Local Government-as-a-Platform at Worcestershire County Council

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 23, 2017
Worcestershire County Council’s Head of Digital Transformation, Neill Crump, explains how the organisation may one day be operation 100% in the cloud.

There has been much discussion around the idea of Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) in Whitehall, at a central government level. However, whilst some collaborative initiatives are taking place, and whilst the Government Digital Service hopes to include local government in some of its GaaP agenda, efforts to establish platform thinking at a local level are few and far between.

However, one council looking to identify commonality across local services and introduce shared digital components is Worcestershire County Council. Speaking to Neill Crump, the Council’s Head of Digital Transformation, he explained that this is part of a broader corporate strategy that puts technology at its core - after years of ignoring the digital opportunity.

Crump also believes that one day the Council may eventually end up operating 100% in the cloud. He said:

I joined the council in 2013 and the first challenge was to look at a very disparate set of applications, a very disparate set of business requirements, and put all of that together into a digital strategy.

We really wanted to make sure that technology was at the heart of our corporate strategy, so we then went into a series of different workshops where we were creating these transformation maps. We basically had an organization, Worcestershire County Council, that for a long time had just not taken technology seriously and had not used it as an ability to transform the organization.

Upon joining the Council in 2013, Worcestershire was operating within a traditional data centre environment and all of its applications were on premise. Crump said that the main priority for Worcestershire was to both deliver on the “massive savings” that had been set for the Council, but to also deliver a great customer experience - something that had traditionally been “shied away from”.

Crump came in determined to create a completely digital council. He said:

As part of our digital strategy, one of those aims was to put a hundred per cent of services online. That really scared our organization actually. Changing our view on the world and changing our culture was also fundamental to that new approach.

What we wanted to do was go into a workshop and say, "We can do anything you like with technology under pinning the way that we work, and that allows you then to totally re-engineer the way that you do things and make cost savings at the same time.

Looking to the cloud

Crump said that following the workshopping, Worcestershire went to market and assessed the different vendors that were available. He said that what came back was a complete mix, everyone from cloud to “traditional vendors” that wanted “replace what we’ve got with just another CRM system”.

However, Crump and his team eventually settled on OutSystems - a cloud environment that enabled the organisation to move from its traditional code base to rapid application development. Crump said:

It gave us the speed that we wanted, in terms of the speed of delivery. Because of that cloud based environment, it also gave us the innovation opportunities. It also allowed us to restructure our internal teams, because we needed them to be able to deliver faster those solutions, and we needed them to have much more new, modern skills, and to work in an agile way, so when we're working with our customers we needed a platform that would enable us to be able to deliver very quickly and to be able to go from mock-up to delivery in weeks.

However, selecting a cloud system wasn’t an easy decision - as there was some resistance from the business, because of security concerns (a common misunderstanding within local government - a lot of cloud services are actually recommended for sensitive government information).

But these concerns meant that Worcestershire had to opt for a hybrid cloud environment, rather than go down the pure cloud route. Crump, however, said that this allowed Worcestershire to make a better use case for the cloud, as OutSystems was able to spin up an environment within a matter of hours. Whereas, the private cloud environment took three or four months to get operational. Crump said:

What it allowed us to do was prove a methodology where actually virtually had 90 odd per cent of our applications are now in the cloud that we've developed using OutSystems, That helped break away a myth bust that whole data security element of it yeah?

I asked Crump whether or not her could envision a time when Worcestershire was operating 100% in the cloud. His answer?

Yes. I think we'll get to it. We've got lots of different dynamics in that as I'm sure you're aware from the ICO, through to the actual cyber security side of things, through to the business requirements and the Data Protection Act, and all of these different things. You've got to put different lenses on it. However, yes is the answer.

A platform approach

Working through the digital strategy, the workshops and the development in the cloud, Crump also recognised that there is an opportunity for Worcestershire - the Council and its partners in the local area - to develop reusable components that enable a platform approach, in the cloud.

This is a line of thought that is common in central government, but is now also starting to appear in local areas. However, success is far from proven and Worcestershire is very much at the cutting edge of this. Crump said:

We also saw that there was an opportunity for re-usable components. So if we went and spoke to someone within Economy and Infrastructure, they were asking for something, we then spoke to Children's Services and they were asking for something else, and then we spoke to adults and they wanted something else. However, they had common themes to it. So we then worked out that using a platform approach, that, that would then enable us to get consistency and re-usability in our delivery, which would also then speed up the process.

For example, Worcestershire is focusing on such things as:

How you facilitate general enquiries and push them to relevant people. How you get that work flow process fully automated. All of these are common challenges that lots of public sector organizations have. So we're starting to put those applications into the OutSystems app store, and we've got an event coming up later on in the summer, where other OutSystems customers will come to that event, both existing customers and potential new customers.

Thinking differently about data

Again, in many ways Worcestershire is working in parallel, if not ahead, of the work being carried out by the Government Digital Service in central government. Another initiative, which feeds into the digital transformation work, is rethinking how the organisation uses its data.

Lines of service traditionally operate within silos, which means that data is often disparate, disorganised and inevitably a blocker to the digital requirements of modern service provision. However, if this data can be cleansed, made authoritative and matched across the silos - it could mean that better citizen services could be made available.

This is something that Worcestershire is attempting to do, right now, starting with child services data. Crump said:

Taking data from the back-end applications that we have, putting them together - so taking them from a social care system, taking them from an education management system - matching them with the NHS number and then putting that into a digital solution that can be accessed by any partner. So that is the ability for the police, the schools, the NHS and our own professionals, like social workers to be able to access that information securely using mobile devices.

That allows for a 24/7 environment of people working. During that, a policeman may be working during the night, a child presents themselves in a scenario, they can immediately access our information to see whether or not there is some sort of social care information that would be helpful for them to progress the case throughout the night. Previously what would happen is, the whole process would just stop till the next day when a social worker might be available.

That has started teaching us about the importance of being able to match data together from different applications, so that whole master data management approach.

My take

Unfortunately, I only had a 30 minute conversation with Crump. I think it could have easily been an hour and a half, as there is obviously loads of interesting stuff happening in Worcestershire. Local gets a bad rep, but if you look hard enough, there are pockets of very interesting work happening. Worcestershire’s platform approach, in particular, should attract a lot of attention and could prove to be popular with other councils that are seeking to collaborate.

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