How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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A digital identity crisis: is slow progress costing citizens and business?

A steel padlock on a brown wooden gate

By Steven McGinty

The government’s flagship digital identity programme, GOV.UK Verify, has not been short of problems lately. However, news that benefit claimants have been unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) because of problems using the service highlight that its failings are having real-world consequences.

In February, government statistics showed that only 30% of claimants were able to use GOV.UK Verify – well below the projected 80%. Further, research in the London Borough of Croydon found that even with one-to-one support only one in five people could prove their identity.

A history of problems

Problems were identified in the National Audit Office’s Digital transformation in government report in March 2017. The NAO found that the service, which was expected to simplify how citizens verified their identity to government agencies, had missed its initial launch date of 2012. Instead, only nine out of twelve services had been launched four years later in 2016.

Government departments who were expected to come on board have also thought twice. In December 2017, NHS England’s chief digital officer Juliet Bauer announced that they’d be developing their own digital identity system (although did suggest that GOV.UK Verify may be used for services which have less sensitive information). Similarly, HMRC announced last month that they will develop their own identity service – based on their 15-year-old Government Gateway Service – with rumours suggesting they have no confidence in the government’s solution.

With this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Civil Service Chief Executive and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni has brought in management consultancy McKinsey to conduct a review into how digital identity could work within the public sector.

Community Weekly’s Editor in chief, Bryan Glick, suggests this review could lead to a fundamental rethink and the introduction of ‘Verify Compliant’. He explains that:

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

The impact of Brexit

David Bicknell, editor at Government Computing, suggests that Brexit preparations have pushed the transformation strategy – including GOV.UK Verify – off the agenda.

However, Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has a different take on things. In his view, the GDS is continuing to deliver improved digital services, highlighting that GOV.UK Verify is available to local councils and is used by the Land Registry to support their new digital mortgage service.

Why the UK needs to tackle digital identity

People are increasingly using digital services to shop online, pay bills, and to interact with different levels of government. However, even though technology has dramatically changed, much of how people prove their identity is still paper based. For instance, paperless bank account holders still have to request paper documents to prove their address (possibly at an additional cost).

New industries such as the sharing economy, which includes the likes of Airbnb and Uber, rely on secure digital identity verification. Government has a responsibility to lead from the front and protect this ever-growing number of customers. For example, Airbnb customers across the world have experienced thefts from properties from criminals using false identification.

More generally, there has been a rise in identity fraud. According to fraud prevention charity Cifas, this now represents the majority of all fraud cases (approximately 56% in the first six months of 2017). An inability to verify identity is likely to have contributed to this increase.

In addition, many people are financially and socially excluded by a lack of photographic identification ID such as a passport or a driver’s license – particularly those from low income backgrounds or who have been in prison. This lack of ID can act as a barrier when applying for government benefits or financial services.

Gunnar Nordseth, CEO at digital identity provider Signicat, also argues that a failure to introduce a digital identity scheme could have serious consequences for the UK’s financial industry (especially the emerging fintech sector). He explains that GOV.UK Verify isn’t ‘fatally flawed’ but needs to be more ambitious, observing that:

Unlike other European digital ID schemes GOV.UK Verify is limited to the public sector, does not support financial services and is not interoperable with its continental counterparts.”

Final thoughts

Tackling the digital identity crisis won’t be easy. But recent statements acknowledging the challenges of GOV.UK Verify and the calling of a review suggest the Government Digital Service (GDS) are listening to concerns.

However, this time for reflection mustn’t last too long. Getting digital identity right has the potential to improve services for citizens, create efficiencies in government and business, and ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in the burgeoning digital economy.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

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Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020: has it been worth the wait?

Whitehall, London

By Steven McGinty

On 9 Feb 2017, and after over a year of delays, the UK Government finally published the Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020.

It’s been a long time since the Government Digital Strategy was published in 2012. Therefore, it’s understandable that politicians, industry leaders and media commentators have been frustrated by the lack of a new strategy in 2016.

In January 2017, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) warned that the UK risked being left behind and losing its competitive advantage in the digital economy because of its ‘absence of clarity and strategic focus’.

Similarly, Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, wrote a letter to digital minister Matt Hancock highlighting his disappointment at the lack of a government digital strategy.

However, now that the Government Transformation Strategy is here, what does it say and will it have a lasting impact?

A brief overview

According to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the Government Transformation Strategy is:

“The most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world, by a government that has already done more to transform itself than any other.”

It sets out the government’s aim to build on the success of the 2012 strategy, and to not only focus on improving the citizen experience but to change the way services are delivered. The strategy states that the government will achieve this by transforming:

  • Whole citizen-facing services – ensuring an improved experience for citizens, businesses and users within the public sector
  • Full government departments – enabling organisations to deliver policy objectives more flexibly, improving citizen experience, and working more efficiently
  • Internal government – supporting the collaboration of government departments and delivering digitally-enabled change more effectively

However, the majority of the strategy is structured around five main objectives:

Business transformation

Government departments have made significant progress over recent years.  The strategy explains that lessons have been learned through this service transformation process, and that there is now cross-government agreement on the key areas that transformation must focus on. These include bringing policy development and service design closer together and recognising that government services are delivered through a variety of channels (online, telephone and face-to-face).

Grow the right people, skills and culture

Since 2012, government departments have been recruiting digital, data and technology specialists to improve their digital capability. However, the strategy accepts that the public sector is working in a competitive market and that recruiting and retaining staff is likely to remain a challenge. Embedding a new culture is also identified as an important enabler of change, with several goals highlighted, including increasing civil servants’ knowledge of digital and improving digital experts’ understanding of government.

The Digital Academy, which was formed in 2014 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will be transferred (by the end of 2017) to the Government Digital Service (GDS) to create nationwide training opportunities for civil servants.

Build better tools, processes and governance for civil servants

Civil servants vary widely in how they work, including the digital technologies they use and their approach to policy development. The new strategy explains that the government will create a better working environment by developing common and interoperable technologies that can be shared across government and adopt a more agile working environment.

Make better use of data

Data is vital for providing services that meet the needs of citizens. However, the strategy emphasises that the government must earn the public’s trust in managing data safely, securely, and ethically.

Create shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities

The government has already had some success in introducing shared platforms, such as GOV.UK – a publishing platform which brought together over 300 government agencies’ and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. The strategy outlines the steps to be taken to encourage the development of new technologies, including leaving large single contracts with IT firms – a practice which is deemed a barrier to providing better technologies for civil servants – and purchasing from a wider variety of suppliers, such as SMEs.

From digital to transformation

It’s important to note that the strategy’s title has changed: from a digital strategy to a transformation strategy.

Jane Roberts, strategy director at Kable, suggests that this reflects the government’s realisation that digitisation is not a process with a defined end date, but a ‘constant dynamic ongoing process.’ Government, says Roberts, now understands that digitisation involves more than just moving services online, and that whole scale change is needed, from encouraging civil servants to work more collaboratively (including sharing cross-governmental data), to digitising back office processes.

In addition, Roberts also highlights the need for digital services to be designed to cope with this dynamic process. This includes supporting the integration of new technologies – particularly those related to the Internet of Things (the use of internet technology to connect everyday items) – and responding to increased citizen demand for greater control over their personal data.

What does it mean for local government?

The Government Transformation Strategy makes no comment on the challenges facing local government. However, London Borough of Camden councillor, Theo Blackwell, suggests that the strategy leaves scope for a ‘digital settlement’ to be developed between central and local government. He observes that the strategy:

leaves the door open for this discussion to be starting and concluded in short order, kickstarted by elected mayors and combined authorities in May 2017, and building on the groundwork of the last two years”.

Mr Blackwell also sets out what needs to be done to achieve this digital settlement:

  • Support the ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as improvement – encouraging local councils who have already made progress with digital transformation to work together, as well as helping struggling councils to improve;
  • Open platforms and a new market for start-ups – enabling the development of platforms and smaller start-up companies;
  • Shared Resource – developing partnerships between local councils and central government, which fund digital initiatives jointly.

Missed opportunity

The strategy has also received a significant amount of criticism for its lack of detail and limited commitments. Independent digital analyst, Jos Creese, has described the strategy as:

“…a mix of re-packaged principles and refreshed ‘transformational government’ themes, coupled with some new but not revolutionary ideas.

Creese argues that there is a general lack of pace with government programmes, such as with GOV.UK Verify – an identity assurance platform that allows people to prove who they are when using government services. And – unlike Theo Blackwell – Creese believes that the lack of collaboration between central government and the wider public sector is a missed opportunity (particularly as 80% of public services are outside central government). In his view, the strategy should have addressed some of the fundamental challenges facing local services, such as healthcare and crime prevention.

Final thoughts

Although the Government Transformation Strategy has received a mixed response since it was first published, there are certainly positives which provide hope for the future. Firstly, it was important that the strategy was finally published to provide a clearer indication of the government’s future direction.  Secondly, in the coming months, the government will have the opportunity to provide greater clarity, and set out how they intend to achieve the praiseworthy objectives of the strategy and realise the full potential of digital transformation.


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Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

Light-streamed highways heading towards the city

By Steven McGinty

From steam trains to electric trains, bicycles to Segways, the transport sector is constantly innovating. Although much of the excitement revolves around high profile developments in self-driving vehicles and private space travel, there are many up-and-coming technologies that could make a great deal of difference to both transport professionals and the average traveller.

The driving force behind these innovations is data.  By gathering, analysing, processing and disseminating travel information, we can make better use of the transport infrastructure we have around us. Developing new technologies and business models that use transport data in innovative ways will be key to improving journeys and creating real benefits.

Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

Many companies – such as Masabi and Whim – currently offer ‘mobility-as-a-service’ apps that allow travellers to compare journeys on different modes of transport. Travel agents purchase tickets in bulk and monitor real time travel data from airports and other transport operators. And travellers can use ‘digital wallet’ services such as Google Wallet to store their tickets in their smartphones. However, these services can be complex to navigate, and don’t always offer travellers the option to update or change their tickets in real time. The MSP concept involves utilising the transport infrastructure that’s currently in place, but also providing travellers with the flexibility to change their planned journey if conditions change e.g. cancellation of a service.

There is also the potential for ‘insured travel’, where MSPs could guarantee that a traveller reaches their destination by a specific time. This, according to professional services firm KPMG, would be more complex, as it would require using big data analytics to estimate the risk of delay and pricing the journey accordingly. In Holland, travellers are already able to purchase insurance along with their railway ticket to Schiphol Airport. If a train is delayed – resulting in a traveller missing their flight – the rail operator will book them onto the next available flight.

Data and traffic management

The development of ‘connected cars’, which transmit real time location data, and greater coordination between smartphone and satnav providers, will mean that transport professionals will increasingly have access to a wide variety of travel information. As a result, a more ‘holistic approach’ can be taken to traffic management. For instance, public sector road managers could group drivers by certain routes, in order to avoid or worsen traffic congestion problems.

Cloud Amber is one of the most innovative companies working in this area. For example, their Icarus passenger information and fleet management solutions enable professionals to view real time locations of all vehicles within their fleet, integrate traffic congestion into predicting vehicle arrival times, and create reports replaying vehicle journeys.

Flexible resourcing at airport security

Gatwick Airport has been involved in trials which monitor data and gather intelligence on the traffic conditions which may affect passenger arrivals. KPMG have suggested that combining data on current travel conditions with historic data could lead to airports becoming better at predicting the demand at the arrival gates. Having this knowledge would support airports in providing appropriate staffing levels at arrival gates, which means fewer queues, and a better experience for travellers.

Public / private collaboration

Sir Nic Cary, head of digital transformation at the Department for Transport (DfT), has highlighted the need for the public sector to embrace new ways of working or ‘risk being led by Californian-based software companies.’

In his keynote speech at a recent infrastructure conference, he explained that the public sector needs to get more involved in digital transformation and to have a greater focus on user needs and working collaboratively.

As a good example of this, Cornwall Council recently engaged Idox’s digital agency Reading Room to look at how digital services could encourage existing car drivers to use public transport in a sustainable way. There was a particular interest in engaging with 18-25 year olds.

Cornwall is a county where over 78% of all journeys are taken by car – with only 1% of journeys taken by bus and 3% by train. Following Government Digital Services (GDS) guidelines, Reading Room embarked on a series of activities to understand how public transport is perceived by Cornish citizens.

The user research explored barriers discouraging them from using public transport; online/digital tools they may use already to plan journeys; and their experience of public transport. Reading Room also reviewed and made recommendations to the council around the brand proposition for public transport. The user insights are now being taken forward by the council.

Security implications

There is, however, a risk in integrating data technologies into transport systems. For instance, smart ticketing, traffic lights, signage, and automated bus stops, are just some of the technologies which present potential opportunities for malicious hackers, or those looking to commit acts of terrorism.

Last year, San Francisco transport systems suffered a cyber-attack, where hackers demanded the city’s transportation agency pay 100 Bitcoin (about $70,000). The incident had no impact on the transport system, but over 2,000 machines were hacked. As a precaution, the agency shut down the city’s ticketing machines, which led to customers being able to travel for free.

Final thoughts

Improving how people get from A to B is one of the key challenges for cities. If data technologies can play even a small role in creating better experiences for travellers – by providing more reliable and flexible journeys – then the transport sector and the public sector should look to invest and create partnerships which encourage innovation.


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From data to intelligence and improvement – what cutting edge councils are doing in the UK

Group of workers having a meeting

By Steven McGinty

Data has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of local services. Just like the private sector – where organisations such as Amazon and Facebook have leveraged user data – local councils have the opportunity to reap significant benefits from analysing their vast silos of data. Improving efficiencies, increasing levels of transparency, and providing services which better meet people’s needs, are just some of the potential benefits.

Although many councils are still at the early stages of utilising their data, some are innovating and introducing successful data initiatives.

Wise Councils

In November 2016, the charity NESTA published a report highlighting the most ‘pioneering’ uses of data in local government. The report emphasised that most local services would benefit from data analysis and that a ‘problem-oriented’ approach is required to generate insights that have an impact on services. The case studies included:

Kent County Council

Kent County Council (KCC), alongside Kent’s seven Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), have created the Kent Integrated Dataset (KID) – one of the largest health and care databases in the UK, covering the records of 1.5 million people. The core requirement of the dataset was to link data from multiple sources to a particular individual, i.e. that information held about a person in hospital, should also be linked to records held by other public bodies such as GPs or the police.

This integrated dataset has enabled the council to run sophisticated data analysis, helping them to evaluate the effectiveness of services and to inform decisions on where to locate services. For example, Kent’s Public Health team investigated the impact of home safety visits by Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) on attendances at accident and emergency services (A&E). The data suggested that home safety visits did not have a significant impact on an individual’s attendance at A&E.

Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council have focused their efforts on supporting open innovation – the concept that good ideas may come from outside an organisation. This involved the initiatives:

  • Data Mill North (DMN) – this collaborative project between the city council and private sector is the city’s open data portal (growing from 50 datasets in 2014 to over 300 data sets, in over 40 different organisations). To encourage a culture change, Leeds City Council introduced an ‘open by default’ policy in November 2015, requiring all employees to make data available to the public. A number of products have been developed from data published on DMN, including StreetWise.life, which provides local information online, such as hospital locations, road accidents, and incidents of crime.
  • Innovation Labs – the city has introduced a series of events that bring together local developers and ‘civic enthusiasts’ to tackle public policy problems. Leeds City Council has also provided funding, allowing some ideas to be developed into prototypes. For example, the waste innovation lab created the app, Leeds Bins, which informs residents which days their bins should be put out for collection.

Newcastle City Council

Newcastle City Council have taken a data-led approach to the redesign of their children’s services. The Family Insights Programme (FIP) used data analysis to better understand the demand and expenditure patterns in the children’s social care system. Its aim was to use this insight to support the redesign of services and to reduce the city’s high re-referrals and the number of children becoming looked-after.

The FIP uses data in three different ways:

  • Grouping families by need – The council have undertaken cluster analysis to identify common grouping of concerning behaviours, such as a child’s challenging behaviour or risk of physical abuse. When a child is referred to long term social work, senior social workers analyse the concerning behaviours of the case, and then make a referral to a specialist social work unit. Since introducing this data-led approach, social work units have been organised based on needs and concerning behaviours. This has resulted in social workers becoming specialists in supporting particular needs and behaviours, providing greater expertise in the management of cases.
  • Embedding data analysts – Each social work unit has an embedded data analyst, who works alongside social workers. Their role is to test what works, as well as providing insights into common patterns for families.
  • Enabling intelligent case management – Social workers have access to ChildSat, a tool which social workers use to help manage their cases. It also has the capability to monitor the performance of individual social work units.

Investing in data

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, has suggested that councils need support from central government if they are to accelerate their use of data. He’s suggested that £4 million – just £1% of the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget – is spent on pilot schemes to embed data specialists into councils.

Mr Symons has also proposed that all combined authorities should develop Offices of Data Analytics, to support data analysis across counties. Over the past few months, Nesta has been working on this idea with the Greater London Authority, and a number of London boroughs, to tackle the problem of unlicensed HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). Early insights highlight that data analytics could be used to show that new services would provide value for money.

Final thoughts  

After successive years of cuts, there has never been a greater need for adopting a data-led approach. Although there are undoubtedly challenges in using council data – including changing a culture where data sharing is not the norm, and data protection – the above examples highlight that overcoming these challenges is achievable, and that data analysis can be used to bring benefits to local councils.


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Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.


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Government as a Platform: a new way of thinking about digital transformation

Multi-coloured blocks on the table, with a green dinosaur

By Steven McGinty

The term ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) was coined by Tim O’Reilly, a technology entrepreneur and advocate.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for UK Government digital transformation, has started to introduce ‘platform thinking’ to government services. However, according to a survey carried out in February, three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand ‘Government as a Platform’. This may be concerning for government, whose efficiency programme greatly relies on successful digital transformation.

On the blog today, I’m going to reflect on the concept of ‘Government as a Platform’, as well as outlining its adoption in the UK.

The ‘gubbins’ of government

Mark Foden, an organisational change strategist, explains the platform-based view of government in a simple (and humorous) video.

In his view, government has traditionally been made up of independent departments, providing services such as benefits, pensions, and tax. These services use bespoke technology provided by large technology companies, over long contracts.

However, the platform based-view is different. He illustrates this by splitting a government department into three sections:

  • Levers and dials – the part of the service the user interacts with (e.g. websites and mobile apps)
  • ‘Gubbins’ – in simple terms, it’s the common capabilities (e.g. checking identity) and the bespoke services (e.g. calculating tax) that government services need to function
  • Machinery – the fundamentals of technology (e.g. mainframe computers, storage, and databases)

Foden explains that a key element to platform thinking is the ‘gubbins’ section. Advances in technology now make it possible to untangle these ‘gubbins’ government services, without affecting others. In practice, this means that common capabilities used by government, such as making payments or checking identity can be developed and used across departments. Websites can also be shared to create consistency across government digital services – a sort of ‘brand government’. This approach limits the number of bespoke services developed in ‘silos’ (or within departments).

Additionally, having this separation between common capabilities and bespoke services also presents opportunities to involve a greater number of suppliers.

Potentially, this approach could be worth £35 billion in savings across government.

Organising Government as a Platform

Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests three principles to enable Government as a Platform to succeed:

  • gradually moving towards more common capabilities and reducing departmental bespoke services
  • developing common capabilities across the public sector must be a priority for digital transformation
  • optimising the relationship between common capabilities and bespoke services within government departments

The UK approach  

GDS

A widely used definition by the GDS is that digital government should include:

 “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK was the first attempt to transform how the UK does government. Launching in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone saved more than £60m a year. Early testing also showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK Verify has also been introduced – an identity assurance platform which allows people to prove who they are when using government services. The common service is the first of its kind and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to build new services.

More recently, GOV.UK Notify, a service which sends text messages, emails or letters, has sent notifications to its first users. GOV.UK Pay also just secured compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

NHS

Although the GDS have taken the lead on platform thinking, the NHS launched NHS Jobs, a shared recruitment service, in 2003. The service has been remarkably successfully, generating over £1 billion in savings.

Mark Thompson suggests this is because of its platform approach. The Department of Health (DoH), working alongside Methods Consulting, convinced over 500 NHS employers to give up their own recruitment services and to make use of this common capability. The website is the biggest single employer recruitment site in Europe, with one unique visit every two seconds. The service has also become a valuable commodity with suppliers willing to provide the service at near cost, and compete on providing innovative services. The creation of this high quality recruitment service has therefore become a spur for innovation – something which is at the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s work on Government as a Platform.

Local government

Adur and Worthing council have recently taken a platform approach to their digital transformation. Paul Brewer, digital lead for the council, notes that it was struggling on several fronts, including IT outages and systems replicating inefficient paper-based processes.

To solve this problem, the council went through a capability mapping exercise. They identified departments which had common functions, such as undertaking case management, taking payments and booking appointments for customers. With this roadmap, they developed a CRM system to manage customer interactions (including social media), and purchased a platform which supports the creation a range of new IT products. The new approach enabled the council’s waste management service to support full mobile and remote working. Within a year, the department saved £20,000 on software and the equivalent of 1.5 staff members.

Interestingly, the council did not built their own platform, on the GDS model. Nor did they purchase an inflexible technology. Instead, they chose a third way by purchasing the building blocks of capability, and controlling where the capability was slotted in.

Final thoughts

The lack of knowledge about Government as a Platform within the civil service is somewhat disheartening. However, the GDS has introduced many new approaches to government and shown practically how they can work. Projects such as GOV.UK and GOV.UK Verify have been well received and countries such as New Zealand have looked towards the UK for their own digital transformation.

In August, the UK was ranked as global leader for e-participation on the United Nations E-Government Survey, ahead of Australia and South Korea.


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