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In my last post I tried to emphasise the importance of democratic processes in the platforming of local government, and I did this for a couple of reasons which I just want to briefly visit before getting into what I would consider to be the main design implications.

Firstly, all the talk about (local) government as a platform seems to be about public administration and public services, rather than democracy. I don’t have a problem with that but it does tend to lead to technocratic discussions about how to optimise service delivery and that in turn leads to a focus on automating, linking and front-end technology. [Aside: If you are familiar with this debate you’ll probably have seen Mark Foden’s classic video on the Gubbins of Government – it’s a great example of how to get across something quite technical and abstract in a way that anyone can understand, in fact I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece of technical communication. However, I also think it kind of assumes that government is just about providing all the services, and that we should therefore put all our effort into finding ways to make these services more responsive, to which I say yes of course services are crucial but I think the what, why, who, where, when and how are all still very much up for grabs in the democratic conversation.]

Secondly, if you are in the business of providing public services then, how can I put this delicately, you are maybe going to view all the available user research through the service delivery lens: to be more blunt, you are going to be biased. I think that uncovering the real needs of society is quite a nuanced and sophisticated conversation, and I definitely don’t want it carried out by people with an axe to grind. Well, unless it’s my axe of course, we all have our blind spots 🙂

Third, I see public services being carried out by a multitude of organisations and individuals, not just government bodies. Of course, some services are, but there’s no law or orthodoxy that says that this is the best business model pattern: some services are delivered peer-peer in one area, private outsourced provider in another, commercial somewhere else, and through a staff mutual in another place. In other words, there’s nothing uniquely “local government” about delivering local public services. Of course, of the things I deal with as part of my day job, maybe 99% of that is about service delivery (perhaps there’s some reasoning there about why I want to temporarily box it off!) – I don’t exactly regard it as _noise_ but the lack of focus on core democracy is definitely something I want to tip the balance in favour of. There’s a valid point to be made about the knitting together of all the service providers into a coherent joined up user journey is exactly what the “council platform” should be doing: this is a valid point and represents where I was just a few years ago, but it isn’t the whole story, and perhaps someone else might be able to do it better than us?

Finally, it’s not news that a) turnout in local elections is low compared to general elections, and b) local government has suffered from a series of funding cuts in the last few years as the Treasury has tried to balance the books. I have a hypothesis that these two phenomena are causally linked.

So I’d like to decouple the democratic process from all that public administration/service delivery stuff and look at it in more detail to see if we can’t support it better in a platform paradigm. And now I’ve written too much for one blog post and I’m going to have to continue this train of thought later.

Living in the South West UK is great for all sorts of reasons. We’re not so isolated we can’t get to events if we really want to, but we do get to put some distance between us and the hubbub that big cities provide; the scenery, of course, is lovely; you’re never more than a 10 minute drive from some countryside; the pace of life is slightly slower and the people are friendly.

Nevertheless, we do miss out on some things by virtue of being a bit removed from it all. Pretty well every week some of the people I follow on Twitter seem to be attending an event that I would go to if it were easy. In my own sector, the GovCamp unconference events that are so spectacularly successful have not yet hit the South West. There are some conferences locally that have been good in the past but I can’t attend any more due to cost. Something seems to be missing.

And something also seems to be missing from the events that I do attend: GovCamps are only slowly starting to attract the front line practitioners and senior decision-makers that are the people that would benefit most  from some of the ideas. The pure unconference format at GovCamps does bias an agenda in favour of what is cool rather than what is important. Difficult and complex problems don’t tend to get solved because there’s no easy way to enthuse people about them and so we end up taking bite-sized chunks off them instead.

These reasons are why I’m so pleased that my friend and colleague Carl Haggerty has tried to put together something slightly different, taking the best bits of conventional events and unconferences and mashing them up into a new format:





What is Open Space South West?
It is an event and a network, bringing together public sector providers, businesses, community organisations and academia to reimagine the ways in which collaboration and web technologies will shape the future of public services in the south west.

You’ll hear from inspiring people from across the region as well as nationally who are recognised as leaders in their field. The speakers will also lead and suggest workshops for further discussion and learning.

The event also includes an unconference format, which means that as a participant, you’ll get to shape the agenda and talk or hear about issues/challenges important to you.

The event is running at County Hall, Exeter on Friday 14th September 2012 and is free – although tickets are limited. Check out the website for full details and the frankly awesome range of speakers already booked up.

If you’re interested in helping improve public services in the region from frankly any perspective, this is probably the event you want to be at. And if you can’t make it, the hashtag #OpenSSW will enable you to follow on Twitter – hopefully there will be other remote participation options as well.

I’m looking forward to the event, of course, but mainly I’m looking forward to helping form a community of people all working together to improve lives for all – something that lasts longer and creates more value. Recommended.


I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking recently about what the “real” purpose of my employer is. In common with many other public sector bodies, we’ve outsourced bits of our support and front line services (and others were already in private hands by default). When we do this, however, we both lose and gain something: it’s not always a good idea (it seems, or maybe we just don’t do it very well each time) as we seem to be sort of “hollowed out” and we lose influence. If people have a problem with the way the roads are surfaced, do they talk to the council responsible or do they talk directly to the company that resurfaces the roads?

In this sort of climate it is tempting (and I have succumbed) to envisaging this kind of process taken to its logical conclusion. If a council commissions all of its services, what is it for? This thought experiment has led me to start considering local (and maybe central) government as a platform business that exists to

  • understand the needs of people and places under its care
  • search for funding opportunities that might help with those needs
  • curate a set of service providers and help to ensure the markets for each are broadly functional
  • provide a set of levers for those with a political mandate to push in order to deliver on political priorities
  • provide intelligence to all so that commissioning decisions can be undertaken intelligently.

So what we might refer to as “the council” becomes quite small really and is a hub – centred around a platform containing

  • expertise in the funding landscape, performance management, public engagement, (big P) Politics and data
  • a business intelligence toolset and competencies to crunch all the available data
  • a web channel that ties services together (in a service-oriented architecture style of thing)
  • document/records management that provides an archive of policy, actions and decisions
  • Master data management (ensures we don’t double-count people or places in our calculations, and ensures joined up case management)
  • Data warehousing (performance management, demographic, needs data on the full range of services)
  • middleware to join processes up.

There’s perhaps some political (big P again, sorry) dynamite here in that it might be seen to imply privatisation or outsourcing on a massive scale (on the scale recently attempted – and abandoned – by some other councils such as Suffolk) but I need to stress that it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It does, however, necessitate a *logical* split between those bodies/teams/people/partners that commission services and those that provide those services. The split occurs because the service provider has a different business model to the commissioner.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the vast majority of commissioning is done by actors outside of the council: we have personal budgets for healthcare, politicians have local budgets, other authorities or public/third sector bodies may fund developments, even the private sector might utilise this platform to commission work.

[Although my focus is on local government I wonder if this approach also extends to central government. Both exist to do broadly the same thing, just on a different scale, both currently depend on partners and service providers to do the majority of the work, and both are relatively poor at commissioning as opposed to service delivery. Maybe, maybe not.]

If we are a platform business, then that model dictates that we build for scale and reuse, in a service-oriented style. And why should each council build its own platform if we are all doing the same thing?


#ukgc12: 20 reflections

Personal Note: My first blog post for 6 months, due to a number of different factors and events which have made me not feel like it. Time will tell if this marks the return of my blogging habit or is just a flash in the pan. Either way, that’s ok.

There’s a trend this year following a suggestion by Dan Slee for attendees to this year’s UK GovCamp to try and capture 20 insights they gained during the unconference. I was one of those attendees so here is my stab at it. I can’t do 20 but maybe will update the post later to reflect new stuff I remember.

  1. The Government Digital Service used to be “us”. Now it’s “them”. This is as negative as I can be about it as otherwise they do great stuff.
  2. Some of the attendees are world-class drinkers. No names, no pack drill, but they know who they are.
  3. At current growth rates representatives from my particular organisation will constitute the entire attendance of UKGC18. Be very afraid. On the other hand I was really pleased with the reaction of my new colleagues as they threw themselves into contributing, networking and generally having fun.
  4. We all have a default way of engaging in conversations, which can – if desired – be deliberately subverted, with sometimes profound results. I hope to blog some more about this but suffice to say that I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for showing me the route to that insight.
  5. After going to this event for 3 years I now have “proper” friends there.  This pleases me enormously as I make acquaintances easily but not friends.
  6. Councils don’t need CRM systems. We only have them because the rest of our systems aren’t properly functional.
  7. Data Quality is the new rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the foundation on which we will build our future organisations. But currently hardly anyone does it.
  8. Whenever we dismantle a hierarchy there is an opportunity for a community to take power. We should do this deliberately if possible.
  9. Communities have business models (in the Business Model Canvas sense) just as a “standard” business function does. Whoever models it first gets the chance to shape its development.
  10. Customer Development is the primary activity of a community, specifically the testing of a hypothesis. If the hypothesis is shown to be disappointing, the community might fade away unless new hypotheses can be found. Again, more on this and #9 soon.
  11. You can deploy an IT infrastructure from “box” diagram to functioning cloud implementation in under 15 minutes. But we already knew that.
  12. There’s a guy who carries a dragon around. This is either a sign of a relatively harmless mental health issue or a very clever exercise in personal branding. If in doubt, suspect the latter.
  13. I really don’t blog enough. This is my first entry for over 6 months 😦
  14. I am quite an effective useful idiot for testing the usability of software because I have basic skills in most things, neither clueless or brilliant. Hire me while I’m still in the sweet spot 🙂
  15. In the 3 years I’ve going I’ve seen it become more diverse. This can only be a good thing. We had a councillor and a social work practitioner this time and both had good input to give.
  16. I’m conflicted about the 1st day happening on a Friday. The Saturday crowd is, in theory, far more committed and self-selecting but we got a really good buzz off the Friday so maybe I worry needlessly.

That’s it so far. I want to develop some of these things a bit more but not sure if I’ll get the space or time to do it. We’ll see.

Anna Mar posted a useful blog on cognitive bias in decision making and its impact on Enterprise Architecture. Richard Veryard responded on Twitter asking if we wanted to fix cognitive biases in ourselves or in others.

I really like Anna’s list and it’s a useful cut-out-and-keep. Anna doesn’t have comments on her blog so this is a short response to her post.

I want to add that both the blog and Richard’s comment are a bit *technical*. The main thing, in my view, that EAs need from the psychological professions is therapy for themselves. I don’t mean by this that all EAs are sick, but simply that everyone can benefit from some kind of therapy.

There is a stigma attached to mental health, certainly in the UK. I don’t know many people who have had any kind of intervention, and I don’t really understand that. If you break a leg, you go to the hospital and they put it back together: if your mind doesn’t work optimally, surely you’d want to get it sorted out? Perhaps people are afraid of admitting weakness and think that it might cast doubt on their decision-making ability. I’m here to say this is utter rubbish. We don’t understand how the mind works as well as we would like, so how can we possibly know if it’s working as well as it can?

As enterprise architects our effectiveness depends more than anything on building good relationships. Like it or not, that begins with building a good relationship with yourself so you can effectively process your emotions and deal compassionately with those of the people you are dealing with. I used to be poor at it, but after some years of counselling I’ve improved. I would resume it again like a shot because it’s not the sort of thing you ever really master, I suppose.

As to what sort of therapy is best – I think people have to just try a few out and see what works for them. There’s a wide range of stuff available and what might work depends on a whole load of factors and may also change over time.

This is in no way specific to enterprise architects. Pretty well everyone I’ve ever met from any walk of life can potentially benefit from improving their internal processing and relationships. Some quite high-level people are surprisingly psychopathic.

I’m not touting therapy as a religion, a panacea, or a quick fix for anything. It’s just the sort of thing that, from time to time, delivers a return on the time (and financial) investment in terms of increased effectiveness and fulfilment for me and the people I live and work with.

some holiday reflections

As I said in my last post, I’ve had a lot of time to think recently. For those that are interested in the working of my brain (hi Mum) here is what I’ve concluded:

  1. I’m not a people person. Sure, I love my family and friends, and I’m not sociopathic by any means: but I’m happiest when exploring places rather than people, and things and ideas rather than “being social”. My other half is the same, I think.
  2. In the long run, the success of relationships depends largely on tactful reserve and not taking yourself too seriously. Having  spent the last 30 days cooped up inside a variety of tin cans, I think I can say we’ve cracked it.
  3. Fresh air is seriously underrated. Get some, every day, you won’t be disappointed. If you live in a city, get up early and get some – it’s cleaner first thing.
  4. My head is the most waterproof item in the known universe.
  5. Health is the thing that is most important: I realise I have had low levels of illness virtually non-stop for about 20 years. Outdoor living, less food, and daily gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) exercise has left me feeling very differently about a lot of things.
  6. I now haven’t watched more than 20 minutes of TV in the last 5 weeks. I don’t miss it and am thinking of terminating my cable TV contract.
  7. I’m now healthy, but I’m not fit (and I’m a bit overweight). My next priority is to get fit: I think it might make me feel differently about the world – again.
  8. New Zealand is beautiful and a great place, but it would benefit from an influx of talented advertising copywriters and urban planners. There is too much tendency to stick factories in beauty spots, paint buildings luminous colours and many town centres resemble industrial estates.
  9. I need to blog less, tweet less, and get off my fat arse and do something.

Black and White Gold

When you spend a lot of time driving along roads in New Zealand, as I have recently, you tend to get a lot of time to think. My thoughts to begin with were around the massive earthquake that hit Christchurch on our first day in the country, but after that I started to consider other kinds of seismic shifts that are perhaps slower moving.

Our host on the first day remarked to us that there was a debate in the country about the price of milk – the “white gold”. Apparently Kiwis pay a lot for their milk and no-one can really understand why: it is thought that there are too many middlemen in the supply chain. The fact that milk is expensive is surprising because New Zealand produces a lot: there is a lot of space per head of population and the farmland is largely productive. Now I’m no expert on dairy farming but where I come from in the south-west of the UK there is a lot of it and my impressions were that Kiwis tend to farm more intensively (more animals per square metre of land) and I saw a lot of animals moving about jammed into trucks. This is big business. What Kiwis seem to have less of is supermarket price wars: I only saw two major supermarket chains and – perhaps – the lack of competition is keeping the price higher than it would in the UK. I sense that a shift will occur here: as consumers get better informed the middlemen will be squeezed out but farmers may also have pressure put on their margins and they will resort to more co-operatives, such as happens a bit here.

The second thing I noticed was the variation in the price of petrol around the country. We visited a lot of remote areas and obviously transport costs mean that petrol is more expensive in these places. What slowly started to sink in, though, was the extent to which oil was the primary means by which communities were connected. I’ve done a bit of work with people who are concerned about bridging the digital divide in rural communities, and I can report that mobile signal is non-existent in many parts of the country: it is roads that connect communities in these places and the extent to which the entire economy is built on oil slowly started to dawn on me. Of course, New Zealand isn’t unique in this – it’s a truism to say that the world economy is built on the stuff. If peak oil theorists are onto anything at all, however, this can only mean that everything is going to get much more expensive in the future. And this is the second seismic shift: economies will be successful only to the extent that they can wean themselves off the black gold. We always think about our cars and energy when we think about this, but oil is everywhere in every part of our economies, and it will not be an easy task.

New Zealand is blessed with awesome landscapes – but you can’t eat scenery and it won’t go into your car’s fuel tank either. Its abundant fisheries, mineral and energy (hydro and geothermal) resources and fertile land give it everything it needs to succeed, but without oil no-one will visit and the resources will lie unused.

Having driven a few thousand kilometres around these beautiful islands, I’m increasingly convinced that I’m now part of the problem: we used up gallons of petrol (UK equivalent average price: £1:10 a litre of standard unleaded) and I don’t see a sustained effort to replace this resource anywhere with something better. I should do something about it.

I’m just not sure what.

Can #entarch work in a fundamentally political organisation?

All organisations experience politics. There seem to be 3 kinds:

  • internal political wrangling (office politics) in organisations bigger than 3 people
  • external politics in which the organisation interacts with its environment
  • actual real Politics which affect governmental or quasi non-governmental organisations more directly

I’m struggling to find much writing on the first topic from the point of view of enterprise architecture. Given that EA is about turning vision and strategy into effective change, I feel this is an omission.

At the beginning of the chapter on Political Strategy in Mintzberg’s “Strategy Safari” book there is a great quote from George Eliot which I think gets to the core of the problem:

Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, in disgust at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt.

I think that if we are going to successfully run an enterprise architecture function in a political environment, we need to be clear on what the purpose is, and perhaps more importantly who’s purpose it is. Does an EA function exist to optimise outcomes using analytical methods, or to optimise political outcomes for a particular stakeholder group?

Recently I’ve done a lot of listening in on conversations that the Highways Dept (I work in a UK local authority) are having with their suppliers and themselves as they try and get IT systems which are fit for purpose.

This work culminated in  me reflecting back a vision statement which more or less describes the way they want to work in the future. The key elements of this are:

  • all highways data is accessed transparently (cloud-like) in a single-access repository (ie you can access all the data in the same way regardless of where it sits)
  • location (based on the National Street Gazeteer) forms the master record for this data, creating a “digital shadow” of the road network
  • there exists a set of built-in (zero client footprint) analytical, visualisation, data entry and reporting tools
  • the data is ubiquitous, available anywhere you are (difficult in a most rural county like where I live!)
  • event handling enables data to be pushed to operators on the ground dependent on timing, nature, severity, and policy/priority rules
  • stakeholders have customised views of the data depending on role-based security and their own preferences
  • internal translation functions enable the data to traverse different formats
  • APIs exist to allow 3rd party applications to interact with the data (again, as if it was all in one place).

If you’ve ever read “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy” by Ross et al then you might recognise this description as being a classic “co-ordination” model, meaning that disparate groups of specialists (bridge engineers, resurfacing workers, traffic specialists, utilities that dig up the street, lighting engineers etc etc) all operate on the same patch of road. Each of these disciplines is highly specialised and prone to innovate in its own space, however we’ve all see the frustration of what happens when they aren’t co-ordinated properly.

My job is not to design, or even specify, a solution, but to outline the core properties of the future state of the systems that people can then work towards and attempt to unify everyone’s thinking. I’m a perpetual strawman generator – I cobble something together that everyone can shoot at.

So I have adapted the core diagram from the EAS book here (pictured – click for a larger version). Essentially, the back-end systems are integrated using some kind of ESB or hub technology.

Well, that looks pretty. It probably won’t do the job though, because we don’t know what is going on inside the hub and it doesn’t qualify as being purely event-driven unless we can add this functionality in.

So what does an event-driven architecture look like? Here’s a sample shamelessly stolen from

We can see that each of the applications on the right hand side of the first diagram are potential event sources, but the real sources are in the databases.

An event might be triggered by a customer complaint (“there’s a pothole in my road”) a police report (eg of an accident) or any number of other happenings, but they all end up in one of the databases and so can be made to trigger something. How?

Thresholds for triggers ought to be linked to policy and organisational priorities. But these change: for example, during the recent snow it was unlikely we’d be doing much in the way of hedge-cutting or routine maintenance. So the final piece of the architecture is a rules engine that allows trigger levels and organisational priorities to be set.

I don’t think any of this is rocket science. But as far as I am aware none of the leading suppliers of software to UK Highways departments have adopted an approach like this to the creation of their products. I plan to develop these ideas further in conjunction with some of my colleagues and see if we can’t get it baked in to some supplier product roadmaps. If you’re an EDA guru, and you can spot some glaring issues with this setup, please let me know in the comments 🙂

One session I attended on the Wednesday of the Gartner Symposium concerned the use of leading indicators in business, and enabled specifically by private sector IT departments, presented by Gartner analyst Barbara Gomolski.

In local government we are very familiar with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that tell us how well we are doing in comparison with our peers. Socitm services such as Better Connected and the regular annual benchmarking are good examples of these and they are widely and generally well used. However, there are some limitations to these exercises because they are fundamentally backward-looking, and as any stockbroker will tell you,  the past is not necessarily a guide to future performance. They might tell us areas we can improve in, and this might help us concentrate on those areas where we are weak, but how can they help us make strategic decisions or decide which projects to stop doing in times when money is tight?

One way we can bridge this gap is using a different set of indicators – leading indicators. These are measures that predict with some degree of confidence what might happen in the future. The concept is well-known to those in finance and other parts of business:

– sales leads are a good predictor of revenue

– the Baltic Dry index ( is a good predictor of the global economy

– Gartner’s own client renewal rate and client feedback sentiment is a good predictor of their business performance next year

– demographics are a predictor of the demand for adult social care

– economic indicators are a predictor of the use of the highway network


Leading indicators therefore

–     support executive decision-making

–     improve business performance

–     help manage enterprise risk

–     improve the ability to sense and respond to changes

It is clear that some of these indicators are already being used in local government as predictors of demands on our front-line services. But what about the IT organisation?

Gomolski argued that CIOs are in an ideal position to help the business leverage leading indicators, as new digital sources of information make leading indicators better and more available via both internal systems (like CRM systems) and external sources as well. The search and exploitation of these helps the IT organisation act strategically, putting IT and business on the same team.

However, only a minority of organisations in the private sector use systems to create their own leading indicators, and Gomolski argued that this was because

–     Senior management may view it as a shared responsibility with no clear ownership

–     Finance officers view non-financial metrics as a line of business responsibility

–     Business unit leaders view it as a departmental responsibility

–     Leading indicators may be created but not shared due to lack of co-ordination between line of business functions

–   lagging indicators benefit from accuracy, standardised definitions, comparability and are well understood and unambiguous.

In fact, Gartner research indicates that over 80% of KPI regimes still rely on lagging indicators.

So what indicators might local government IT departments have access to that will help their organisations? Well, internal IT departments generally succeed by adopting a “customer intimacy” strategy – they succeed by having an intimate understanding of their organisations, the people there and their needs and strategies. Adding leading indicators to current business intelligence systems and extending existing metrics, particularly in the finance area, may be a good place to start.

Also, for their own internal operations IT departments can probably apply leading indicators in the following areas:

–       helpdesk (service desk in ITIL environments) gathers data about customer satisfaction. This may be a leading indicator of politicaal problems ahead, which is time-consuming and distracting for the CIO to deal with.

–       project management. There are well known early warning signs of impending doom in projects  which could be used as a signal to the CIO to cut the highest risk projects early, thus saving money.

–       infrastructure. Believe it or not, not all local government IT capacity management is automated. A small rise in helpdesk calls relating to particular systems might be a leading indicator that an upgrade is needed.

Gomolski recommends to use leading indicators firstly in forecasting, then strategy development, business planning, budgeting and incentive compensation – in this order. We also need a feedback loop to improve the accuracy and relevance of the indicators we use.