I’ve written a lot lately about the lack of digital ambition across local government. Some of which was perhaps a little bit harsh, given the budget constraints currently facing authorities across Britain.
That being said, I stand by my assertions that most of the organisations I’ve listened to speak didn’t really ‘get’ what digital meant and many of the leaders don’t really have the guts to go after something that is outside their comfort zone.
One person recently said, for example, that digital was ‘silly’ compared to the solid IT of days gone-by.
Anyway, you get the picture. I’ve been lacking in hope for local government services. And this is a problem, given that we as citizens interact a lot with local government.
But over the last few months I’ve been having online (and offline) conversations with Matthew Cain, who is heading up a digital team for Buckinghamshire County Council and who assured me that there were teams out there (including his) that were trying to do some innovative things at a local level.
And so Cain invited me to Aylesbury this week, which is where his team is based, to have a look at what they’ve been up to. If you read no further, my advice to you, if you’re involved in local government digital transformation, is to get in touch with Matthew, as he’s doing some very interesting things and is open to collaborating.
But if you are reading on (I hope you are!), I can tell you that Buckinghamshire is one of the only Councils that I’ve engaged with that are thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to digital transformation. The parallels to Whitehall’s Government Digital Service are certainly there (just take a look at the photos), but equally Cain is aware of the mistakes made at GDS and is keen to learn from them.
Two key services
Cain and his team invited me to take a look at two of the services they have decided to tackle, which he joked are Buckinghamshire’s ‘exemplar services’. The two services are:
• School placement applications for parents
• Reporting tool for people wanting to alert the council to damage on streets e.g. a broken lamp light or a pothole.
Both of these services have similar themes and were described by Cain as some of the most complicated services within the Council that his team could have gone after. Why go for complicated? Because it gives the digital teams options (‘if it doesn’t work this way, let’s try this other way) and it allows Cain to prove that digital isn’t just about ‘lipstick on a pig’.
It’s about proving that digital can make services better, reducing pressure on the Council and delivering savings.
During my couple of hours with the Bucks team, which is working alongside digital agency Unboxed (headed up by Martyn Evans), I spent most of my time looking at the school placement service.
At the moment, parents applying for their child to go to a local school in Bucks have to do most of the research themselves, looking at lots of disparate documentation to try and find the right information about catchment areas, before they can submit an online form.
However, the online form is also clunky, complicated, and once the application is submitted, parents typically wait months to hear from the Council about where their child has been placed. No updates, no clear idea about what’s happening – somewhat of a “black hole”, says Cain.
The result? Well, each year there is typically around 18,000 school placement applications. And every year the council receives about 29,000 follow up calls from parents asking for information about their application and/or following up with more data (e.g. something they didn’t upload first time around).
The new service hopes to make this process better by both making sure that parents give all the information required by the schools first time around and by keeping parents updated at key stages of the application process with notifications about what stage their child’s admission form is at.
You can see the thinking: if parents are regularly kept informed with a text message every few weeks, then they are less likely to call up and ask what’s going on.
Interestingly, Cain and his team aren’t looking to rip and replace the Capita One system that the admissions process is based upon, as they recognise that it has its benefits. Capita One runs a lot of schools admissions processes for council across the country and Cain notes that it is solid and secure. Rather it is the processes around the system that are leaving parents confused, as a lot relies on emails and spreadsheets.
And given that lots of other councils run on Capita One, if Bucks’ digital applications service is successful and proves its worth, there is then potential for it to be sold on to other authorities. Buckinghamshire is setting up a community interest company for this exact reason, so then with the sales made (fingers crossed) it can use that money as a credit note to buy more time with the Unboxed team and build more services.
So there is a lot riding on getting this right.
From what I saw, the new digital applications service looks incredibly promising. Instead of having to do all the research yourself, parents can now just type in their postcode and are immediately shown the schools (on a map) in their catchment area.
Parents can click on each of the schools, create a shortlist for their application and are immediately presented with information that includes valuable details such as what Ofsted rating the school gets, how many children take and pass the 11+ exams for that school and what the likelihood of your child getting in is.
The design is clean and the UI very intuitive, mostly because it looks very similar to GOV.UK (apart from some minor tweaks for Aylesbury’s branding).
From what I saw of the damage reporting tool, it too looked great. Again people are given information when they put in the road or area that they want to report a problem and are told what incidents have already been reported and when work can be expected to be completed.
Presenting this information to the user is incredibly important, according to Cain and Evans, as it makes them feel like something is being done and it keeps them engaged. It’s this sort of user research that is not being carried out by other councils.
As I noted previously, Buckinghamshire and Cain’s team have the benefit of seeing what GDS has done to date to try and improve on their model.
For example, Cain is replicating such things as the work environment, making use of GOV.UK, he is keen to adopt Verify as soon as is possible, they are focusing on user need and are iterating regularly.
It all feels very ‘GDS’. Having said that, it is obvious Cain has picked up on areas where GDS has experienced tension and conflict. For example, he spoke about picking his battles with internal stakeholders, trying his hardest to praise outside his team so that it includes people and doing what he can to bring people along on the journey.
Integration is key, digital teams can’t operate in silo alongside the rest of the organisation.
Equally, Cain spoke of an ‘Aylesbury platform’ that uses similar components for different services – similar to GDS’ vision for Government-as-a-Platform – for things like eligibility requirements and checking. There wasn’t too much detail on this just yet, but the ideas are there.
But Bucks also notes that attracting the right types of skills is going to be an ongoing problem for the Council. Being so close to London, it’s not a particularly easy sell. Why would you go and work for a council instead of a trendy Shoreditch-based agency?
This is something that all local authorities are struggling with and it needs to be a top priority.
However, it was also interesting to hear how Buckinghamshire is dealing with its suppliers. Instead of taking a negative approach to dealing with the private sector, Cain’s team are going to publish a digital strategy that will serve as a warning that Bucks wants its suppliers to be more open.
Bucks wants its tech suppliers to provide APIs so that it can tap into systems more easily and extract data to provide better digital services. Cain said that the ones that respond best to this call for openness will be the ones that win the most business with Bucks.
So refreshing to see something interesting happening at a local level. Kudos to Cain, his team and Unboxed for tackling this head on. Time will tell whether or not the services allow Cain to make digital more mainstream at Bucks, but I’ve got high hopes based on what I’ve seen thus far.