Digital success through low-code at Hackney Council - focus on user need

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood November 29, 2018
Hackney Council says it can now build mobile applications 50% faster using the approach. We speak to Head of Digital and Data, Matthew Cain, to find out more.

Hackney council
You’re a digital leader in cash-poor local government, and want to quickly get useful applications out the door for both the public and the rest of your authority to use - but like we said, your investment opportunities here are limited.

If that’s you, then you might find the so-called ‘low-code’ approach - which offers a graphical way to quickly build applications and which analysts defined as a successor to things like Fourth Generation languages at the turn of the decade - useful, as seems to be the case at Hackney London Borough Council.

Specifically, Hackney - led by its Head of Digital and Data, Matthew Cain - says exploitation of low-code thinking has been central to it building and delivering a number of important applications - especially around housing, where it plans to use the software to support tenants and leaseholders in its big central London housing asset, which is made up of 28,000 homes and 32,000 tenancy leaseholders.

Thus meet “Manage My Rent Account” - a mobile application that has been designed for more than an initial 8,500 tenants. and its sister app,“Manage My Tenancy,” specifically designed to support the staff who look after Hackney’s housing estate.

One of of the capital’s largest borough councils, with more than 3,500 staff, Hackney sees low-code as a central plan of its ongoing digital shift to going online so as to improve customer services and reduce costs, the claim is that these first applications will enable tenants and housing officers to manage their rent accounts and estates remotely.

Cain and his team are using technology from low-code specialist OutSystems. Cain told us why:

“We invited vendors to demo their platforms [and] were immediately struck with the flexibility of the OutSystems user experience, as it’s really important we continuously improve the experiences that our users have in order for them to succeed unaided; we have a number of graduate and apprentice developers [working on the project], and the speed that they are now able to work and the quality and consistency of their output is great.

‘We were also impressed by the openness of the product and its ability to access data via the rest API points.”

Speed and agility

If all goes well with Manage My Rent Account and Manage My Tenancy, the plan is to develop at least one new app per quarter over the next 12 months.To put that in context, Cain says pre low-code coming into the council putting two apps out of the door per calendar year was scored as a big success - which means the IT team’s capacity to deliver capability to users and tenants has doubled.

Another benefit: going paperless - and improving delivery of customer-facing services, he states:

“Traditionally, we provided estate offices where people come and do things - and obviously now we're keen to explore how much service we can provide directly on estates and residences in tenants and freeholders homes.

“That apps’ been developed in partnership with the estate officers to make sure that they understand how to use it, that it meets their needs and they trust the information they're given and the services it then helps provide. We’re offering improvements in terms of functionality every fortnight, and now have 40 estate officers in the field doing several hundred visits each week.

“Over the year we'll print thirty thousand fewer pieces of paper as a result perform significantly more visits - and most importantly, those visits will be of high quality because the person turning up will understand your circumstances and what you need and so will be able to provide and better service.”

Stop saying ‘digital transformation’

So - digital transformation right? Well, yes - but Cain says that’s too loose a term for what he sees Hackney as trying to achieve:

“I don't like the phrase digital transformation, it’s an over-used term. This project is part of ensuring that we have technology so good that people prefer to use it - not a clearly defined programme of work, but an ongoing investment and process by which we meet user need.”

Built for user need - not against technical requirement

Cain says that when he came on board in this role last year, he quickly decided low-code could help achieve Hackney’s digital ambitions, as he had previous exposure to such tools, working as he was against constraints many public sector IT professionals will find familiar:

“We’ve always had internal developers, and we typically bought commercial off-the-shelf software and then strung it together using point to point integration, but we didn't have any particular skill sets around front-end design or software usability: we built to technical requirement, rather than to meet user need.

“So when I started in the council I was keen to ensure how we could better meet user need, and in particular support the development of our team in that process because we were planning to take long-serving .NET developers and suddenly turn them into people who can do integrations and also produce great user experience - a bit of a journey.

“Traditional software development was also taking us time, and when we did ship an app a significant amount of development time went into support, because we were the only people who knew how they worked.”

A frictionless service

He stresses that not any old low-code would do, descrying what he calls “drag and drop” solutions and also seeking technology that would work for what Hackney needs over the longer term.

“I wanted to make sure we weren't entering into a sort of black box, where two three years later we find that we've written load of stuff deep into an application only to find out that then it wasn't quite meeting user needs but we were so deeply invested in it that we couldn't go and pick up something else.”

Where next for Hackney and low-code? Cain says there’s still a lot of digital transformation on the to-do list, as there may be a lot of Web firms and IT-enabled processes, but he is driving work to match that ever closer to user needs.

“Our goal is to deliver high-quality end-to-end digital services for our residents and staff, and low-code will certainly help us meet this ambition.

“if you come back and speak to us in six months, by that point I'd expect to see that we've significantly improved the operation of the business so we're paperless, we are working efficiently by managing our schedules dynamically, and that we continue to learn about how the software works and continue to improve it to delivering more seamless, frictionless service for our tenants and leaseholders.”