Digital transformation – an introduction

Joel Rosen,
Government Fast Streamer
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

Joel is on the government Fast Steam service and so is currently spending six-month placements at various government departments. He spent his last six months at the Centre, focusing primarily on the role of ‘digital’. For his last hurrah, Joel spoke to five different local places to understand more about their digital transformation journeys with the aim of being able to share their experiences to help others in a similar situation. There will be a blog published every day this week so keep reading to find out more.

“There’s a big difference between national and local government in digital transformation. National government can still afford to do things the old way, but they are opting to slowly go digital. Local places financially don’t have a choice – they must go digital!”

This was my first introduction to local digital delivery, from an ex-employee of London’s Enfield Borough Council. It would stick. But during my visits to local places, I also found that in some of them a driving force behind their digital transformations was a will to improve and increase their offering to the public.

“We can do more with more”, Phil Rumens, digital service manager of West Berkshire District Council told me. Now at this point I’m sure you can imagine my civil servant face scrunched up in anticipation of a heart-stopping crunch as this will to improve collided with the barriers we all expect to be there. So, is it going to happen, and what are the barriers? Read on…

As an organisation, we’re always on the hunt for innovation and best practice so we know what works. We want to know how local and national factors are overcoming cultural barriers to share information in pursuit of better public outcomes. Now we’re going digital. It’s an area with a lot of promise for transforming transactions and services – and therefore the relationship between the citizen and public administrations. But providing these improved services to solve complex problems requires more intricate systems, additional data, and hence added cooperation and linking-up between the agencies providing them. One of the main questions facing us has been whether the increased complexity digital brings will create, or at least expose, more cultural barriers to sharing?

Time to find out. Over the last six months I have travelled up and down the country, from Surrey to North Yorkshire, to local places to research what kinds of digital transformations they were undergoing, and what, if any, cultural barriers they were facing. Nearly all the places I visited were undergoing some form of back-end rationalisation. Development operations were being brought back in-house, which often really meant that project management was being run by the local place but the actual software development was commercially outsourced, such as in Enfield Borough Council. Allied to this was a visible move towards inter-authority offers of services on a commercial basis. Orbis, a Business Services Partnership between Surrey County Council, East Sussex County Council, and Brighton and Hove City Council is currently looking to do exactly this. A member of Surrey County Council’s commercial team told me they believe there’s a big market out there for helpful support.

The places I visited were also attempting to consolidate the tools and systems they use to process transactions and provide services. There seems to be a move away from the zoo of multiple legacy systems which connect up to different services, and towards building generic but flexible tools and platforms that provide a coherent end-to-end experience for the user. The tools being developed focused mainly on the basic functions of ‘report’, ‘pay’, and ‘request’, and could be adapted to different services which needed to use these transactions or to provide services through them. There are two information sharing challenges here. At the design stage, the services themselves need to be consulted on the needs and requirements of their particular area – for example social services may want their domestic abuse reporting tool to have a panic-button feature which minimises your browser and erases cookies in your history. Design of effective transactions and services needs to be driven by effective information sharing between agencies and services from the earliest stage. Likewise, these conversations and consultations need to be held for the implementation stage too, so all appropriate agencies have a single version of the truth and can deliver their services effectively without the subject having to tell each one their story again. The tools are just that: tools. More importantly, as many of those I interviewed pointed out, a culture of sharing is key to delivering coherent services that work.

The places I visited were also revolutionising their front end as part of the user-centric revolution. There appear to be two types of public websites out there: one is encyclopaedic with a mixture of informational and transactional content arranged from A-Z on the front page; the other, a cleaner action-focused and accessible landing page with a huge search bar front and centre, and areas of interest below it that are moved around as dictated by user needs. The places I visited were transitioning from the first to the second model, and were separating transactions and service provision from general information and policies. West Berkshire District Council took its cue from retail, taking Sainsbury’s as an example. They were working towards putting all the transactions and services up front, and having all the more encyclopaedic background information such as the council’s corporate information elsewhere on the site. Leicestershire County Council were extremely attentive to user needs and regularly employed website analytics to adapt their front page to user needs to reduce the time they took to find what they needed.

I found there was a wide range of analytical capability across the different places I visited, but all of them were either already engaged in some form of analytics work or were recruiting the data science skills to benefit from insights which would improve service delivery for their citizens. West Berkshire had found some very innovative preliminary uses for their data. They are using an analytics platform to investigate the merging of risk factors for what government terms ‘Troubled Families’, moving what looks like venn diagram circles over one another to identify the families with the highest confluence of factors. Essex Police are planning to establish a Data Analytics Hub with data scientists from each authority co-located to enhance information sharing.

A common theme I kept coming across was the analytical ‘chicken and egg’ problem. You need some data to form a hypothesis to test, but you also need a valid purpose that permits you to use that data – something you can’t obtain without a hypothesis in the first place. The places I visited which had met with the most success started their analytical work with one area for which they had a purpose to process the data, and then expanded their analytical platform to work on other areas once it had proved its value. The most important element of all of this, however, is what happens with those insights and how they are shared with agencies that can deliver interventions or services to improve public outcomes. This requires both trust between multiple parties sharing their information in the first place to be centrally analysed, and information sharing in how they work together to action the insights the analytics generate.

Lastly, I found there to be a gaping disconnect between local and national levels in two areas. In terms of design standards; local places seemed to feel that common tools and standards provided by the Government Digital Service (GDS) needed to be revisited to fulfil local requirements. GDS has understandably had to focus principally on national departments, notably on major projects such as Universal Credit. It has of late begun engaging with local places in rolling out its ‘Notify’ and ‘Verify’ offerings. As the Centre, we are uniquely positioned as a neutral actor between local and national levels to try and connect them, and to foster a constructive conversation. Both have a lot of knowledge and tools to offer each other.

The second gap between local and national levels is in local places’ preparations for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). During my visits, I found many local places were preparing for the GDPR but needed more practical guidance in certain areas such as automated processing of personal information. Optimally placed between local and national levels, we have already begun conversations with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and even with No10’s Economic and Domestic Secretariat (EDS) about the GDPR, highlighting the concerns of local places about specific elements where they felt there was not enough guidance. We will continue to do so.

This is the first in a series of blogs being published this week which will go in to more detail about the local places I have been visiting and their information sharing journeys – so be sure to look out all this week for the next instalment.

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