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


Get designing and sprinting

It’s been good to see the recent flurry of talk about a GDS for local government.  I agree with those who have said it’s too hard to create a team like the central government one in terms of securing the mandate, buy-in and funding.  And I’m very much with the sentiment from Anthony Zach that we should think beyond the council organisation and more in terms of public service requirements in an area (developing a suite of services and tools for the population).

Maybe we can agree that what we want to do is design and build great digital services for local people rather than looking at this as the design and build of a single “website” for “councils”.  Part of the problem here might be that we each come at this from sightly different digital places.  The different mind-sets I think are roughly,

  • digital = council websites / transactions / information
  • digital = social media / conversation
  • digital = service design / social innovation
  • digital = participation / democracy
  • digital = devices (this one less prominent in my network)

But we should really all be thinking and talking like this

  • users and communities = digital

The GDS conversation is quite naturally taking a website perspective (even if we have good user-centric thoughts behind this) but what would be the effect on the work if we were disciplined about putting users and communities first, perhaps by creating ways to collectively and openly establish user needs first and *then* consider how to design and build digital services to meet them?  What kind of partnership working emerges if we work at it this way?  It might sometimes be about collaborating with other councils, but, perhaps more challengingly for local government officers, it might be about forging new partnerships on a sound business footing with other departments, other local public services or digital agencies and entrepreneurs.

The aim must ultimately be for us to work to help a new kind of  local commissioning approach emerge that has digital in its DNA (something I’m thinking a lot about), not about a new way for web teams to work and get efficiencies.  But I do think this approach *can* emerge out of web teams just like it can emerge from elsewhere – the key is to stay true to the methodology and be brave – trying hard to put together mixed teams from outside departmental or organisational silos.  The diagram below is quite a neat way to describe the design process and how it draws people together (from Jens Otto Lenge, “Service Design meets Agile“).

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 09.01.32

I’d encourage Localgov Digital to look at facilitating a few useful, small projects to make a concrete start.  Create some themes and formulate some problems through an event or two and use the right kind of online tool  and communications drive to attract people to projects (an ideas platform that allows the shaping of problems, the creation of the teams, some stuff to help co-ordination and the ability to post of progress updates openly during the project).

People will join projects that help them meet their own current goals most likely, and the face-to-face time can be kept low to make the whole thing feasible.  The teams would almost certainly need some help to make sure the user-centred design approach is adhered to (GDS, Futuregov, Innovation Unit, Design Council).  By having a good online presence where people can track progress and see success,  a virtuous circle can be built, and more collaboration stimulated.

As small islands of success spring up, where projects are clearly doing something quite different to “council business” , we will see commissioners start to take note.  And maybe those teams will start to get asked to solve bigger and bigger social problems.

So, even if it’s just one project … do it.  Make something good.