Tag Archive: #localgovdigital

Revisiting the Local Government Platform

Lately there has been a batch of talk about “(local) Government as a Platform” including blogs from Dave Briggs, Gavin Beckett, Mark Thompson, and others, with video clips from John Jackson and a slide deck from Methods Digital. This all links to recent blogging about single platforms for local government websites and digital in local government generally.

All of this made me reflect on two things – my original blog posts on the topic in 2012 (and whether what I’ve done since is consistent with that vision), and whether this is all really doing what it needs to in 2015, is it solving the problem that we need to solve today.

And, to be quite blunt, I think the answer to these questions are “meh” and “no”, respectively.

From 2012:

“Local Government (in this model) is a hub. It’s purpose is to connect people (and places) with needs to people with funding to people who can provide services to help under the governance and ownership of people with the political mandate to do just that – with the aim of improving the lot of the people and places under its jurisdiction.”

I would just like it to be noted that I was, and am still, being descriptive of the purpose of local government. That is, I was thinking local government IS a platform, not local government AS a platform. I was using this as a lens to try and make sense of the industry I work in, not as an explicit design of a possible future state, although it does imply some changes to the way we do things*.

Obviously things change and move on and I am not an exception to that, so I’m here and now asking myself how the above description stacks up with my current understanding and thinking it’s ok, if a bit granular. Clearly government of all kinds has the aim of connecting people and improving stuff (although those things aren’t usually so causally linked), that’s kind of obvious but it doesn’t quite get the point. What is the unique thing that government does that no other kind of business can do?

The short answer to this might be “user research”. Every council employs – by statute – at least a dozen people that do user research, they get performance managed every four years and regularly get fired if they are a bit crap. Our councillors don’t always use the same methods as professional user research teams but they are seriously committed and highly visible and work to the same ends.

Of course, plenty of commercial operations do user research as well, but the difference is that when councils (or indeed governments generally) do it then it is a public conversation. People canvas the views of local people about what their priorities should be, then formulate these views into policy documents (“manifestos”) and everyone gets to vote on which person and policy document is the best: the winner then gets to try and make these priorities a reality, with the conversations around this being made public immediately, and their policy work is scrutinised and held up to public account. If people don’t like the results then 4 years later they’ll be fired and another mixture of policy priorities will be voted in.

The GDS mantra since day one: “What is the user need?” – I would say that government exists to uncover and highlight the (sometimes rapidly) changing needs of its citizens and the places they live in via an ongoing public conversation. Local Government is a platform when – and only when – it enables those conversations and allows a variety of organisations to design services to satisfy those needs, but the choice and delivery of those services – including design decisions around digital services – is a tactical one. It’s the conversation that uncovers the needs that is core to Government, not the services.

So perhaps we don’t need to spend lots of money on new technology, we just need to listen to what people are already telling us and find better ways of reflecting it. Better conversations lead to better targeting of services (not just ours either) and, ultimately, better results.

For these reasons I think that the conversation about “local government as a platform” shouldn’t be a conversation about technology or even about business models, when it should be about democracy and finding ways to support the work of active citizens – our councillors, voluntary sector organisations, businesses, families and agencies – specifically linking them to data insights, and giving them direct control over more levers of power to make them more relevant and give them more power to uncover user needs.

In the process we need to become more platform-like – but by changing our working practices and culture, not just by installing software. We in local government need to be the platform, not just build it.

I want to blog a bit more about this in the coming weeks, but obviously would welcome the chance to broaden this conversation out. I’m an IT bod, not a political theorist.


* Specifically, articulating this description led me to do a number of things:

  • look at the use of data and intelligence in this context, specifically to support councillors (with Lucy Knight, who is taking this forward)
  • establish a local ODI Node to help the whole community benefit from public data resources
  • look at prototyping different public business models
  • support the implementation of integration technologies to help knit web services together
  • specify open data and APIs in standard procurement specifications
  • get involved in a small way in a number of specific procurements with the aim of improving the openness of the chosen solutions.

How will digital teams and initiatives in Local Government support growth and wellbeing whilst the levels of funding are dropping off so steeply?

I’ve been having quite a few conversations recently about what Local digital strategies (ie the digital strategy for a place) would look like and some of these conversations resulted in a recent post by Carl Haggerty on a Framework for Digital Local Public Services which is a good thing to read if you haven’t already. This is because we are both involved with the #localgovdigital group that the LGA is sponsoring.

For my money the biggest departure that this work has with anything that has gone before it in digital local government is that we are focusing outside of the organisational perimeter and looking at joining up everything around a place for maximum benefit to the people that use it – even if that doesn’t involve us directly. In this post I want to talk a bit about what we might mean by “value” as applied to places and then this can be a building block for guiding the sorts of digital interventions we might make to those places.

So the headline: places have intrinsic value and we need to understand what that value is before we go about enhancing that value with digital transformations. I think it’s really important that we understand the value of what we have before we change it, or otherwise how will we know it’s been an improvement? A good starting point is that a place might be giving us value in one of two categories: well-being or growth.

By this I mean that people will access different kinds of benefit from a place and we might be able to map out those benefits in order to target our digital strategies better. For example, I’m lucky enough to live near Dartmoor: it is absolutely beautiful and people will go there  to recuperate, disconnect and go hiking or gaze at the scenery, buy cream teas etc. Dartmoor therefore has a value in terms of bringing wellbeing to people and this would not be enhanced by stonking great communications towers littering the landscape and it also has an economic value in terms of the money it brings in by virtue of being unspoilt. This also wouldn’t be improved by having stonking great communications towers. However, people do sometimes get lost when wandering over the North moor and being able to get a mobile phone signal (or similar) could be a life-saver.

Contrast this with the centre of the city where I live, where faster comms mean business growth, social value, and better public services and straight away, we can start to see that different places need different kinds of digital intervention to maximise their values to different groups of people.

Modelling this formally should enable us to design and plan digital interventions that maximise the value returned by places.  One way to do this is by using a business value framework such as the Value Proposition Canvas. It is a tool that was developed to help with understanding the benefits of products or services.

Working this through we could tackle it one of two ways: we could start on the left hand side with a place and consider what sort of “assets” it has, then deduce what kinds of gains (or pain relievers) the place has, or we could start on the right with the sort of problems, jobs to be done or opportunities that  people might have that a place would address.

The classic VPC approach would indicate that we need to start with our citizens and ask what sort of value places might enable for them. However, places don’t just exist because people do – they would be perfectly happy without anyone. So we can’t start on the right of the canvas, then, asking what functional, social, or emotional jobs might people be trying to achieve: we need to be place-centric and look at what products or services a place offers as a starting point and then map that to demand. A trunk road, for example, offers transport infrastructure comprising road surfaces, traffic regulation services (speed limits, traffic lights, surveillance cameras), and traffic information services (street furniture, variable message signs, etc); whereas an area of outstanding natural beauty might offer scenery, refreshments, gifts, or other recreation.

We also need to consider which other products or services might be needed for people to consume the products or services a place offers (for example, people might need transport to get to some AONB’s and will require vehicles to use a road). Digital transformations might act on the place itself or on ancillary products.

Next we look at the gain creators. Does the place do something that saves people time, effort, or money? Does it meet or exceed people’s expectations?

Finally we need to look at the “pain relievers”. Is there something about this place that solves a problem for people or produce a saving? Does this place make people feel better?

Of course, these are just categories and a bit of framework. We will need to actually get out there and listen to people if we are to deduce what value a place really has for the people that use it. This post has gone on too long already so I’ll save that for the next one. Without wanting to create a hostage to fortune, we also need to look at both the way that places will respond to environmental factors and a taxonomy of digital interventions that we might make so all being well I’ll tackle those topics shortly too.