Local Government as a Platform – Cloud Architecture for 21st Century Local Digital Government

Open sourcing best practices: Sharing common Digital Service Patterns for Local Government

Local Digital – Transformation strategies for Local Government

Digital Transformation for Local Government in Scotland is represented by the Digital Office, formed following the work of the Local Government Digital Transformation Board. In this video Lorraine McMillan, CEO East Renfrewshire Council, provides a presentation on her role as Chair.

Martyn Wallace and Colin Birchenhall lead the Digital Office and last year hosted a webinar to provide an overview of their programs.

Challenges

As we look across the whole of the UK we can identify the significant challenges local authorities face with regards to their digital strategies.

The UK government has defined an overall Transformation Strategy, and in his Linkedin blog Carlos Oliveira, Chair of techUK Local Public Services, outlines what it means for councils.

Ross Harling of Netitude goes as far as to say many are still stuck in the “digital stone age“, especially when assessed against those of towns and cities in the US, Canada, and Australia; in short a mostly internal view that doesn’t consider the transformative involvement of citizens or broader impacts of local economy regeneration that the technology investments can bring.

Problems include rudimentary IT issues such as running unsupported software, through poor online engagement practices: fewer than half of newly designed UK council web sites passing a SOCITM usability test, and half fail to provide a good online service for social care support for example.

In Scotland specifically the McLelland Report was a 2011 major review of IT spending, concluding:

“The key finding of the report was that the public sector is lagging where it should be and there is an opportunity to capture a multiplicity of benefits in radically changing how ICT is adopted and deployed and in how it enhances access to and improvements in the quality and value of services. Shared ICT platforms, a connection and spread of exemplar projects and enhanced engagement with the industry would reduce the proportion of cost invested in ICT by individual organisations and deliver local savings which might be partially reinvested in advancing the progress of ICT. It would also open the door to significant additional and wider savings in public sector costs by providing a platform for the operation of other shared services and better support sustainability goals.

The public sector should recognise that in the current economic environment a largely standalone and “self-sufficient” operating mode is no longer affordable and should commit to an era of sharing in ICT that will not only offer better value, but also still meet the needs of individual organisations and their customers.”

Small Pieces Loosely Joined

This describes the root issue which is repeated in the Policy Exchange report ‘Small Pieces Loosely Joined‘, notably:

“The report argues that the single greatest barrier to achieving technology-enabled reform is the sector’s fragmentation. Across England and Wales there are 375 local authorities, each with their own leadership, local links and priorities. Added to that, there are approximately 18,500 elected councillors, 1,783,500 local government employees and thousands of delivery teams providing more than 700 services.

Chapter 2 explains how, over many years, local authorities have separately procured or developed their own hardware, software and applications to enable them to carry out their functions and to deliver their services. As a result, though they all perform very similar tasks in their respective areas, each council’s IT architecture (the collection of software, hardware and processes it uses) is virtually unique to itself. This raises the cost of technology (through duplication, inefficiency and limiting economies of scale) and prevents local authorities from adopting – or rolling out at scale – the more efficient ways of working that could save significant money.

In short each council spends on their own IT systems in an isolated silo fashion, duplicating what every other council is also doing despite each repeating the exact same functions.

Local GaaP – Government as a Platform

Therefore the remedy is as simple as the problem sounds, to eliminate duplication and build common systems that are shared between them, leading us to the concept of the ‘Government as a Platform‘ paradigm and applying it to local needs. To date it’s mainly been concentrated at the Central Government level, as documented here on their blog.

In it’s simplest form think of the SaaS (Software as a Service) model. This is how sharing of software needs is best achieved – Providers like Salesforce.com eliminated the need for their customers to each run their own duplicated CRM system by operating a single code base that is then shared between them.

So a Local Government SaaS equivalent would achieve the same – Each council has the same functional requirements, they run apps for numerous local services from waste collection through community centre bookings, and so this too could be served by a single code base the same way.

The challenge is that each has invested huge amounts into the duplicated data centre infrastructure required to run these apps, a resistance that has held up their adoption of Cloud computing.

However this prompts Aubrey De Graf’s quote: “Don’t Cling to a Mistake Just Because You Spent a lot of Time Making it”. Avoiding better, more efficient and transformative systems now simply because expensive investments were made in the past only means that that expensive mistake will be prolonged even more.

The tide is beginning to change. Early adopters have begun to embrace Cloud adoption and we’ll see this trend accelerate, and as we do this will create the opportunity for better designing these new Cloud systems to share common components and realize massive economies of scale as a result.

Common Services and Digital Ecosystems

While they will be huge the savings realized from better IT efficiencies will actually only be a small part of the overall financial benefits. The much larger gains will come from the improved workflow processes they enable that can also be replicated across all agencies.

This effect is powerfully captured through this video explainer: “Solving common problems once”. Ie. Local Governments are all wrestling with the same problems, reinventing the wheel each time – Why not instead do so once and then replicate the solution?

One example of this common component approach is Gov.UK Notify.

Historically software vendors would package all the functionality it needs into one ‘monolith’ application, such as a citizen notification function, however because many different systems all need to perform this action so the duplication arises even at one agency level. With each local authority then repeating the approach the duplication then expands exponentially.

A Common Platforms approach recognizes that there is only one Notification service needed, which many different applications can then call when needed.

This approach can also be described as a ‘Digital Ecosystem’, and visionary CTO’s are seeking to pioneer the approach, like Rob Miller, ICT Director for Hackney Council. As UK Authority reports Miller has called for suppliers to join this new movement or risk becoming obselete, announced via a public call to action letter.

Digital Service Patterns: Open Sourcing Best Practices

This positive effect will be compounded and accelerated through the increased adoption of open source, and not just for software, but for the service models that they enable.

Governments are increasingly seeing the wisdom of open source, such as the USA and UK, and Bulgaria has even gone as far as to encode the requirement into law.

Furthermore, as the GDS team describe in this blog the key is “we need to think about them in the context of service patterns, data and reusable code.”

These service patterns offer repeatable blueprints for best practices, a way of solving common problems once, and then replicating these solutions, very easily possible through the use of Github. This reflects the ideal that reuse is the best design, a way of achieving the goal of sharing and reusing technology.

GDS describes describes the start of this evolution here, and early live examples include GLA-Ops, a system developed to administer more than £4.82bn of government funds to support building 116,000 affordable homes in London by 2022, under the watch of London’s first Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell.

The Jadu library will enable the sharing and reusing of work and help councils become hubs for economic and social exchange. Rather than having to build online services themselves, the councils can capitalise on what is already available and use service specialists.

With digital leaders like Hackney open documenting their work such as developing the Business Index, a solution to the problem where the fragmented set of services makes it harder and more expensive for businesses to comply with legislation, it’s clear there is massive potential for this type of innovation to represent a common problem solved once and for it to be shared nationally to the great benefit of all councils and businesses.

Expanding this effect to many problems solved once means the GaaP approach offers the public sector a framework for eliminating massive unnecessary wheel reinvention spending, and begin migrating away from their out of date legacy data centres that adds even more to this cost burden and adds no value to citizens. Instead they can concentrate their efforts on repeating implementations that have already been proven successful elsewhere and on applying these innovations for the benefit of their local communities.

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