How our Round 5 projects are contributing to local government transformation
Before our selected projects begin their work on Round 6 of the Local Digital Fund, we’re taking a look back at projects from our previous round of funding, Round 5, and celebrating the significant digital transformation our partners have achieved.
In keeping with our mission to fund projects that address shared local service challenges in common, reusable ways, for Round 5 of the fund we asked applicants to submit bids under one of two themes: development platforms and software.
We also asked that projects should be in either the Alpha or Beta phase of agile delivery. Our thinking here was to move quickly into the developing and testing stage to see if we were meeting users’ needs. We received 49 applications from 40 councils and awarded 9 projects a total of £2,329,968.
From November 2021 onwards, these projects sought to find solutions to a range of needs, from improving how children’s placement data is captured and analysed to developing a new and flexible digital waste service.
During our Local Digital Roadshow in Spring and Summer 2022, we had the opportunity to meet in-person with 119 individuals from councils across England, including many from our funded projects. This gave us the opportunity to explore the challenges faced by local government in more detail and identify the sectors in particular need of innovation to inform our strategy for Round 6.
Leon Ackie, Sheldon Ferguson, Charlotte Barnes and myself, Tom Lowndes, led as Collaboration Managers and each of us have taken the time to provide our reflections on Local Digital Fund Round 5 projects below.
Round 5 Alpha projects
Project: Low-code patterns for housing management
Led by: London Borough of Redbridge
Funding awarded: £150,000
This Alpha project sought to explore the development of a housing management platform that enabled local authorities to move away from inflexible housing management solutions.
With Amido (now Ensono digital) as the project delivery team in place (with previous experience of housing systems at Hackney), they set about looking for common patterns across a range of service journeys.
The shortlist of common design patterns was finally judged on whether they could be designed, built and tested within 12 weeks.
Another challenge was what software platform the team would use. With the requirement of low code software, Redbridge took the unusual step of paying for three different providers, Netcall, Placecube and Rapid, to take the designs and develop a process that met user needs.
The uploading of evidence to the platform and ensuring it was accessible for tenants with a diverse range of digital skills proved a challenge but the team was able to iterate the initial designs with quality user research and deliver wireframes to the three software developers.
Redbridge delivered an Alpha report in June 2022 with links to demonstrations of Rapid’s Change of Tenants name, Netcall’s Sole to joint tenancy application and Placecube’s Sole to joint tenancy application. Tom Harrison, Programme Director at the London Borough of Redbridge, was confident the Alpha had demonstrated they had met the user needs and applied for CFM funding to take the project into a private Beta, starting in October 2022 and working this time with TPXimpact.
Watch the Show and Tell of their first sprint to find out about the fascinating world of strangler patterns.
Project: A community grants service
Led by: Newcastle City Council
Funding awarded: £123,320
This project aimed to combine the process of users submitting grant applications with back office systems to ensure a seamless, timely and efficient process.
Like many councils, Newcastle City Council fosters local change and development through specific funds such as Ward Grants and Clean Air Funds. However this is a labour intensive process and open to fraud.
TPXimpact were procured by the project team to bring in a user researcher and an agile delivery team who, alongside low code provider Netcall, developed an minimum viable product that was tested on fund applicants, the council fraud team and grant application staff.
Finding time with the council officers for testing was an obstacle the delivery team had to overcome once an initial prototype was developed.
Newcastle were pleased with the result so they moved from an Alpha development into a private Beta with a successful Continuous Funding application in November 2022.
Project: Children’s Placement Portal
Led by: Birmingham City Council
Funding awarded: £148,135
This project, led by Birmingham City Council on behalf of the West Midlands Strategic Network, sought to improve how children’s placement data is captured and analysed. By doing this, important data such as demand, supply and cost can be used to enable a more strategic and cost efficient approach to child placement across the region.
The West Midlands Strategic Network represents 14 councils that all currently use the same system for placing children in fostering and residential care placements. Although the portal is ‘digital’, the information that flows through it can be in various formats which makes it difficult to analyse.
The goal of the Alpha phase was to test the hypothesis that digitising the contracting process will enable better analysis due to more reliable data.
By establishing a common data model, important data such as demand, supply and cost can be used to enable a more strategic and cost efficient approach to child placement across the region.
Savings from implementation of the portal will be derived not just from resource efficiencies but through improved, digitised business processes. Savings will also be achieved through market information being structured in a form that makes it easier for commissioners to analyse trends, and manage the market through evidence-based decision making.
The Beta phase for the project commences in February 2023 with the intention for the portal to be in place from April 2024.
Round 5 Beta projects
Project: A task management tool for neighbourhood services staff working in the field
Led by: Colchester Borough Council
Funding awarded: £286,000
This project aimed to develop a platform that enables tasks and requests logged online by customers to route directly to officers in the field.
Their Beta tool was built via their Microsoft Power BI team and Colchester were able to work with two neighbouring authorities, Maldon and Tendring District Councils in order to rapidly test and potentially scale.
The team were faced with multiple challenges including how to locate rural incidents, uploading evidence to cases whilst out of 5G connectivity and how accessibility was impacted by weather and light conditions. Colchester were also reliant on their team to deliver this project against a deadline and were hit hard by illness caused by a spike in COVID-19 cases.
This didn’t stop the team developing, testing and launching the new features and they are now in the active stage of working with Microsoft to share this application across other local authority users.
Project: A collaborative platform for care workers and volunteers to support vulnerable individuals
Led by: Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead
Funding awarded: £245,113
This project planned to bridge the gap between public sector services and the wider community. The aim of the platform is to allow multiple professionals to refer individuals in-need, and alert volunteers that are able to help via a smartphone notification.
For this Beta, the team worked hard on the completion of two key areas in Spring 2022. First was the finalisation of its architecture and approach on triaging requests for support, whether they should be handled by primary care: general practitioners; secondary care: NHS and council support; or to local volunteer groups: Magpies in the Community, Good Gym and others. This was essential in ensuring requests were received correctly. The second was familiarising participants with the app and its software, but also to test it to the point of breaking. This was crucial for establishing trust and confidence in the platform.
Following a thorough testing process, the project successfully went live and started serving its community in July 2022.
Project: Offline data input tool for field working council staff
Led by: Birmingham City Council
Funding awarded: £350,000
The aim of this Beta project was to develop a platform that enables field workers, including Caretakers and Rent Collection Officers, to capture data to present casework in a consistent format, and the ability to assign ‘risk markers’ to people or places.
Birmingham has over 3000 staff who can be categorised as field workers, whose duties involve meeting residents and managing council properties and services. Each planned visit requires access to sensitive information held on a variety of databases, such as Northgate Housing. Being able to access this information securely on a mobile device enables an efficient use of staff time.
This project also sought to address another key concern for managers and field workers, risk and risk marking. To ensure the risk marking worked effectively, it needed to be contextualised, location specific, up-to-date and accessible in the field, with the ability to update it in real time.
After extensive user acceptance testing in December 2022, myself (Tom Lowndes) and Dan Jones, Local Digital’s Digital Content Producer, visited Birmingham to document the delivery of these new features. A video case study will be made available in February.
2023 sees the team roll the application out across other business lines in Birmingham City Council and promote the tool in the Microsoft application repository. They are now considering an application for public Beta funding via the Continuous Funding Model to continue the progress of this project.
Project: A reusable directory of community services
Led by: Royal Borough of Greenwich
Funding awarded: £350,000
This project seeks to develop a reusable directory of community services that makes it easier for residents to find community services, creates a more sustainable way to publish and update content connected to those services, and that is easy to adopt for other local authorities.
The team are working with their chosen partner, TPXimpact, to develop an easier-to-use version of Outpost, an open source directories tool which serves as the back-end to the directory, as well as exploring how they can connect this tool to their website, which uses LocalGov Drupal. Although the team have had some delays in moving the work forward, they’ve worked hard to make Outpost easier for other local authorities to adopt, including making improvements to the product itself and ensuring it’s compliant with Open Referral UK. They also created a proof-of-concept to demonstrate how Outpost could be integrated with LocalGov Drupal, which the team will be using for their front-end interface.
Alongside this work, the team has created a community around Outpost, which had its first meeting in January 2023. Going forward, the team will be sharing more information about how they have been designing their directory to support other local authorities to make improvements to their directories.
The team are aiming to wrap up their Beta in May 2023, and are continuing to engage other councils in their work. You can find out more on their project website or by watching their Show and Tells.
Project: Special Education Needs top-up funding service
Led by: Bristol City Council
Funding awarded: £312,400
Led by Bristol City Council, this project set out to develop a digitalised Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) top-up portal to make it easier and more consistent for schools to apply for extra funding for pupils with SEND.
Our funding supported the project team to expand on what they had built during their Alpha and Beta Phase 1 to create a fully working Beta tool. The code and guidance for the tool is hosted on Github for other councils to access and use.
After completing the Beta phase, the team are busy testing the tool with a selection of schools in Bristol and are also going through a public consultation within Bristol City Council so it can be fully implemented.
The tool that the team created could also be used for applying for Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) funding. The team are aware that this would benefit more than just Bristol City Council and are preparing an application for Continuous Funding in the new financial year to expand the tool further.
Project: Low Code Digital Waste Service
Led by: Rugby Borough Council
Funding awarded: £350,000
This project sought to develop a flexible digital waste service that integrates front-end resident user requests with back office delivery functions.
The team has now completed its private beta phase, which delivered functionality for finding collection dates, booking a bulky waste collection, reporting a missed collection, requesting assisted collections, requesting new bins and containers, and subscribing to garden waste collections. Due to time and funding constraints, a number of services were not delivered however it is the intention of the project team to deliver the outstanding requirements as part of their second beta phase.
Looking forward, PlaceCube plans to incorporate business account and commerce features to create a minimal viable product for traded services such as Commercial Waste. This work would be based upon a discovery that has been conducted by Dorset Council.
The project team has submitted its application for continuous funding and their submission will be presented to a panel in late January 2023.
Connectors are available for a number of back office systems including the WebAspx, Whitespace and Echo waste management systems; the Capita Pay 360, Civica and GOV.UK Pay payment systems; and Microsoft 365 calendar bookings.
The service is accessible for councils through Placecube’s Digital Place platform, and can be installed and enabled from the pre-installed list of connectors and the forms manager. Councils will be able to easily configure these low code forms to meet both the specific delivery needs of their local services, as well as their current waste management system requirements and PlaceCube will be available for support and/or training.
Alternatively, the code can also be downloaded from BitBucket and configured to work with a council’s implementation of Liferay DXP.
What’s next for our Round 5 projects?
Of the nine funded projects, two were delivered in Autumn 2022 — the Task Management tool for neighbourhood staff working the field and Offline data input tool for field working council staff. A further two are heading towards delivery in Spring 2023 — A reusable directory of community services and Special Education Needs top-up funding service. The remaining five will continue their journey developing products and services via the Continuous Funding Model.
What’s next for the Local Digital Fund?
We have learnt so much from our close collaboration with projects in Round 5 and continue to be committed to supporting innovation in local government and amplifying the power of Local Digital funding.
We will announce the selected Round 6 projects in the coming weeks, which will launch in February 2023. You can follow their progress on Twitter, LinkedIn, the DLUHC Digital Blog, and in our fortnightly Sprint Notes and newsletter.
On a personal note, my admiration for the efforts of our local authorities, delivery agencies and platform developers to try and meet the user needs and adhere to the agile principles knows no bounds, and I look forward to seeing what’s next for councils.
Tom Lowndes, Local Digital Collaboration & Engagement Manager