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How to create digital answers to your council's problems

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LGC’s essential daily briefing on digital transformation.

One of the most incredible examples of government transformation happened in a period of only 13 weeks in 2011. Documented in a series of remarkable blogs by engineers at the Government Digital Service, the creation of a single gov.uk website changed most people’s interaction with government forever.

The blogs show the problems inherent in designing the original alpha-version: “Every superfluous page we create is one more dead end for an angry, frustrated, confused user,” one engineer tweeted at the time.

Enter the “Needotron”, the beautifully named web tool which helped decrease a longlist of 1,800 identified needs to a “prioritised list” of 900. The source-code is available here on Github.

The story is retold in “Digital Transformation at Scale”, a new book written in part by said engineer Tom Loosemore and his colleagues at Public Digital Ltd. Available to purchase from publishers, London Publishing Partnership, from next week, it describes exactly why and how central (and local) government can use technology to solve their ever increasing problems.

And those problems are ever increasing while funding continues to fall.

Why constituents are presenting and how they can be best, most efficiently served is the core question facing every council in Britain. According to the authors behind “Digital Transformation at Scale”, the answer and panacea is technological.

“Relying on anecdotes for ideas is not enough, of course. Your other source of intelligence should be data,” according to the authors.

The head of the local government ombudsman told LGC in March that senior managers suffered from a lack of external intelligence, meaning that many chief executives “seize upon the complaints evidence” as a means of “triangulating what they’re being told by staff with what they’re being told by external experience”. Essentially, a council manager’s feedback loop currently happens weeks after a complaint has been made and something has gone wrong. This loop could be improved by researching what your website’s users are searching for.

According to the authors at Public Digital Ltd: “The web traffic data from your existing websites is a good place to start, not least to help identify how many of the thousands of web pages maintained by your organisation are visited by almost nobody. Data from call centres is also rich with insight about what your users are failing to find out from your websites.”

The Needotron team used this exact data on the government website to identify and filter out users’ most important needs. The end result was £4bn cheaper than its predecessor and for the first time opened up public sector contracts to thousands of new suppliers, the authors claim.

“The goal of your first few projects should be to quickly introduce a small but noticeable improvement in experience for a large number of people,” they said. “This might mean solving a very simple problem that the existing websites cannot. A classic example is the search query asked millions of times every year… Fix it once, and fix it well. People notice.”

For many councils, the problem lies in where to start. At least one chief executive has told LGC that their main concern in the morning revolves around a constant need to fight fires instead of dealing with problems ahead of time.

This was picked up on at an LGC roundtable on data transformation. Shaibal Roy, managing consultant at PA Consulting said local government has a great deal of data available that could be useful, but added: “When you see the problem-solving, it is not typical to see an extremely analytically robust approach.”

Robust approaches require the right talent, which ultimately means “unpicking the benefits package”. Just as many senior managers are not interested in how Python talks to Ruby (yes, those are two widely used computer languages), whizz kids are not attracted by the same packages.

This is the core of the problem that “Digital Transformation at Scale” was written to solve: If senior management do not understand the problems they face then they cannot possibly understand how to recruit the people who do.

“Perversely, rather than looking at the structural issue putting off this kind of talent from joining their organisation, [managers] have instead defaulted to hiring interim consultants to do a more expensive job of the role a permanent CTO [chief technology officer] could fill,” the authors write.

The rewards for pushing ahead in these areas are plentiful. For those who recognise and understand the lessons of technological revolutions past, the future is bright. For all else, history provides alternative answers.

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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