In 2015, the Dutch government threw an unexpected problem at local government in the Low Countries - it suddenly decided to transfer all youth care down to local city level.
The good news is that wasn’t such a shock to the system as it might otherwise have been, as a number of these bodies, including Amsterdam, immediately came together to devise a new way of purchasing youth care services, via a so-called result-driven model whereby care provider fees are fixed according to the results they deliver.
Great - but then the next issue came up...the older processes and IT systems these authorities possessed were set up for the older, centralised models, and so couldn’t help.
The good news is that a positive way forward has been found, but as one Dutch Senior Information Manager, Social Development, Tom Uleman, told us, there was still a hurdle to overcome here:
The problem we had to solve was that this new and wider role for youth care services could not be effectively managed with the legacy IT systems that we, and indeed all the municipalities generally, were using. To cope with our need to manage these new youth care provider payments, our existing legacy system demanded a lot of manual input — costly for us and an inefficient use of taxpayer money.
Like government services all over the world, Uleman and his team were also under the usual pressure to become more efficient and to embark on successful digital transformation — so he decided this would be the perfect opportunity to grasp the nettle and solve both problems at once.
The way he did it was to buck a long-standing trend in both local and central government in so many national jurisdictions, and resist the temptation to outsource the problem to a third party but to actually be so old-fashioned as to create what he needed in-house.
That was partly a decision he didn’t really have a say in, it turns out:
There were no package providers in the market that offered the functionality we needed, and it would have been hugely expensive and difficult — perhaps impossible — to modify the legacy systems we had. The question arose as to whether to outsource development of new applications or develop them ourselves, but that’s something few municipalities would be able to do. Outsourcing can be expensive and doing it in-house can be complex, expensive and risky.
So how did Uleman - who works for the Dutch city of Zaanstad, which has to look after everything from urban development to managing public spaces, social care, education, youth care, strategic management of its busy local Port and so forth — square this circle? By writing code without ‘writing’ it — in the shape of a no-code application development platform implemented with the help of a local services partner, Ilonix, called Betty Blocks.
We already knew about the no-code application idea from doing a pilot a few years ago, and saw that so long as we were very clear about what we needed to build from a logic and outcomes point of view, we could build what we wanted on Betty Blocks without writing a single line of code. We also know what functionality is really needed, so we didn’t want someone else to run away building on unnecessary features that would complicate things.
Why does Zaanstad’s internal IT team believe this is what was needed? Uleman says that as the software is basically a visual development environment, it’s possible to task what he calls ‘citizen developers’ — people who really know the logic of the required business solution — to the development work. There, he told diginomica/government, they can ‘grow’ even quite complex applications through selecting blocks of functionality from the provided library and dropping these blocks into a graphical workflow.
It’s then easy to test and iterate/innovate towards what you need, and it’s much faster than traditional coding and cheaper too, in that you don’t need to employ technical developers. Another advantage is that the supplier of the platform comes from our region, which makes communication and collaboration really easy. What is also very important, in addition to the right platform and the right partner, is that you have to have internally people with the right competencies and experience and who will use the right approach to develop systems, or have them developed.
Freeing budget to spend on what citizens want
The results would seem to back this up; Zaanstad claims to have had a first version of the youth payments application in just 10 days — which, once fully tested and live, it claims has boosted administrative efficiency for the programme by 40%.
Even better, there are hard numbers to demonstrate the value to the residents and its local government out of brewing his own solution here:
We now need 1.5 full time employees for our Youth Care administration instead of the six we needed using our old legacy application. We are expecting to achieve the same result for our facilities department, which manages the allocated care, the payment of equipment suppliers (wheelchairs, etc.) and providers of care (eg help with the household), but we’re still implementing the system over there.
Overall, we expect that we will save €2.4m in the next four years. This is mainly in saving administrative personnel, functional managers and licenses for the replaced legacy. Residents will also benefit, because they will receive case decisions faster and receive what they need faster — from wheelchairs, home improvements, help with household and so on, because there are no longer any administrative backlogs.
In addition, we as a municipality are more efficient: by spending less money on administration, we have more money to spend on the things residents want, like more and better services. Even providers of youth care will find that their invoices are paid faster.”
No code definitely has a future at Zaanstad, he concludes:
After seeing the success of our these new applications, we think this is quite a good way to replace more of our legacy systems. Plus, we will have more freedom to innovate by being able to develop new concepts and applications ourselves, as it’s all about improving information provision to partners of the municipality and making the process more digital and more efficient, which will release even more funds for better citizen services.
Our success shows it’s possible, if you choose the right platform and people, for government digital transformation projects to succeed and yield good results within time and budget.