Adur and Worthing’s journey to ‘government as a platform’
Adur and Worthing councils’ digital lead Paul Brewer explains how a low code platform is enabling him to create efficient systems which span business functions. Gill Hitchcock reports
Technology writer Tim O’Reilly coined the term “government as a platform” to describe digital frameworks which enable people to create new systems and new ways of doing things. “If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation,” he says.
In local government, Adur and Worthing councils are a budding example of how a “platform” approach can be a route from old, fragmented and expensive legacy systems and to new, unified and cheaper digital systems, which can be extended across a range of business functions.
“I came into an organisation which was really struggling with traditional IT,” says Paul Brewer, the director for digital and resources at the two small authorities which created a partnership in 2007.
“We’ve had a four-star website for many years. If you look at the Socitm Better Connected reports, Adur and Worthing is rated high. That’s about information for the public and that’s good. But it’s not about self-service, or more significantly end-to-end transformation.
“Our staff were struggling with outages. In 2013, before my time, we had an outage that lasted five weeks when all our IT was down. Service levels were poor and IT was very much a big problem rather than a solution to anything – for staff or the public.”
Expectations that Brewer would fix existing IT problems and create a digital highway to the future were high after he started his new role in May 2014.
He says his initial state-of-play report pulled no punches, describing Adur and Worthing’s “Heath Robinson” IT connections, systems which replicated inefficient paper-based processes, and software that created departmental silos. It also recognised a lacked of in-house resources to shape improvements.
What followed was some relatively low-cost work between the councils and an external consultant to map a radically different IT architecture, as well as create new principles to guide the use of commodity cloud technologies.
“Fundamentally, rather than our services – like environmental health, housing or planning – having their own databases and business applications, we wanted to unpick that and break it down into the technology components that would help people to do their jobs,” says Brewer.
“Those components were broken down into a capability map which tells us that everybody needs a bit of case management capability, the ability to take payments, for customers to book a slot in a diary for something to get done, and so forth.”
Adur and Worthing’s capability map was the basis on which two new technologies were procured. First, a CRM system to enable the councils to manage contacts from a range of channels, including social media. And second, a low code platform, which Brewer describes as “a business process system which allows you to build a work process using a visual interface, to actually build a workflow diagram. The act of doing that creates a digital service end-to-end.”
One year on, and the councils are using their platform to create a range of new IT products. “We’ve done the whole of waste management and that is allowing us to have full mobile and remote working. We are in final testing and deployment as we speak,” says Brewer.
“The benefits of being able to tweak and change is giving us that agile way of working. For instance, we can change the technology according to feedback from people in the field. So it’s a very different from having to wait for a supplier to make changes, which is costly and slow.”
Adur and Worthing has also been building a suite of internal applications, such as the automation of some HR functions, including requests for ID cards or parking spaces for new staff, and of freedom of information (FOI) enquiries.
“The FOI system allows us to ping enquiries out across the organisation. And it allows us to present information to the customer, so the first thing they do is to search for questions that have already been asked and answered,” says Brewer.
“And because we’ve got the workflow diagram, we can track whether people are completing tasks. New capabilities allow us to send text messages to people, email reminders, all of that stuff. And it’s very quick and easy to set up.”
A key next step will be to set up a corporate asset management system aimed at giving the councils a clearer view of any action needed to keep buildings in good repair, such as inspections or maintenance.
Brewer thinks it is vital for any digital programme to help with austerity, and that Adur and Worthing’s programme will save money on legacy systems and staff. In waste management, for instance, it will save £20,000 a year on software spend from 1 April 2016, plus the equivalent of 1.5 full time staff.
Asked if he has any lessons for other councils, Brewer responds: “If you are going to support public service reform, you need to think whether you can do that quickly and cost effectively enough with your existing technology stack.
“Really you need to think about investing in a new modern platform which gives you the flexibility and pace that we all need to be able to solve so many new problems quickly enough.
He believes the Government Digital Service is oriented towards organisations building their own systems using open source platform capabilities. Adur and Worthing do not have that luxury, and have had to buy their platform, along with research and development, from the market.
“The important thing is that normally a purchasing decision is characterised either by buying technology that is fixed and not very flexible, like an environmental health system, or building your own,” says Brewer.
“We have taken a third way, which is we are configuring. So we are buying Lego blocks of capability, but we have the power to put those Lego blocks in any order we choose to.”
Brewer thinks service redesign needs a fresh focus on the customer, and that councils should be more like online giants, such as Amazon, in responding to customer feedback and recommendations.
“But we can only do that when we have flexibility and the technology to support it,” he says. “The old systems, if they stay in place, will keep us stuck in a pre-digital world.”
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