A framework for council technology planning

Photo by Ugi K. on Unsplash

Fairly long post this, so apologies up front for that – hope it’s worth the effort though. Also, just to make things clear right at the outset – I am publishing this under a Creative Commons license – so you can reuse, adapt and even make money from it if you want to – but you have to share your work equally freely and provide attribution back to me.

Everyone wants to digitally transform their organisation! Well, a lot of people do, and they are the ones I talk to. But there’s a big problem that many councils share which is holding them back from the really good stuff about digital (the user centred service design, the agile delivery, the new operating models…) and that is the fact that they have no idea what they are doing with the majority of their technology estate.

This stuff matters for local government – perhaps more than other sectors – because of our reliance on commercial off the shelf software for so much of what we do. We don’t have much – if any – ‘legacy’ code running on old virtualised mainframes like bits of central government do. In fact, a lot of what is called legacy in local government is anything but – it’s regularly updated and kept working and in line with statutory requirements.

So it’s not legacy software. It’s just bad software.

This also means that simply importing the GDS style of agile, user centred development of online services rarely works for local government. The reliance on the line of business systems, and the generally poor way they have been built, makes digital transformation a significantly more attritional process than is often acknowledged. Add to that the tiny budgets, teams and access to modern DDAT style skills and capabilities that councils have to deal with, and perhaps it’s quite understandable that progress isn’t being made as quickly as anyone would like.

As a result of all this, opportunities get missed, and sometimes time, money and effort are completely wasted on projects that should never have been started in the first place – because the chances of value being generated from them were so low (I have examples). Also, people are hired into roles where they expect to be doing GDS style DDAT work and quickly get frustrated, and senior leaders in organisations struggle to understand what is going on and why it is going on so slowly!

So many questions

I get contacted by councils all the time, asking about how they can

  • hire more DDAT type roles into their organisations
  • increase the delivery speed of their technology and digital teams
  • adopt agile and user centred approaches to work
  • migrate ‘to the cloud’
  • reduce reliance on traditional line of business systems
  • implement technology capabilities rather than entire systems (such as some of those created by the Local Digital funding programme, for instance)

The answers to these questions are rarely simple, almost never the same, and packed with peculiarities. Sometimes I don’t have a clue what the answer might be, because I don’t have the back story, understand the culture or personalities, have a handle on the organisation’s priorities, and so on.

The core problem

What the big issue often is, however, is that many councils do not have a clear, understandable, nuanced and actionable strategic approach to their technology.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a digital or IT strategy. There are lots of those about, and many of them are very good. But they are inevitably too high-level and conceptual and rarely cover the kind of detail that is needed to take the concepts and turn them into reality.

What’s more, a by-product of the filleting of technology teams as a result of cuts over the last decade or so has left a yawning gap between those who are fundamentally accountable for digital and technology (often a director or head of service, who are also responsible for transformation, customer service, finance and other big, demanding areas) and the most senior specialists, who are often so caught up in the weeds of operational fire fighting, they can’t breathe, let alone help transform how their organisation works.

Often the accountable organisational leader will reach for over-simplistic silver-bullet type answers (we will rewrite all our systems in low code! our strategy is automation! we will move everything into the cloud!) because the language just doesn’t exist for them to connect how the nuts and bolts of technology relate to what they want to achieve for the organisation as a whole.

To summarise:

  • There is a communication and capability gap around mapping organisational priorities into actionable technology roadmaps
  • Council leadership teams struggle to get their heads around the sheer complexity of the technology estate and reach for overly simplistic answers
  • There’s a drive to invest in ‘digital’ skills (UCD, agile etc) but with a lack of clarity of what work will be done by these people – what actually are the products? How much influence can a user researcher really have with a commercial off the shelf system?
  • If councils want to make a success of digital, or simply use technology to help them work a bit better, they need to fix some of these problems

Solution: a common framework for council technology planning

What I would like to propose is a shared, open framework that all councils can use to provide them with a common vocabulary that gives strategic people the confidence that they understand the decisions they are making, and the operational people with the assurance that they are working for an organisation that takes them and their work seriously, and is genuinely engaged with it.

Having a framework that enables longer term planning around a technology roadmap will help councils:

  • have a nuanced approach, depending on the needs of users and services, rather than simplistic one-size-fits-all soundbites that benefit nobody
  • understand which technologies need replacing, reliance on them reducing, greater exploitation, and so on
  • bring the right skills and capabilities into teams at the right time, with the right approaches to be taken to deliver work
  • prioritise the work their teams – which have limited capacity – do, to focus on areas that add the most value

Making such a framework open and reusable means that as many councils as possible can make use of it, refine it and improve it. The more councils that are involved means that a shared language will evolve across the sector, enabling collaboration and sharing on a scale not currently possible.

The (very much alpha) framework

First some health warnings: this looks like enterprise architecture, but it isn’t. I’ve borrowed some of the visual language, but this is not and isn’t intended to be an EA diagram.

Also, yes, I know, I can’t draw straight lines.

This diagram simple aims to map out the basics of what is needed to keep a council running in terms of technology capabilities. I’m leaning quite heavily on some work done back in 2015 when I was at Adur & Worthing Councils, which was supported by James Herbert, Sean Beverton-Tubbs and others who were working for Methods Digital at the time.

The aim is to have a single map of all the stuff, and how it all fits together. I suspect in the real world, this could in effect be a dashboard of some kind, with the various capabilities having indicators to demonstrate whether they are being worked on, or if they have been earmarked for replacement, for example. Basically, anyone could look at this thing and have an idea of what is working well and what is on fire.

Underneath this overview needs to be the detail. This could be stored in documents and might have to be for starters, but the ideal would be some kind of database (which presumably could then double up as an information asset register and an application portfolio management tool).

For each capability, you’d want to know:

  • what it does
  • how it’s done (if at all – or indeed it could be duplicated)
  • if there’s a current solution – who the supplier is, how much does it cost, what are the contract dates, who supports it, where is it hosted (and can it be easily and cheaply hosted elsewhere, like the public cloud?), do we like it or hate it?
  • what does it integrate into
  • how is data handled (is it easily accessible, what the formats, does it plug into our visualisation tool etc)
  • probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t mentioned

Patterns

There’s another bit of information to record next to each capability, and that’s what pattern you are following for it.

These patterns are a shared bit of language to help councils quickly come up with their roadmaps of activity and to do so in a nuanced and appropriate way, depending on the needs of service users, the services themselves and their transformation ambitions, and indeed the nature of the technology itself.

Here are some examples of what the patterns could look like (there must a fair few more than this):

  • Replace – this thing sucks and we know there’s better options out there on the market
  • Exploit – we love this, it does so much more cool stuff and we need to maximise it
  • Rationalise – there’s nothing wrong with this really, but we could save some cash and bother by reusing something we already have to cover this
  • Reduce – this does something really difficult and we don’t want to mess with that, but it also does some other stuff we know we can do better in other ways, so we will chip away and innovate around those edges
  • Rehost – we need to move this thing out of our data centre to somewhere else. Can it be delivered as SaaS? Hosted by the supplier? Can we run it in a public cloud (and can we afford to?)?

This pattern approach will be so helpful to councils planning their technology roadmaps for a number of reasons:

  • it enables them to have different approaches to different systems. So you want to exploit your social care case management system which the service and its users love; but reduce your reliance on the revenues and benefits system, which does the core job really well but the citizen access bit is awful? Go right ahead – and because you have this common, documented language of patterns, everyone know what you’re on about!
  • it helps you to plan in your recruitment and introduction of new DDAT type roles. Why recruit product managers when at present there aren’t any products to manage? Well – by thinking longer term, you know that by using the reduce pattern on three big systems and rationalising all the citizen access stuff into one digital capability, you’re going to have a chunky product to build, improve and maintain right there
  • it helps you pick and choose your delivery approach. Upgrading the development control system? Probably best to waterfall the heck out of that thing. Building a brand new, generic case management capability so you can rationalise away the 50 small such systems that you’re already paying for? Agile will be your friend
  • It enables proper prioritisation of work onto that which will create the most value, across the whole gamut of keeping the lights on, maintaining and replacing core backbone infrastructure, developing new front end digital stuff without needing separate programmes or arguments about wasted effort or access to people or money. It’s all there. The senior, accountable folk who make decisions without the technical knowledge can do so, because the facts they need are in front of them
  • It brings a more componentised approach to technology within reach. Right now, if you wanted to implement the Local Digital housing repairs reporting service, you will have a hard time of it – because it just does that one thing. Why bother to introduce another thing that’ll need integrating and adopting, when the existing system does it – albeit badly? However, if you have already committed to a reduce pattern for housing, suddenly that discussion becomes a lot easier!

What next

So that’s it – congrats on getting to the end. This is pretty half-baked thinking as always, but I truly believe there’s something in this.

I want it to be a shared local government endeavor – I don’t have the capacity or the desire to turn this into some kind of consulting monster. I’d rather give it away, get people using it and improving it, and seeing where it goes. A bit like LocalGovDrupal but for IT strategy.

If you feel like your council is lacking some strategic long term thinking around its technology estate, it would be great to understand how this framework could be used to help you. If you end up using it, I would love to hear about it! And if any other organisations – profit making or otherwise – fancy seeing how they can contribute, that too would be very awesome indeed. You know where I am.