A number of large local authorities have already signed up to a new library for sharing service-design templates. PublicTechnology finds out more
As those of us who spent unhealthily large chunks of our childhood sat indoors making multicoloured mansions and cuboid cars can attest: you can build some pretty cool stuff out of Lego blocks.
You can even, according to some, use them to construct a government.
A “Lego block” approach to building public services was called for in the recent Manifesto for Better Public Services report, authored by former UK government deputy CTO Jerry Fishenden, University of Cambridge senior lecturer Mark Thompson, and University of Surrey professor Alan Brown.
Such an approach, their manifesto says, would involve “standardising the common building blocks of public services such as licensing, booking, registration, payments, and case management”.
The report adds: “But this can only happen if… public sector organisations become more modular, sharing and making use of common, commodity ‘Lego-brick’ components to meet their needs.”
“Some big outsourcers might like to tell us we’re special – so that we pay for them to build things for us that they built for our neighbours six months ago – but we’re not. We’ve benefited by using green waste and complaints processes developed elsewhere, and other councils are free to benefit from the processes we’ve developed at Swindon.”
Glyn Peach, chief information officer, Swindon Borough Council
This would need councils to embrace standardisation and openness. It would also require the creation of a central hub where information and digital assets could be shared
Also taking Lego as its inspiration, Leicester-based software and digital-services firm Jadu has created such a place.
The Jadu Library went live earlier this week with about 40 services and platforms that councils can access, download and use for free. This includes forms and other design templates for services such as complaints, taxi licences, freedom-of-information requests, reporting antisocial behaviour, and requests for waste collection. The open source library also contains resources for the higher-education space, with four templates currently available for universities.
Suraj Kika, chief executive of Jadu, tells PublicTechnology that, when carried out in isolation, it can typically take as long as a year for a council to complete the process of conceiving, designing, and launching a new digital service.
“Local government are reinventing the wheel over and over and again. There are 430 local authorities, who all do fundamentally similar things. There is an opportunity to design once and reuse, and to share common digital-service patterns,” he says. “As a provider, we see there is an opportunity to standardise. If, for example, Norwich shared a service with Birmingham, it means the time to market is much shorter.”
“We are very supportive of this initiative and are pleased to be part of a community that is realising the benefits of working together.
Alison Alexander, managing director, Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead
At the moment, all the library’s resources were created by Jadu itself for its local-authority customers. But the library is populated by an open github repository, and Kika hopes that contributions from other companies and councils will help the number of available assets grow to a total of at least 100 by the end of 2018.
Currently, about “eight or nine large local authorities” are the chief contributors to the library. The aim is to double this number during a conference Jadu is holding in early July in Manchester, at which representatives from most of its 100-plus local-government customers will be in attendance. In the few months after that, the aim is to double the number of contributors again, Kika says.
The library fulfils a need that the Government Digital Service has not yet addressed, according to the Jadu CEO.
“I think there are a lot of politics in the way of that. My experience over the last 20 years is that there is a real need and desire to do something [like this],” he adds. “There are some now really good cloud-based platforms that mean local government can move much faster. I think central government sometimes suffers from its size.”
“When asked, we were happy to share our successes with other authorities. We will be looking for opportunities to review best practice from other authorities and welcome a place for a shared community environment that takes a fresh approach.”
Nikki Rotsos, director of customers, communication and culture, Norwich City Council
As the library develops, it may look to add to its cache of templates with new types of asset such as images, or business-case documents.
It may also look to include content and users from abroad; Jadu currently works almost as many local authorities in Australia as it does in the UK. Kika points to the example of the template for a bulky waste collection request form which, barring the name of the service and the council providing it, is essentially identical in the two countries.
While it is sharing its creations for free, Kika admits that, for Jadu, the ability to disseminate its tools across every council in the UK is “a means for us to grow”.
“Effective collaboration can be a game-changer for the delivery of public services in this country. Rather than spending time reinventing the same services time and time again, the library enables councils to work and innovate together.”
Angela Probert, chief operating officer, Birmingham City Council
But the main objective, he says, is to help councils and universities better serve the public.
“For citizens and students, the outcome will be better services,” he says. “We want it to be a repository of real quality. We have people that are monitoring that, but what we really want is custodians inside local government.”
He adds: “We are at a tipping point for digital. There is a real opportunity to do things the right way – and that has got to be driven by leadership within local government.”