Management > CIO

Starting with the citizen

David Bicknell Published 17 June 2014

In the first of a two-part article, Socitm president Nick Roberts discusses understanding citizens' needs better and the 'relationship' stage of digital - but rules out creating a single site


Socitm, the professional association for public sector IT and digital leaders, yesterday ruled out the idea of creating a single site that brings together information and services for all local government users in the way that Gov.UK does for central government.

It described the idea as "ill-conceived" and said that although the idea sounds attractive, on closer inspection the single local government website concept is deeply flawed.

However, Socitm said it welcomes and actively supports development of a common platform to enable the sharing of software tools and applications used in local government, including those that support self-service delivery through local authorities' websites and other digital channels.

The concept of a single local government website, mooted in a recent report by Policy Exchange has meant Socitm's new president, Nick Roberts, IT Group Manager for Surrey County Council, has found himself already having to co-ordinate a response for the group, both for the Policy Exchange suggestion, and the public discussion that followed

In the wake of previous discussions that Socitm had been involved in around the public services network, Roberts has been involved in discussions with both PSN partnership groups and the Cabinet Office in moving forward to a different discussion around PSN, beyond some of the recent debate over compliance.

"I have spent time with Cabinet Office PSN representatives, giving our view as the regional PSN for Surrey and Berkshire, but also as an authority, on what it means to us. For example, what do we have to do to fit in with the current compliance regime but still try and deliver as much value as possible? Being able to have that more direct conversation is the real benefit of doing the Socitm president's job and my organisation sees that."


Roberts is benefiting from the continuing commitment of his predecessor, Steve Halliday at Solihull, as well as Dylan Roberts at Leeds, with the three working closely together.

"We had a call recently for an hour on PSN and on the various groups where we're taking these matters forwards. So there is very good continuity - from Steve in his previous presidential role, and from Dylan in the closeness that he's got to the Solutions Advisory Group (SAG) and his colleague, Ralph McNally, who's working for Dylan on that stuff. So yes, it forms a good group, and there's a lot of shared learning there.

"It's really good that Steve is not saying, 'I've done my year. I'm stepping away.' And frankly, it would be very easy for his organisation to say, 'We've given you a lot of latitude. We want you 100% of the time now.' But no, they've seen the value there and Solihull has been involved with the Government Digital Service (GDS) exemplar around missed bins."

In the next phase, Surrey will be one of nine authorities that are providing transactional data on their largest numbers of transactions.

"For us our largest transaction is with libraries because we do a lot of library stuff online, renewing books, fines, reserving etc," says Roberts. "We now have an app that's come out in the last couple of months. It's a very practical way of transacting with libraries which actually a covers an awful lot of transactions. Well over a million transactions a year."

The relationship phase of digital

Roberts sees the next (second) phase of the GDS relationship providing greater variety in the types of transactions with two later phases then taking some of the transaction models and encouraging organisations nationally to take the models and start using them.

So what lessons does Roberts see emerging from the relationship with GDS?

"I think it's quite early days, because clearly Mike Bracken and his team's focus is very much on central government. They have very clear targets to deliver the digital exemplars and to get those in on time to show some business return. They don't have any of those same targets for local government. So there is a desire and a willingness to work together and that came out of the Socitm autumn conference last year. There are good learnings to be gained by working together."

Roberts adds that it is important to recognise that although central government does an enormous quantity of transactions, a lot of them are single-use, one time transactions.

"Local government probably does 80% of the transactions in government and a lot of the local government transactions are complex ones. Doing a one-time 'blue badge' or renewing your car tax may be a repeat transaction, but it is not a relationship transaction.

"On the other hand, if you want to manage a package of care for a disabled or elderly adult, you need an ongoing weekly or monthly relationship to manage that package, to adjust it, to manage the credits and debits, to select different providers, and to be guided as to what's appropriate at the time for that changing need.

"That requires a relationship transaction which is far more complex and far more currently people-based and trust-based. I'd rather speak to someone because I trust their interpretation of how I should access the services better than my interpretation. If I go and do it myself online, I might get it wrong and I might not get the best possible deal."

Roberts argues that as organisations get into the relationship stage, which is the next stage of 'digital', the initial transactions will be straightforward, simple, high-volume transactions.

"And that's a good place to start," he says. "Digital goes from vision to value when you start to do the complex transactions and you are able to engender enough trust in the service users that they trust the digital access method to be able to give them the right results. But to do that we have to fundamentally redesign the way systems work at the moment. For me I think the last year has been about promoting and educating what digital's about."

Citizen focus
Roberts argues that while elements such as agile are important in the digital story, another increasingly important focus is about citizen focus.

"We are starting with the citizen and saying, 'What business do they want to do with us?' and then walking through with them on that journey. We should be asking them, 'What do you want to do with us? What's the importance to you?' And then we should accompany that with what must we do with them, either legally, or what we should do to safeguard or protect them, whether it's around environmental health or trading standards etc. There are certain things we have to be proactive about and there are a whole number of things about which the citizen will contact us when they need us. Most of the time they don't want to have to contact us.But when they do they want it to be simple."

Roberts' point is that the entire systems architecture in government has moved over the last ten years from predominantly 'build' - witness the days of big development teams, mainframes and fourth generation languages (4GLs) - to predominantly 'buy'.

"And now we rely on a supply chain to provide the solutions," says Roberts. "We might configure. We might bespoke a little bit on top, but predominantly, we are buying stuff on proprietary platforms. Those platforms are based mainly around the organisational function and the structure of the organisation. So they are built from the base up.

"And that's a real problem when you want to do digital because most of the digital solutions that we've seen have been bolt-ons. You get a website and you build a digital interface and it looks really good to the citizen. But it's not embedded with the back end system. The back end system does what it's always done which is around how you're organised as a business and you're streaming in different transactions."

Instead, Roberts believes 'digital' should be about starting with the citizen.

"What do they actually need and what do they want from us. If they don't want it from us, and we don't need to do it, we shouldn't be doing it. In some early cases where organisations have tried that, whether it's on a proprietary platform like, or on a more generic open source type platform, starting genuinely at the citizen and working down, they've found 40% of the stuff they do really isn't very relevant. It is around organisational function rather than value to the citizen. If you didn't do it, they wouldn't care. So you could potentially make a lot of business efficiencies by not doing that stuff. Clearly there may be one touch every six months where a person might need something. But you can sometimes do things in a different way and save a lot of money."

From vision to value

Roberts argues that you are not just changing the process, you are also fundamentally changing the business and changing the culture of the organisation at the same time.

"That's where the real value from digital comes. What we've been trying to do since austerity is make what we've got more efficient. To streamline what we have but staying with the same functions. Instead, this is about changing the functions, which is fundamentally different.

"This really will give the bigger savings because we have the opportunity to say, 'Who else is doing these functions? Who can we join up with?' Because if we're going to change the business model anyway, we might do it differently, we might collaborate, we might do various things."

What that means over the next year is a challenge in changing the conversation with the (IT) supply chain. For Roberts, it means saying, "Look, what we've got isn't going to get us through the next five years. You guys out there have either got to fundamentally change what you've got. If not, we've got to change in parallel and migrate to something else because we've got the choice now of building or buying again."

That may bring its own concerns, Roberts admits.

"If we build, we've got to increase our in-house development capabilities and all that sort of thing. And I do have a fear that everyone will say, 'Well, we can't buy what we want, so we'll all build.' And that means we'll all do it 500 times. And everyone will build something individually.

"The smart bit of the equation is getting enough co-ordination in the local public sector so we have exemplars and centres of excellence that we can buy into. I quite like the idea of the Gov.UK platform as a single platform that's transactional. You can put some transactions on and everyone can use it. And they can brand it according to their local authority. It doesn't look like Gov.UK necessarily but the basic format and structure makes a lot of sense. The underlying platform and engine would give single transactions that multiple organisations could use."

Roberts sees a number of hybrid solutions emerging. "There are some very good websites, in the local public sector, and those websites are changing quite significantly as we move towards a mobile interface. They are much more text-based, with less emphasis on the images. The idea is make it fast access - pick a transaction and go straight to it rather than navigating through departments and services to get to what you want.

"Some of this stuff's good. If we can embed into it transactions from a shared platform so that multiple organisations can use the same underlying engine, and then tap it into the back end, I think that's a good thing. I think it's more likely to be that than a wholesale transition over to say a Gov.UK platform."

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