On civic tech – crying out for ergonomics not more ‘digital’ or ‘Uber – for – looked after children’

Digital has let down public services because of arrogance, not listening to front line staff, one size fits all ( and no-one) solutions. Over complexity. Being distracted by shiny new things that are barely relevant ( virtual reality – IOT) instead of practical help.

If digital had done its job on productivity, avoided distractions, and speeded up, used less bespoke coding, more technology horses for courses, local councils would not be on their knees.

Why has this happened? Bullshit and disrespect for subject matter experts.

Forgetting the basics like making sure all mobile workers can capture data at source on a mobile device.

What decade are we in in terms of stages of ‘digital’ maturity? place services maybe 2010. People services about 2000.

How?!You need to look at the issues as they are presented – the presentation layer and the underlying systems/ structures / causes at the same time.

What are the pre-requisites?

Where do we need to catch up?

What are the significant technologies that would enable much faster change ? Low code / mdm / mobile. Best of breed apps from the private sector (not patronising specialist public sector apps like Tyze) )

Why aren't the basics in place? (distraction)

What’s missing ? Not much. There’s no need to approach public sector tech like a trip to Westfield shopping mall.

What is the role of start ups? Is it relevant? What about the proliferation of loads of standalone apps. What about the admin burden on private individuals? What about the fragmentation of services and information? What about 2 tier standards? Why would people be willing to pay when they gave already paid taxes?

Don’t develop any public sector specific applications.

What should be our demands on big suppliers – get the APIs sorted. Insist on reduced public sector rates.

To understand civic tech – you need to understand civic processes . To innovate music tech – you need to understand music and musicians. Not just talk to music fans if you do that – you will end up with X factor hits – not music innovation.

Civicctech has on occasion talked to civic customers to help with design but never asked civic staff what they think needs to be done. Or optimised processes for them. this is why public services can’t survive the cuts. The burden of audit / oversight and regulation has increased rather than be unshackled because of financial control and the new power of corporate rather than customer facing functions.

If you have ever worked in public services you will know that the white collar processes – the record keeping and referrals – have not been designed or optimised but have grown either to reflect legislative changes ( gov , local gov) or medical advances ( health)

I imagine its the same for banks and the legal profession, any sector which has been around for over 50 years. Banks have the advantage that they have established highly standardised data exchange protocols. Government services and health do not.

You also need to know that a local Council runs 700 or so separate services (businesses) so is unlike any other organisation we know. Even Richard Branson doesn’t have the brio to try to fix that range of issues.

There are two pressures at work in Local Government.

1) consolidation – through fewer software contracts, big generic systems and Integration

The need to streamline and consolidate the information in order to serve the public better and have a fuller picture of each case and make better decisions. To do this they need to break down service silos, by grouping them together. At the same time councils are trying to reduce their sometimes 500+ fragmented and proprietary legacy applications and contract tie ins. Each of these represents a process designed to comply with legislation, hardcoded into a set of algorithms and end user interfaces. Some of these are monster systems similar to the big banks. They are huge integrated processing engines. Replacing them with a newer version does not change the operating model.

The reason to have a big system / contract is that the supplier is obliged to test and assure the internal interfaces. You don’t have to pay. For external customer interfaces you do. Most if the custom interfaces between the systems in councils are finsnce interfaces – for obvious reasons – to pay bills, collect money and have a central place to run off consolidated council accounts.

Need to be clear that if you have 6 separate supplier systems you will need to test / pay for extra support for up to 6x5x4x3x2 = 720 interfaces and you need to employ interface debugging experts. You will also need to maintain or create cross references in all the systems to accurately link data into single customer case files e.g. Nhs numbers.

This data Linking of personal records has not been addressed consistently

For 3 systems its 3x2x1x= 6

So where possible councils try to use generic workflow systems like SAP to reduce the number of software contracts. You can only go so far with that.

There is an optimum system size with regards to the number of services you can deliver. This is because you need to upgrade and security patch systems from time to time – and to do that you need a real life army of end users to be orchestrated to test in unison. If the system is too big, that becomes unmanageable ( National programme for IT in Health – for example). Its not practical.

For example – the Director of children’s services will not want to wait until refuse collection staff have completed their testing to upgrade the joint system to comply with recommendations from a serious case review into a child death. Just to be clear – in the public sector lots of the systems are life and death. System crashes – consolidated electronic case infomation unavailable – bad decisions – people may die. Its not Uber.

Integration also means interdependency. The same applies to the sensitivity of the data held in the system. You would not want your medical records held on your Twitter account. Someone has to be nominated as a data controller for all the data in that system. The more integration , the higher up the tree that needs to be and you don’t want the Chief Executive to be the data Controller for everything because its not practical – decisions have to be made day to day about data access.

Most councils have divided their services into people / place. Which really means people /assets. This is a tension for housing services where they have people living in places. So even that is imperfect.

Say you end up with 2 big systems – one for people, the second for assets then integrate them with corporate services and with external partners like the nhs and police. You also need to integrate them with mobile apps otherwise you get the age old problem of egovernment window dressing. An example if this is the complex integration of providers for parking – mobile apps, web forms, Cctv, telephony, old school meters, electronic meters etc. Integrated with parking databases, debt collection and finance systems. It can work when the data is not very sensitive and its generating income.

‘Financial Strategies’ in council services so far have mainly been around automating place services, cutting costs and increasing revenues.

The whole focus since 2000 has been on customer self service

Very little on staff productivity. People services decisions always require judgement.

People services have been the poor relation. No mobile devices.

What is the optimum grouping?

At the moment individual staff members log on to multiple systems and duplicate the inputting of data onto multiple systems – introducing error. They capture data on paper not electronically ( amazon delivery people haven’t used paper for 4 years at least?)

What is needed is ergonomists to systematically smooth out and speed up processes – with front line staff. They know what needs doing. E.g. My Great Ormond street example.

2) disruption by start ups and apps = fragmentation

For people services it will mean a new range of service providers / brokers. It will mean further outsourcing and a two tier system.

Perhaps all that will be left will be the safeguarding and preventing abuse of vulnerable people? Or maybe that will go to charities like in the Grenfell Tower situation ( Red Cross)

What will be left for Local gov to deal with? fragment what we know about people and families and prevent data informed approaches programs such as ‘troubled families’ – the data will be in individual apps managed by individuals such as the elderly or their relatives. The data will not be held by the state but by individual app providers? Do they have the info security expertise? What will they do with it? Will they be ethical? Some of the data will be about elderly vulnerable people and their finances for example.

A two tier system.

Apps created for public sector staff to use when there is something they use every day. E.g. Whatsapp for sharing xrays in health, time recoding systems used by legal firms. Appointment booking on google calendar etc. Hardly anything special needs to be created for public sector use.

People don’t want to download apps to their smartphones taking up storage unless they use them everyday. Don’t increase the admin burden on busy mums (mostly) sorting out everything for their parents and kids. its making them ill.

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