Platforms and Tribes

It was my first time at a Solace annual conference, and I’ll be back again.  It felt like many more people are ready to think about radical public service solutions and deeper civic engagement – there was a sense of real receptivity to what some of the leading authorities are saying and doing. David McNulty, CEO for Surrey County Council, did a particularly good presentation on the work he’s leading across Surrey which asks staff (with the help of coaching) to step up and contribute to rethinking and redesigning how local government can design services differently: designing with users, designing for outcomes, and recognising the networked and platform-based future of service delivery.  It’s great how wide he is taking this, seeking to get “design” into the organisational DNA, rather than it being the preserve of a special team.

Being now Director for Digital & Resources at Adur and Worthing Councils, I was keen to get a sense of how senior leaders are thinking about technology strategy.  After all, the shoals of fish, to use David McNulty’s phrase (networks of people delivering service, consuming service and sharing information), need digital platforms as the water to swim in.

Platform thinking

For me, over the last few years and with very few exceptions, local government has failed to use digital to disrupt current service models.  We need to see councils transforming into (or commissioning) platform businesses using technology .. think Blockbusters>Netflix, Waterstones>Amazon, Hotels>Airbnb, Black cabs>Uber, HMV>Spotify.  Yes, this is about radical thinking and great design – but what was the water those start up businesses swam in? What allowed them to think differently, to innovate? ….. it was the possibility tof creating platform businesses using the internet.  Have a read of this article on “pipes vs platforms“.

What’s stopping even those who “get” this and want to see new innovative service models emerging, is our IT estate and how we hold and use our data. Our IT is generally hosted locally, but much more importantly our IT estate is made up of large proprietary databases sitting inside our vertical silos that were built by digitizing paper-based and BVPI (remember those?) driven processes.  Even the rightly lauded Government Digital Service has had to work around the edges of the monstrous carbuncles of government IT estates, grown up over decades and being maintained by hard-working IT professionals who just have not been given sufficient leadership and resource.

Over the last few years we have seen a genuine alternative model emerging as secure, enterprise-grade platform services have become available.  It is now possible, and I think vital, to move away from the constraints of our current IT set ups.  Only then can we create and consume the platform-based services we need.

As a sector we’re still not doing the strategic work on IT, security and data standards that would help liberate us all.  We’re still not accepting that we are making do (and remaining stuck) with expensive LEGACY IT arrangements that are proprietary and closed. Things are definitely shifting in some places (Bristol, Kingston & Sutton, Monmouthshire, Hounslow) but I do rather think a strategic working group for the sector would help bring together some very useful principles and strategic choices ..

Let me highlight some other sticking points:

  • we don’t understand the total cost of ownership of our current way of working, including the inefficient processes.  The investment case *is* there!
  • we need capability around developing platform strategy and agile design/build.  We don’t have that generally
  • we think everything has to be delivered within the Public Service Network (PSN) – No! just ask Cabinet Office who are moving to Google for Work
  • all data is treated as requiring the highest levels of security protection – Wrong! It’s expensive and is preventing proper use of commodity services provided via “the internet”!
  • IT departments too often see cloud/platform as a threat rather than an opportunity to be re-born.  Leadership required!
  • we still focus on the presentation layer, the website, and forget about the expensive, broken customer journey waiting for users just a click or two away

This stuff is important .. it’s preventing us from changing fast enough….


I’m really keen on Catherine Howe’s 7 Tribes of Digital which she talked about in a conference session on Digital Leadership:

7 Tribes of Digital (from Catherine Howe)

I feel in my role I have a responsibility to “be” all of these and to encourage all tribes to come forward as I spot them in my organisation.  But it’s kind of dangerous to encourage people without taking some bigger steps to remove the impediments as fast as possible.  It is a bad idea to get people excited and come up with ideas for digitally-powered services only for them to get the “Uh-Uhhhh” Mr Babbage noise: “you can’t do that”.

Adur and Worthing are undertaking a technology blueprinting exercise right now looking at productivity, platform and infrastructure – to tackle the impediments, with the help of Methods Digital.  We’re also doing a lot of research on security, which is absolutely vital.  We’re exploring the investment case for a serious programme to migrate away from the legacy, creating a tech selection process based on business capabilities and open standards.  We are also looking to bring together a team internally to take “design and digital” forward.  We aim to create the conditions for rapid deployment of end-to-end digital customer services, and we will go on to work with others to co-produce a wider digital road map for the “place” to help play a shaping role in wider social innovation and economic growth.

My tribe is actually social innovation.  But I’m in “digital architecture” right now because that will give everyone at Adur and Worthing the means to design great services and adopt the best innovation SMEs and other councils can throw at us.

If anyone fancies a chat about what we’re doing, please do contact me @pdbrewer


Patchwork, Culture Change and an elephant

An overdue post on Patchwork..

As we approach the launch of the next phase of Patchwork in Brighton and Hove, I wanted to reflect on how we have reached the more open and creative engagement we are now seeing with teams of professionals across the city. People are starting to really focus on the potential of Patchwork to disrupt and improve front-line practice. That is incredibly satisfying after a year of hard groundwork.

Before looking back at the groundwork year, I wanted to show you what the next year might look like, so that we can get a sense of the journey Brighton and Hove is on.

Phase 2 (Nov 2012-Mar 2013) – Community Creation

  • We’re going to publish a roll-out plan so that agencies and users can see the community of agencies grow over time and understand how Patchwork’s being used. Community and voluntary sector agencies can now join as we have worked through the technical barriers.
  • To make sure Patchwork is immediately useful, we’ll ensure all early intervention (Family CAF) and “troubled families” clients are added on Patchwork at launch
  • We are finalising a pilot with adult services (and the legal work is well under-way).
  • Engagement conversations continue across all children’s and adult services. We’re getting better at helping agencies understand when they should use Patchwork, which is aimed at supporting “vulnerable” service users. For some agencies, all clients will fall into the category. For others, only some of their clients will.
  • We’re creating a community of “agency champions” and carefully considering with them if an online community would work.
  • Developing leaflets, posters and a website resource to explain Patchwork to both professionals and service users and share documents and news
  • Contributing to the design of family/group functionality in Patchwork, for launch in the new year (again, legal work under-way).

An Emerging Phase 3 – Design Projects

While the current phase is ratcheting up, I’m thinking about a phase 3 in Brighton & Hove, which is about design projects in places where the right blend of problem and problem-solvers exists. We have a one day workshop coming up involving some young people in care to look at their experiences of the system. We also have work planned around “supporting families” which will directly involve parents alongside front line professionals. This will be sponsored by our Troubled Families initiative, Stronger Families, Stronger Communities. These design projects will help us understand better what we need (and don’t need) from digital tools and where our ways of working are causing problems. But more importantly, it’s also how we are providing more spaces for open and creative innovation from the people who are best placed to do design – service users and front line professionals.

Phase 1 (Nov 2011-Oct 2012) – Creating Safe Ground

At the beginning of phase one of the project, we launched to a big and enthusiastic audience. Multi-agency communication was very clearly a big problem. But there was one huge elephant in the room that didn’t take too long to start charging around, trumpeting loudly, knocking tables over and scaring people. Information governance. It was something we knew would be a key issue, but in all honesty, we didn’t at that stage have a convincing enough answer for people who were nervous about moving what was often standard off-system practice into an auditable online space. We had to respond to this.

As I outlined in my talk at the Patchwork launch, getting a solid answer to the information governance question took absolute priority. In fact it turned out we couldn’t move far with any workstream until this work was done and communicated. Engagement was often difficult, with understandable scepticism in some teams. There were interesting differences between different staff groups and there was a sense at times that other issues might be hiding behind the legal question – stuff that we couldn’t get to until we tamed the elephant. We did the legal work, we answered the questions. We designed a pilot that was appropriate for the cultural stage we were at (limited agencies dealing with less sensitive issues).

Over time we tamed the elephant .. and look at him now ..!

(Copyright Random House Children’s Books Elmer the Patchwork Elephant)

Now that I’m speaking to people again in preparation for the full launch, there’s a sense that most people have really begun accept that the broad, thin connecting base between public service professionals is legally and technically possible. Indeed, it is necessary! And of course, the fantastic support from decision-makers for phase 2 has sent a clear message. (Big acknowledgement to Steve Barton for that).

Let me digress very quickly to explain the case we made: We have successfully argued – for children so far – that professionals knowing about each other’s existence is the minimum necessary for co-operation. It’s simple isn’t it, which is a great sign.. You can see the main legislation we are relying on here (Children Act 2004, Section 10). And we hope to argue similarly for adults (will let you know!). It should be noted that “minimum necessary” is something that we can keep looking at as we go forward, balancing privacy with the need to be more effective in a multi-agency context.

With our now clear message on information governance, what I have been finding in recent conversations is a much greater willingness to engage on the potential of the tool. We have always had our enthusiasts, but we’re now seeing previously cautious teams get engaged with the possible benefits. We’re also learning how to describe these more clearly, perhaps with a greater sense of confidence!

The other day I had a great conversation with a team that works with children. We were thinking about the impact of them being connected through Patchwork with a professional delivering services to the child’s father. This doesn’t tend to happen at the moment through other means. As the team considered this, there was some trepidation – is that OK? – but quickly winning out was a sense of how useful that conversation might be and how much more effective the work could become with the family. Six months ago I think we would have got stuck on – is it OK. But there’s more confidence now – creative thinking is beginning to flourish on this safe ground we’ve created.

So whilst there will be other wild animals to tame along the way, I think we’ve shown we can do it, and do it by the book. We can open up clear spaces for professionals. This is enormously helpful for a system which has over time invoked fear among professionals and led to a kind of constipation.

I’m looking forward to phase 2, working with professionals in this cleared space and helping create a community. But I’m REALLY looking forward to working with service users in phase 3. We are very conscious of them not being here and know they need to be at the heart of things as soon as possible.

Troubled Families, Design & Technology

Despite a good deal of healthy debate about the government’s Troubled Families initiative, councils are now busy identifying families, recruiting new staff and beginning to think about their longer term strategies. Many newly appointed local co-ordinators will be looking for ways to instigate whole system change because they see there is real potential to achieve a lot in the three years of the programme. Some of the reasons for optimism include:

  • upfront money, which is paid according to the number of families attaching to the programme
  • the policy focus on dealing with the whole family rather than single issues
  • strong partnership forming between children’s services, adult services and community safety within councils and with partners
  • emphasis in the intervention approach on providing practical support to families, including training and employment

The whole scheme is based on the success of the Family Intervention model (intensive, dedicated support to improve family functioning) which was rolled out in 2006/7 to tackle anti-social behaviour (NATCEN research here) and critiqued here.

Right now, Family Intervention team capacity is being expanded in local authority areas and the Troubled Families Unit have indicated that the group of eligible families with lower level needs will be led by professionals outside of the intensive teams. And beyond the “troubled families” we know there will be a significant number of other families who may be at risk without good quality, persistent early help. This larger group could be around 4% of families in an area (1,000s often).

Troubled Families projects will need to find ways to help professionals in a range of services think about the whole family (or group of people in a household) and support more than just the “presenting” client, but address family functioning, relationships and the context people are in. This is likely to be a shared endeavour, requiring very closely connected teams of professionals around families over a long period of time, and hopefully look carefully about the possiblities beyond services, such as peer support, community support and so on.

Whilst multi-disciplinary “patch” teams might appear to be the answer, we can’t really expect organisations to have the appetite or money to release the amount of staff needed into new teams, with all the practical difficulties and costs associated with accommodation, ICT etc. Major re-structures are no longer sensible or viable.

If we are to have strong, effective teams around families, able to maintain long-term support to the numbers indicated, we have to look at secure web collaboration in my view. A design process is needed that places an absolute focus on the need for families to be fully involved, and practical day-to-day help for front line professionals. An approach that promotes simplicity and minimalism over complexity and exhaustive (and exhausting) functionality.

I rather like this quote:

“The aggregate size of networked resources is much greater than the centralised resources of yesterday” (from Why collaboration is the new oil & gas).

I think Patchwork, being launched tomorrow, shows how design and technology can be used to build useful tools fit for the “networked” future, pushing significant service and culture change in the process. The new generation of tools will help people do their work, not hinder it; and help inform and empower families.

If any Troubled Families teams would like to talk to me about collaborating on this, please do get in touch

Open Space South West helped me understand more

I’ve been having a think about the talks given at the super Open Space South West conference in Exeter last Friday. Carl Haggerty deserves a big thanks for pulling together a really good set of speakers.
It takes time to absorb the messages of the world view outlined so well in Exeter.  As the networked society emerges (I think of Catherine Howe among several others), things will change ALOT!
Open by default, digital by design (attributable to Carrie Bishop).  Simplicity over complexity.  Open practice.  Understanding need by just talking to people! (well done redfront).  Simple, human centric design.  I love it!
Ivan Illich, the fascinating anti-institutionalist, pondered thus back in 1971 in his seminal work “Deschooling Society”:
“The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.”
—Ivan Illich (1971)
I feel totally excited but also very dizzy by the clear truth that digital technologies are now ready (enough) to make this happen in public services.  I have been so fortunate in the last 18 months to have been involved in projects that address the two key spaces here (which will end up interacting).  The democratic citizen network (We Live Here) and the public service professional network (Patchwork).  Both projects are about human agency – where technology is used to allow deeper communication and the development of understanding and action.
We must continue to find ways to spread understanding of the immense and transformational opportunity digital offers to improve and transform public services, given the right development approach.  And we need to find ways to share practical tips on how to get projects up and running because it is very difficult.
I was so impressed with Andrea Siodmok and her work in Cornwall on Shaped By Us (particularly the off-line engagement which included setting up armchairs outside Asda as a way to talk to residents).  I think local government officers making change happen in this way need to share their experiences of getting stuff done.  Which reminds me I have a blog series to continue..