Doing Digital in Bristol – 2016 and beyond

Everyone working in the public sector today knows that we can no longer continue with the way we worked in the past, how we thought of our purpose and the roles of our organisations. Local public services face this fact even more starkly than other parts of the sector, having cut huge proportions of their budgets at a time of rising demand due to the impacts of the economic crises since 2008 and demographic changes. And we are facing an even more dramatic and uncertain future over the next four years, knowing that our main sources of income will switch from central redistribution to money raised locally by 2020.

In this context, we are all aware of the importance of applying digital thinking, design and delivery methods to our organisations, and many councils have been on the journey of delivering digital services for several years. But digital isn’t only about services, it’s also about the transformation of the way we work – creating a digital workplace where data is captured at source in digital form, flows through the organisation and across boundaries to partners without becoming pieces of paper, and where people delivering services can do so in the most efficient and effective way, enabled by digital services available anywhere they need to serve citizens or businesses – this is about having the right digital technology infrastructure, networks and devices as much as about software.

In fact, digital is even bigger than that – it’s not just about transforming services and the way we work, it enables us to re-imagine the council’s business model and relationship with the city and citizens, it’s about local government as a platform, about harnessing the creativity and capacity of the city, and changing the nature of the way that councils and local partners work together with communities to address the issues for their locality.

This is where we really begin to see the potential to deal with the impacts of a new financial settlement for the public sector – in digital’s ability to support a new political settlement, a new relationship between state and citizens, between regulators and businesses, and in support of economic growth and innovation.

Nesta recently published a report on the connected councils of the future and I was pleased to see Bristol’s work on a platform approach featured in their highlights. We’ve been working on this for a couple of years, and have now taken the step of reshaping our teams into a new Digital Transformation service to lead, deliver and support all three aspects above.

And I’m really pleased to say that I’ve been appointed to the new role of Head of Digital Transformation – another way of putting that in ‘industry standard’ terms is that I’m now Bristol’s Chief Digital Officer.

I’ll be leading work across all of the elements needed for true digital transformation – Digital Business strategy, Enterprise Architecture, Technology Strategy, Service Design, Digital Services UX and content design, Software Development and the support/delivery of some of our key council-wide systems (including Salesforce CRM, Alfresco ECM, and ForgeRock IAM).

Putting all of these elements together into the new Digital Transformation Service is the next stage of evolution of the approach that my colleagues and I began to create back in 2013 with the original digital platform project, which I blogged about in December 2014.

At its core the new service builds on our award winning work on agile digital delivery for transactional services. We have evolved from one large team sourced from a supplier, to several self-organised delivery teams as I described in my second post about digital in Bristol, and these teams have successfully delivered a lot of user needs centred digital services, like Request a Residents Parking Permit, Book to Register a Birth and of course the new website. We will continue to design and deliver “digital services so good that people prefer to use them”

We’ve also started a new strand of digital transformation of city infrastructure, through the integration and digitalisation of Operational Technology like CCTV, traffic management systems and air quality sensors, with my team leading on the technical architecture and design of a converged OT/IT infrastructure for the city, using the “Bristol Network” to connect that infrastructure and the data that it generates with an intelligent city operations centre. At the same time, we are working with civic technologists, community organisers and digital innovators on the #bristolapproach to citizen sensing – beginning to explore how a platform approach would work.

This is really exciting work, and participating in one of the workshops earlier this week I sensed in a very concrete way the capacity and vibrancy of the wider network of people and communities of interest who can contribute to tackling issues in our city. Being in a room filled with people who can do more than the council’s team could, seeing that large companies, voluntary groups, SMEs and individuals want to work together, and just need the council to enable, support and provide system-wide leadership was very powerful.

All of this contributes to implementing Bristol’s strategic vision of a future city where ‘smart’ serves people and creates a sustainable liveable locality, not a techno utopia of machines, and sterile polished urban deserts. The new Digital Transformation service, working alongside Bristol Future’s City Innovation team will make this as much of a priority as it does the delivery of council digital services.

And finally, if that all wasn’t enough to be going on with, a key part of my new role is an explicit remit to connect across the local public sector and nationally with key groups like localgovdigital, the Local Digital Coalition, iStandUK and others. Ever since my first experiences of getting involved with the open source and open standards communities around OpenDocument Format I have been energised by collaborating with like minded people – and I feel strongly that we need to share openly as we learn, #workingoutloud so that the whole sector improves together.

At times, holding all of this in mind, forming a coherent view of it, and then mobilising people to deliver it, is hard – physically and mentally. It would be so much easier to turn away, back to the simpler world of buying systems from suppliers and leaving integration and innovation to them. But that wouldn’t deliver what our city needs, and that’s what motivates me. I was born in Southmead Hospital, and brought up on the edge of Bristol – it’s my home town and I’m proud to have served it for nearly 20 years. Taking on this new role, supported by an amazing team of people, and some great suppliers, gives me the opportunity to do what I can to help Bristol thrive despite the challenges of austerity.

I might be a teensy bit biased, but given all that we’ve done, are doing and plan for the future, I believe Bristol is the Digital Council of 2016. If you do too, please vote for us in the #dl100 #digileaders awards #votebristol

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Trying and failing…

Sometimes you need to take a risk and try things that aren’t a natural fit with your ways of working and preferences.

Sometimes that pays off, and sometimes it really doesn’t.

Ok, I confess, this isn’t a post about meaningful self-development. It’s about my recent attempt to break out of the Apple device ecosystem that I’ve inhabited quite happily for about 8 years. And why after a month I’m retracing my steps…

Before Christmas, circumstances arose that meant we ‘needed’ a new tablet in the house. I wondered if this was the opportunity to go for an iPad Pro, but despite the fact I have multiple OSX and iOS devices in the family, I strongly resist any idea that I’m a fanboy, so I spent some time listing my user needs, thinking carefully about the Minimum Viable Product, and doing some research (trying out products in various shops).

The iPad Pro and pencil, whilst attractive also seemed really big, and I was drawn to the new Surface Pro 4 which seemed just marginally smaller, has an amazing kickstand and a truly brilliant pen/digitiser combination that made notes and diagrams really easy to create. I’m not an artist, but have a specific use case for a tablet that needs a good “paper analogue” so that I can be paper free. As an Enterprise Architect I find that the creative process of sketching ideas out and finding visual ways to communicate is blocked if you try to create straight into a drawing/diagramming application. Drawing freehand has a different effect on the thinking process, but my attempt to be paperless at work means I barely ever have anything at hand to draw on!

I’m not a good enough artist to draw with the tools available on older iPads using the kinds of stylus available. I know others who create brilliant sketch notes, so it’s clear it can be done. But I need a more precision digitiser solution, and that’s what the iPad Pro and Surface Pro offered.

So, after a week or so I convinced myself that buying a Surface Pro 4, with a type cover and Office 365 was the best thing to do. One month later I’ve become so frustrated and disillusioned with the experience that I’m taking it back as “unfit for purpose” and probably going to buy an iPad Pro instead.

I don’t need to detail all of the issues, because they have been described clearly already in a series of blog posts by John Appleby, including:

10 tips to make the most out of the Microsoft Surface Pro 4

http://www.peopleprocesstech.com/10-tips-microsoft-surface-pro-4/

and

On returning my Microsoft Surface Pro 4

http://www.peopleprocesstech.com/on-returning-my-microsoft-surface-pro-4/

Plus several earlier posts detailing his first impressions. My feelings and experience are near enough identical, other than that I only travel a bit around the UK 😁.

Fundamentally, this is a device that should be brilliant but is let down by appalling reliability. Multiple freezes and resets every day just aren’t acceptable when you’ve paid over £1400 for a product. If you don’t believe this, here’s proof, ironically from a great tool MS built into Windows 10!  

Most of those red x’s are hardware and driver failures causing the Surface Pro to fail to wake from sleep. Say what you want about Apple, but my iMac and my wife’s MacBook have been left to sleep and wake for several years of constant usage without any issues!

The whole point about making a device yourself and controlling the hardware as well as the software is that you can release it to the public knowing that every bit works well together. OK, I accept that computer engineering is very challenging and we know that every device, every piece of software has issues, but they shouldn’t be this significant.

So, back to the shop with the Surface Pro 4 it is. It will be interesting to see what their reaction is. Are lots of other people returning them too?

Looks like it’s back to Apple for me…

#ukgc16 “Local gov seemed very quiet…”

It’s taken me several days to recover from the intensity of UK Govcamp 16, and start to articulate some thoughts to share.

I didn’t go looking for anything specific, really just wanted to dive in and experience the wide range of people and subjects under discussion, and as a result it’s tricky to sum up. But Ann Kempster’s comment on Twitter stuck in my memory so I thought I’d hook this blog onto it as a kind of theme:

 
I don’t claim to know exactly what Ann meant but her words have all sorts of resonances with me and some experiences I had on Saturday.

  1. Local government folks might be quiet because they are in the eye of the storm. Two months to year end and many of us are driving out budget reductions through some very hard changes to our business models, services, processes and technology. It’s enough to silence even the most gobby of us (yes, that includes me).
  2. We might be quiet because at Govcamp we felt part of a public sector wide conversation and didn’t feel the need to shout about our ‘silo’ – so much of the debate, the challenges and the opportunities are shared and so similar no matter if you are a central or local bod.
  3. I was a bit concerned to learn from a couple of colleagues (who must remain nameless) that some councils are shutting down digital transformation work and might be putting permanent people with service design skills out of work – so some of us might be quiet because we don’t know what our future holds.
  4. Finally, local gov might have been quiet in relative terms because there were probably only a dozen of us in the room, alongside 150+ from across the central govt and wider public sector. I didn’t feel that there was any sense of pressure to be quiet, but inevitably with that many voices to listen to, it’s almost rude for one sector to be so loud it can be distinguished from the individual contributions.

For me, a lot of the day felt like an enjoyable and highly informative sharing of knowledge and ideas from a lot of bright, respectful and energised people. So much so that I didn’t have the energy to go to beercamp afterwards!

I’m going to publish this now, and add to it as thoughts emerge this week. Would love to hear what other local govt digital folks think. 😊

A brief digression from digital to reflect on Paris…

I wouldn’t normally post something like this so soon after traumatic events, but in recent months I’ve been reflecting a lot on my past life as a peace studies researcher and its relevance to the world around us today. So I feel my personal contribution or response to the attacks in Paris should be grounded in that past, as much as in my human reaction to hearing that ordinary people have died.

For people trying to understand how and why the events in France happened/keep happening – we will all read and hear a lot of the same old arguments in the next few weeks. Very little of it will really give us the details about what fuels the decisions of the gunmen and suicide bombers. We will all be told that more money and military means should be applied to controlling the dangerous world around us. And frequently the narrative develops that if you try to understand the causes, you are excusing the actions of extremists.

Actually, understanding is the only hard, concrete, practical way to find an end to the cycle of violence. People who reject the idea of understanding in favour of condemnation and knee jerk reaction are preventing an effective response to security issues that affect ordinary people like us.

If you really want to get an appreciation of the context and some of the truly radical shifts we need to make to change our world together, look at Prof Paul Rogers writing at openDemocracy.net:

Or the book he published about 15 years ago that accurately predicts the kind of migration and extreme violent reactions we are seeing this year – “Losing Control – Third Edition: Global Security in the 21st Century

None of this “excuses” the actions of people who kill ordinary innocent people, wherever they live in the world, Paris, Gaza, Israel, Syria, New York, London, Bali… but if we want to stop that happening, we need to act on the causes – the very complex multi-dimensional causes – not the symptoms. Or we will simply keep feeding and multiplying the conditions that create people who want to attack us. We can all do things to affect this – and they range from the Parisians opening their homes to stranded tourists, to those people creating local food, energy and trading systems to develop a more sustainable world, or finding ways for high tech to empower communities through a detailed but accessible understanding of the issues in their neighbourhoods so that they can have greater impact and leverage in the political system.

Reflections on Localgovcamp 2015

“It’s really difficult to build a self-regarding clique when new people keep coming to Localgovcamp”

I loved Dave Briggs stand up routine as he kicked off the unconference on Saturday morning, and as I laughed I was thinking how close to the bone the humour was – I loved the two days of the Localgovcamp Fringe and the Unconference itself, in large part because I really enjoyed meeting the people I’d connected with last year, and the people I already followed on Twitter – it’s really energising and heartwarming to feel part of a group of fellow travellers, all with shared purposes and beliefs.

But it was also brilliant to meet lots of new people, and to be joined by Helen Adams, one of our brilliant product managers who’s been with us all the way on our journey to become a more digital organisation, but had never been to Localgovcamp before. Seeing her making connections, sharing our learning, taking away ideas and committing to work with other Localgov Digital colleagues to do things that will benefit us all was as much of a pleasure as doing those things myself.

This year I was able to balance sessions where I shared my views and our learning from doing digital in Bristol, and sessions where I was a total newbie, listening and absorbing new concepts. In some of these sessions it was quickly obvious to me what practical actions I should take next, often centred around following up on connections with other councils who have already tackled the problems we want to address. On the other hand, Esko Rainikainen’s “Blah Blah Blah Blockchain” session was great but basically blew up my brain and left me needing a lie down in a darkened room with some painkillers 🙂 I think we need those kinds of sessions sometimes. It’s good to be reminded where the edges of our comfort zones and knowledge lie.

Some specifics I want to mention:

  • The first session I went to was on Pipeline and breaking barriers to collaboration. Phil Rumens was trying to crowdsource solutions to the big issue that whilst 100+ councils signed up and listed projects, nobody had done anything with them, neither keeping them updated nor linking up with others to collaborate on shared solutions. We had a good discussion ranging from practical ideas for making Pipeline a bit more social (“someone has listed a new project in service area X that you have followed”) to ways of crowdfunding a community manager post. Everyone agreed that we need a mechanism that supports councils to stop re-inventing the wheel at every stage, from user-research, user story generation, through design, coding and delivery. Through the day in most of the sessions I was in, somebody would say “why aren’t council’s sharing, isn’t that a massive waste of money?” and I repeatedly pointed back to Pipeline as a tool for getting us all focused on opportunities to work together.
  • I was really looking forwards to the opportunity to hear from Dave Briggs and Paul Brewer in the Government as a Platform session, and to contributing my perspective. A number of us had blogged about the concept and practical implications of it over the last week, and wanted to explore further. (My post also links to Dave’s and others’). Personally I think it was a good discussion, that aired a number of perspectives, allowed lots of people to ask questions, and some people to try answering them 🙂 For me, this is one of those complex and multi-faceted topics that will need many of us to engage, test our thinking and practical consequences in dialogue and improve the way we define and articulate the idea. There isn’t going to be one single way that GaaP plays out, but I suspect some approaches will be more successful in action than others. Some things will be implemented in choices of technology infrastructure, others in changes to methods of connecting with citizens in the democratic process. I think there were really strong links to the ideas that emerged from the Localgov Digital Makers event on new ways of citizens engaging with politicians, and participating in local democracy. I kept hearing people say that councillors were less connected to the views of real people than the new forms of community organising, user research and “algorithmic governance” are enabling. We can do something about this… At the end of the session Paul Brewer made a good point – whilst some of the debates about Government as a Platform will take years to refine and affect the way we think of and operate local government organisations, others have to make a material impact on the cost structures of our councils right now, this financial year and next.
  • In the GaaP session, in the fringe event on Service Design that Futuregov ran, and in later sessions I found myself saying the same thing several times – those of us who have heard, experienced and understood the power and value of the user needs led service design approach have a responsibility to lead and promote it in our councils, and to shout loudly about our learning and successes sharing them with other councils. I think this is true of everyone, no matter what their role or level of authority, but it’s especially important for those of us who have power and accountability for change, design and digital. We need to mix humility and a willingness to recognise and share the mistakes we make, so that we can all learn from them, with a commitment to sharing actively – marketing our successes so that others can build on them. I’ll be the first to tell you what we’ve found difficult in Bristol, but I’m also hugely proud of the things we’ve achieved. (In fact, quick plug, we went live with our 8th digital service on Thursday evening, one that Helen’s team had delivered to provide a Council Tax Tenants “tell us you’re moving house” – have a look at our services site if you’re interested and get in touch if you want to find out more. Our new website is also in private Alpha and we plan to go into public Beta in the next month.)
  • My final reflection is on a small moment that for me encapsulated the spirit of Localgovcamp. It happened when I was sitting and listening to a discussion about the potential for a single digital platform for libraries, which I’d gone to simply to learn and understand an area I’m not well versed on. Some of the discussion was around how much money was wasted on 100s of library management systems, and 100s of separate websites, and wouldn’t it be better to have one national platform. I decided I’d butt in and express my view that a single platform approach is just not practical because unless the Government changes the law on councils being independent legal entities, there is very little incentive for them to agree to one product. Pretty much immediately a quiet voice from my left said “I just don’t agree with you” – to which I responded “brilliant, disagree away!” Rose Rees-Jones then articulated really clearly how a well designed service delivered for one social landlord led to many others adopting it because it was “so good people preferred to use it”, and Sym Roe added to the point by pointing out that if we focus on agreeing standard interfaces, and use service contracts (in the technical sense) to ensure consistency when we interact with those interfaces, then we can build a common platform, piece by piece, service by service. I can get behind a single platform when we define it like that! So my point is that Localgovcamp creates a context where people who have never met before are willing to speak out and share their thoughts, listen to different points of view, reflect and learn.

All in all, my second Localgovcamp was worth the time and effort, and has topped up my resolve to keep on thinking, doing and sharing as part of the Localgov Digital network. Please sign up to Pipeline, be open to learning from others, take a lead in promoting user needs led service design in your council, and consider how Government as a Platform could transform the role of local government in your locality.

Oh, and watch out for that blockchain… 😉

Local Government as a Platform – beyond “delivering services digitally”

The “Government as a Platform” concept – what it is and how we create it – has been kicking around the echo chambers of Twitter for the past year or so. Every now and again I read a post and mutter to myself about how people still aren’t getting it right. Recently it’s been good to see that more people are getting more of it right, but there’s still a missing dimension to the debate, so I’ve decided I’d better stop muttering and start articulating loud and clear what I think GaaP really means, specifically in the Local Government space which is my professional world.

Everything I share in this post has been shared with me by someone else, I’ve been lucky to have a number of clear sighted, engaged and critical thinkers to work with, who’ve pointed me to a variety of new ideas. For some reason I’m not seeing these ideas surface in the debate so far, so I hope this post can help to change that. It certainly doesn’t say all there is on the subject, but I hope it gets the ball rolling.

My immediate trigger for writing about this is three recent blog posts, all of which are better articulations of GaaP than most. The first was from Dave Briggs, emerging from his practical experiences leading Adur & Worthing council’s Digital and Design service – “What I’m talking about when I’m talking about Government as a Platform“. The second is referenced by Dave – Sean Tubbs’ post “Platform is a Business Model. Not a Tech Stack“. Both of these posts draw strongly on on Mark Thompson’s articulation of digital government – summarised well in his recent Computerweekly article “Where next for UK government as a platform and GDS?

The thing that all of them get totally right shouts out to us from the title of Sean’s post – Platform is a Business Model. I won’t repeat the details of their arguments, but it’s worth highlighting a few statements.

Dave Briggs says:

“digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.”

and points out that platform business models use the internet

“to directly connect people with needs with those who can meet those needs”

This is the most important element of the platform business model – the role of local government changes from directly providing services, and directly commissioning services, to providing ways for demand to be aggregated and made visible to the market, and ways for the market to develop and provide services to people.

Most of the posts about GaaP take us to the brink of this point, but then pull back. For instance Sean Tubbs says:

“So, put simply, ‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers…

…Government is primarily a supplier of value-add services to the ever growing demand of the citizens of the UK…

…Government has an opportunity to transform itself to a digital business model by supplying services to citizens via a standardised common platform.”

For me, this misses the point, the “why” of the Government as a Platform debate. Drivers from two directions (at least) mean that government cannot and must not continue to conceive of itself purely as a service provider.

From one direction, we simply cannot afford to operate this way any more – social and economic needs are too complex to be resolved by a simple “citizen demand” met by “government service” equation within the scope of available public sector budgets. Traditional outsourcing is not the answer. “Big Society” is not the answer. But some form of new political settlement that recognises what we have now does not work, and harnesses the best parts of government, business and civil society is required.

Driving towards that from another direction, people’s expectations of the way that they relate to organisations have been reshaped by their experiences over the past couple of decades. In the world of consumer goods and services people expect to be able to look at reviews created by other service users who have rated and shared rich narratives about their experience (described by some as the move from the age of deference to the age of reference); they expect to be able to configure products and services to fit their needs; they expect choice, convenience and speed of delivery; and throughout all of the experience they expect transparency – to see what is happening and when.

Citizen PlatformBut above and beyond these two forces there’s an even more important point rooted in the question “what is local government (and government generally) for?” What is our purpose?

Yes, we provide services, but we also shape markets. But why? – so that our citizens and places can determine for themselves what value is. The platform is a way of tapping into existing conversations so that how people really think and feel about their local area can surface; so that these views and feelings can be discussed and new ideas for improvement put forward; and so that the best of these ideas can be selected, prototyped and implemented by whoever is best placed to do it (hardly ever the council).

In other words, the platform helps citizens co-define, co-create, and co-ordinate civic value.

Democracy does this once every 4 years, but now we need to do it every 4 minutes.

So Local Government’s role in this purpose should be as a ‘trusted’ organisation, which has similarities to platform businesses like Amazon, but is also quite different in its culpability and responsibility. If Amazon, Uber or Facebook fail to deliver, the consequences are relatively small. If care, education and housing services fail, the consequences are life-changing or even life-threatening.

Within this context, of course it’s true that the Internet and digital technologies provide a significantly different infrastructure for government in comparison to the information systems and technologies employed to automate back-office processes for the past 50 years. We see how companies like Uber, Facebook and Amazon have used these new technologies to change the game in contrast to their non-digital predecessors.

But if you’re familiar with the Business Model Canvas you’ll know that “key resources” is just one of the 9 areas for attention when you are mapping how an organisation “creates, delivers and captures value” (And if you’re familiar with Tom Grave’s Enterprise Canvas you’ll know that there are more dimensions that need to be considered if you want to make sense of the overall context in which an organisation operates – the shared enterprise which determines what value actually is.)

So my point is that if discussions of Government as a Platform always immediately plunge into details about the technology, we are fundamentally ignoring 80% of the important aspects of a new business model. In particular we should focus on the significant differences in the value propositions and key activities of a platform organisation from those of a traditional service delivery organisation.

We need to map and model our enterprises – using the tools mentioned above, and others like Simon Wardley’s “Wardley maps” that help us understand the position and movement of elements, so that we can choose how to act.

Without this, all of the detail that people are going into on how we should or shouldn’t apply digital, open standards, open source, in-house coding, commodity software-as-a-service, will simply add up to a lot of wasted time and money buying and building things that don’t contribute to a shared vision and purpose.

That’s not to say I’m advocating a return to traditional Enterprise Architecture and grand strategy, uninformed by user needs and without testing value in small incremental releases! It’s just reflecting that delivering in an agile way still needs direction, purpose, a sense of where all of the small changes are taking us.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of a big debate about the purpose of government – and I’m sure there are others who can extend the argument far more effectively than I can. Some of them will be turning their attention to these topics on Friday 11th September at the Local Democracy Maker Day as part of the Localgovcamp fringe events. Others will be contributing to a Local CIO Council discussion on “Place as a Platform” on the 10th. I hope this post is a helpful contribution to their conversations.


(My thanks go to Martin Howitt and Jo Vines for some great feedback on a draft of this post, which pointed out I’d missed the most important bit – what is the purpose of local government! I’ve stolen their words shamelessly. Of course any inadequacy in how I’ve used them is entirely my responsibility. Incidentally, as I wrote this post I kept thinking about Simon Wardley muttering “meme copying” about the whole Government as a Platform thing… he’s right, there’s a big risk that a lot of us are doing this as part of a rush to emulate a bunch of exciting startups without really understanding the context we are operating within – we need to develop our own “situational awareness” to be sure this is the right approach.)

Delivering end-to-end digital services – Doing Digital in Bristol pt. 3

So I’ve blogged about our digital infrastructure and about our changed approach to delivery, introducing agile methods. The third part of the story is what we’ve produced.

When I first thought of blogging about this we had one digital service in development – Apply for Residents Parking Permits – for a single zone. As it’s taken me so long to write the last two posts, we now have two more digital services built and live on the new infrastructure, and a few more in the pipeline for early 2015. Apply for an Older Persons Bus Pass and Renewals for three month Residents Parking Permits both went live in December 2014. (True, Renew is just another iteration of Apply, but it’s great to see that we can follow the agile approach of delivering a slice of value, and then adding another in a future iteration, with each scoped around a specific set of user needs and stories.) On top of this, we rolled out Apply for Residents Parking to a new zone in the first week of January 2015.

So how is our Apply for Residents Parking Permits digital service constructed?

We started with user needs – going out into the streets and open spaces of Bristol and asking people how they would expect to experience finding out about and applying for a residents parking permit. We also spoke to people in existing residents parking zones to understand their experiences. These perspectives gave us several key insights:

  • People wanted clear and personalised information, where could they park their car, how much would it cost them for their combination of cars and permits, what would happen next?
  • People were very happy to apply online and comfortable with the idea of signing up for a digital citizens account as long as it wasn’t too hard to do.
  • The idea of virtual permits was of interest to some people (the DVLA had just announced that paper tax discs were disappearing) but most people wanted to be able to see a physical permit – as evidence that people parking in their street had the right to do so, and also because they just don’t quite trust the council yet, and wanted to be sure we wouldn’t fine them, in the absence of a physical sign they had paid.

We also had an inside-out business need to address – the expansion of residents parking zones from 5 to 15 in 2015 would be impossible without an automated process. Previous zones had been rolled out with a paper application form, required physical evidence to be provided for proof of residency and vehicle ownership, and payments were not effectively integrated across physical and digital channels. We knew that the team processing applications would have to balloon to over 25 people if they were to have a chance of coping, and given that the council was going through a restructure that involved cutting around 800 posts, this wasn’t going to happen. In any case, so much of the current process involved ‘waste’ in the lean thinking sense – effort to resolve errors introduced by the clunky paper process, effort to answer questions from people when they chased us because their permits didn’t arrive quickly, effort to translate data between physical and digital formats.

So from both angles it was clear where we needed to focus.

  • The information we provided when someone landed on the digital services ‘lead-in’ page had to be clear and tailored to them.
  • As they stepped through the transaction, we needed to give them the relevant detailed information at each stage, again specifically tailored to their circumstances (e.g. vehicle emissions class, whether they had a private drive/garage, how many permits their address had already)
  • Calculations and eligibility checks needed to be done automatically, without requiring physical evidence unless absolutely necessary.
  • Each step needed clear and unambiguous confirmation that it had been successful, building trust and confidence, culminating in a really strong “that’s it, all done” message at the end.
  • Follow up confirmations via email with a timescale for delivery of permits would also help to reassure applicants.

So that’s what we’ve built. Working with our UX and digital development suppliers we have designed and constructed a service, using OpenAM to create a citizen ID and provide authentication; Liferay to host Spring MVC forms that use a clean and clear GOV.UK style theme; web services from Experian to provide the vehicle and identity checks, integrated with our systems via a Tibco ESB; and Salesforce.com as the case management backend and repository for the master customer record.

Residents Parking High Level Solution Architecture

This combination of digitising evidence checking, automating calculations and business rules, and removing delays due to errors and posting paper have reduced the process duration from an average of 10 days down to just a few.

It’s not perfect of course – being the product of an agile/iterative development method we’ve delivered a minimum viable product, and that shows in a number of ways:

  • The scope is limited to residents and visitors permits, and doesn’t cover businesses or a variety of more complex types. The business rules for these types are more complicated and we don’t want to get them wrong by rushing them out.
  • The verification of identity and vehicle ownership have an error rate that we’d like to reduce – not everyone is known to Experian to the level of confidence we’d like to match; if the check fails you have to drop out of the digital process and complete the paper form. We are watching with interest as Warwickshire works with GDS on using the VERIFY scheme and especially attribute exchange, as we’d like to use these services in future to match directly against government data sources.
  • Some of the UI designs couldn’t be perfectly translated into the Liferay theme in the version of the product we have installed – we chose to live with this constraint on design for now, knowing that improvements are due to the base product and its handling of front end code. The user experience of the new digital service is so much better than the paper form, or many of our older web forms, that we felt confident in making this choice.

As I said earlier, since the initial launch of Apply for Residents Parking, we have built on the same digital services infrastructure to deliver Apply for an Older Persons Bus Pass – reusing the basic forms and Liferay theme, the core address lookup and citizen account creation/authentication services, and creating a secure content upload service, in this case to enable people to upload their photo for the bus pass, but this give us another reusable service that future projects will use when evidence of any kind needs to be uploaded.