user testing, which I totally agree with but third-party application interfaces aren’t easily or affordably tweaked once they are in place.

Unfortunately for all the good intentions the authors are too far detached from the reality of delivering services in the current climate and whilst there is much good advice the attitude is likely to pi** off more council web managers than it will educate.


The ‘Green’ Emancipator

February 14, 2012

VIDEO STORY: Green technology on the front line

Mick Phythian, head of ICT at Rydale District Council, member of the Local CIO Council and Socitm lead on green technology issues, welcomes the Government’s sub-strategy for Green ICT – and is inviting local government to feed back examples of green best practice in the sector for his work with Socitm.

To read the rest of this news article click here: http://www.ukauthority.com/?tabid=64&id=3528