BoPS: The story of a back office planning system

jack ricketts
Jun 11, 2020 · 4 min read

Part Two — How, practically, do we scale a new service?

“So, we’re going live on Tuesday 9th”

“Fantastic. What happens on Wednesday 10th?”

It’s a good question, but not one that any of us have really needed to asked before now.

In my previous blog post I explained why we’re focussing on building a user centred system for planning officers to assess permitted development applications from householders. Not unique to us, or this project, but what happens when we’ve finished building the software? Who will use it, continue to develop it, or even own it?

We are where we are because, until recently, there has been no real alternative to outsourcing a local government service like this. Consequently, we’ve never needed to think about ownership, because they own it and everything to do with it…we just pay them. There’s no model or pattern for us to follow, so let’s make our own.

It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones. ”

― Niccolò Machiavelli [on legacy software, allegedly]

Well, if our research and testing is anything to go by, I’m pretty certain we have more than lukewarm defenders.

I read something last year which essentially said that by not challenging legacy systems, we are publicly announcing that “this is acceptable”. I would also add that, by not challenging the status quo, we completely veto our right to moan about it. In early research, someone questioned why we (the council) were designing a new service, saying , ‘We’re planners. We shouldn’t be doing this. We should get out of this market.’ Yet, we know from research with over 40 people working in councils, that existing systems genuinely make it harder for planners to do their jobs. So why shouldn’t they be involved in designing a better alternative? If we’re not the market…….?

So what does happen on Wednesday 10th. Well, we know that BoPS will need to be ‘owned’ and supported, but by whom?

This new service must be managed and maintained by a group which seeks to achieve the following:

  • The continued development of the service, driven by the people who use it
  • Funded by those who benefit
  • Reinvestment, not profit
  • Standards, of both data and ethics
  • Open data, source and culture

But how will we achieve this?

By ensuring that those responsible:

  • Design, iterate and operate a shared digital platform
  • Publish reports on the quality of data and write publicly about its work
  • Commission research on the effectiveness of planning policy, based on the data held
  • Convene a community of users of the service
  • Monitor and adapt to changes in legal and policy frameworks
  • Exist to create and increase public value
  • Respond to change and scale of use over time
  • Oh, and did I say: design, iterate and operate a shared digital platform

The most appealing option is something along the lines of a community interest company (CIC), such as LoGov — a governance platform for the co-operative ownership of local government services.

If we assume a CIC is the solution, it should have some principles, or a code of ethics. For example:

  • It should be seen as fair, accountable, trustworthy and independent
  • Must not seek private investment or ownership
  • Be transparent and open
  • Remain focused on its original mission (in our case that’s to make it easier and quicker to assess planning applications)
  • Believe in using data to make better decisions
  • Has an open-source culture, to protect the future of the service
  • Empowers local government

These are just some of the things we are exploring and there are Teckal and LATC rabbit holes galore to go crazy down. We are just at the start of that conversation.

It is hoped that this, and the other Digital Fund projects, will help local government’s acceptance of change and innovation. By testing this operational model with BoPS we will limit any disruption to authorities, which traditionally accompanies ‘change’, and try to answer the question “can local gov collaborate to create an open culture movement to maintain public digital infrastructure and break its reliance on legacy providers?”.

By deploying BoPS, we hope to illustrate that an effective service, one based around the user, is not only pleasurable to use, but cheaper and more efficient — dare I use the local gov cliché ‘more for less’.

This post borrows heavily from much better ones written by Richard Kingston at Barnsley Council and Richard Pope.

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