Image credit Deborah Fitchett

Against seamless services

(or why they won’t lead to Local Government as a Platform)

Seamlessness — great for underwear, less so for local government.

The desire for seamless services creates perverse incentives within councils to establish a monoculture of centrally controlled and closed services — at odds with the promise of government as a platform.

The recent Connected Councils report from Nesta sets out an inspiring vision of what could be possible when forward-thinking local authorities show the necessary leadership.

“Seamless integration across all government services means that users verify their identity once, through voice- or thumbprint. Where beneficial, there’s instant data sharing across services unless people explicitly opt out. Two-dimensional council websites have been replaced by interactive digital platforms that connect users with third-party apps and services.”

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? But there’s a problem: if seamless integration is approached the wrong way, it can reduce choice and limit the ability of the citizen to use the service they are most comfortable with — ‘seamless services’ are more often at odds with the promise of an ecosystem of services where council, third sector and commercial, all work together.

At mySociety we know a lot about creating well used public services, having established in 2007. FixMyStreet provides a single place to report non-urgent street, parks or highways issues, such as potholes, graffiti, fly-tipping and broken streetlights affecting local communities.

People love FixMyStreet because it makes it so easy to address the problems they experience within their own neighbourhoods.

And it’s a service that doesn’t require any integration or even permission from local authorities (although there are benefits to councils who integrate FixMyStreet with their internal systems using the Open311 open standard).

The Nesta report acknowledges that:

“dedicated apps for smartphones or desktops can be used for specific purposes, such as FixMyStreet which is used to report problems such as broken potholes or streetlights. This makes it easier for place-shaping activities to respond in a targeted way to the needs and preferences of local people.”

In the vast majority of cases local councils are happy to receive reports from FixMyStreet, but from time to time we hear about council staff having to rekey FixMyStreet reports into their own internal systems when an issue is reported via email, which is illustrated by this recent example.

A local resident had complained to their MP that their council was no longer accepting issues reported through FixMyStreet, yet the decision to restrict fault reporting via FixMyStreet and other services was taken on the basis of improving the customer experience.

Having to rekey reports can of course be burdensome, but should be seen as a symptom of poorly integrated, closed internal services.

When a local authority decides to invest in a smart case management system or new service front end, this should be seen as an opportunity to embrace open standards that would enable a mix of services to submit reports into the council’s system, and automatically notify on progress and resolution through the same app — adopting open standards from the outset and especially when implementing a new system can neatly take care of this issue.

Instead in this example an opportunity has been missed, local citizens can no longer use the service they are happiest with, and another route to a true ecosystem is closed. If this reaction was to be replicated across all councils for all third party services the dream of a shared digital platform would remain quite remote.

Fortunately it is possible to do this well; and save money and time along the way. Councils across the country already use our Open311 enabled FixMyStreet to interface directly with their internal systems, clearly setting out the relationship between each service, eliminating duplication of effort and resolving the issue via the citizen’s method of choice.

Realising Local Government as a Platform

GDS’s vision for government as platform is encapsulated within this excellent tidy diagram.

Government as a Platform, from Government Digital Services (GDS)

An ecosystem of services, from a multitude of suppliers and internal systems, sit upon a mix of common platforms, enabled by secure layers of trust and consent and underpinned by canonical registers of accurate and well maintained registers. This is of course good stuff and exactly what we should be aiming for.

A thriving ecosystem requires diversity, richness and complexity. It’s entirely possible for a multitude of front end services to sit comfortably together, speaking a language of common standards and linked by the web.

A report or request can be made on a third party site, which could verify your identity via a trusted identity service, with the transaction completed on the council’s own site, so long as each part is neatly delineated and it’s always clear as to where to you are in your journey. Anyone who’s paid for services via a well-implemented Paypal link will be familiar with this type of user journey.

Matt Jones formerly of Berg, wrote about the connections between things in 2012:

“Beautiful seams attract us to the legible surfaces of a thing, and allow our imagination in — so that we start to build a model in our minds (and appreciate the craft at work, the values of the thing, the values of those that made it, and how we might adapt it to our values — but that’s another topic).”

Where services meet they can politely communicate with each other, elegantly making just the right exchanges, and clearly signposting where you are and what’s happening. These beautiful seams between services, are as Matt suggests, essential to building the values of the thing; in this case of trust, security and competence that we demand from our local services. They give citizens confidence that they are in control of the process, with clarity on where to go next.

Without a clear delineation between services it is much more difficult to orientate yourself within the process, which becomes opaque and closed.

Beautiful seams between services are a prerequisite for a genuine ecosystem approach, where citizens can decide for themselves through which channel or service, either internal or third party, they wish to transact.

‘Government as a Platform’ need not and should not be mistaken for the adoption of closed proprietary services. Each step taken in rethinking a service from the ground up, built around user needs, is an opportunity to move towards a truly open ecosystem of interoperable software, built with open standards, allowing others to establish alternative front doors to your services which will be better for everyone.

Whenever you do create a new service, make sure it’s built upon open standards to gain all the benefits of a true ecosystem, with elegant handovers marked of course by beautiful seams.

The moral of this story? Don’t let seamless integration lead you down a path of closed centralised services. Don’t let your idea of perfection prevent citizens from actually using the services they want to use.