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Hackney LBC: We're sharing all IT findings to improve services

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The adoption of open standards in technology and the sharing of work means other councils can benefit from Hackney’s work to reform services.

  • Project: HackIT
  • Objectives: Create digital services so good that people prefer to use them
  • Timescale: Ongoing since 2016
  • Outcomes: Improving digital services across all areas of the council’s service delivery
  • Officer contact details: Rob Miller, director of ICT

In the LGC Awards 2016, Hackney LBC was recognised as the best Council of the Past 20 years. But it is not resting on its laurels.

An important part of the borough’s bold ambitions is harnessing digital technology, data and service design to transform how the council’s services are designed and delivered.

At one end, this means providing residents with self-service access to housing services through accessible web apps usable from any device. These must be good enough that people prefer to use them, rather than being forced to change channels through restricted access.

At the other end, it means equipping the council’s staff with modern systems and hardware, making it easy to work from any device, any place, and at any time, while using data to understand services and user needs, supporting innovation.

This digital transformation is based on the principle of working in the open. Hackney LBC is clear that real, lasting success will be found by working together across local government, not in isolation. So how is this happening?

Back in 2017, the council launched a blog to share updates. Regular updates from project teams are accompanied by broader pieces, revealing the council’s work and its strategic direction.

Hackney LBC has also been working with Local Gov Digital, the network for digital practitioners, to further develop the Pipeline service, which helps teams across the sector find opportunities to collaborate at all stages of project development and delivery.

Working in this way helps the council find peers working on common challenges, identify opportunities to work together, and seek feedback from experts elsewhere in the sector.

That is the external work. But on the inside, the council recognised traditional approaches based on seeing IT as a ‘service provider’ to ‘internal customers’ were blocking progress. Real pace will depend on open, collaborative working across IT and the wider organisation.

In response the IT team worked together to create the ‘HackIT manifesto’, a shared set of values that underpin its work.

The whole team reviews progress against their objectives through weekly ‘strategy stand-ups’, where team members share updates. Project teams share updates more widely through fortnightly ‘show and tells’.

Other services are beginning to adopt this approach. Meanwhile project leaders and individual team members post regular week notes to the team’s internal online community, some published openly for anyone to read.

Previously, IT was associated with a ‘no’ culture, and often criticised for opaque governance seemingly distant from service teams. Now it’s increasingly seen as a strategic partner that can move swiftly.

Hackney LBC is one of a growing number of councils which has moved away from large, long-term contracts with traditional technology and digital suppliers. It is strengthening in-house capabilities and working with innovative digital agencies, often smaller firms, to make change quickly.

A vital tool is the government’s Digital Marketplace, which is opening access to the public sector for more innovative suppliers and has simplified procurement.

Much has been written about the problems that the current software market for local government causes for councils. Complex systems that are costly to use and costlier to migrate from are often cited as obstacles to improvement.

This in mind, the council is establishing an application programming interface (API) platform which makes it easy for developers to move data between systems. This allows the council or a third party to use data to build new digital services, analyse the context for decisions and policies, and understand council performance.

The aim is to be able to use one piece of data multiple times, rather than extracting copies of the data and moving it between systems, which often happens in batches rather than real time.

Hackney LBC’s API is based on standards that have been developed elsewhere, including through the Government Digital Service, HMRC and the White House. This helps ensure the council is developing supportable software consistent with standards used elsewhere.

While the council has adopted common standards along with other councils for geographical data through the Local Land and Property Gazetteer, standards for other areas of local authority data are less mature. Hackney LBC is working to be part of a collective effort to improve this, including taking a lead in work to propose data standards for planning.

Everything the council does is available to anyone. This is a better use of taxpayers’ money, because they only pay for something once. It also helps test how the council is doing, asking whether people prefer to use the new tools and getting feedback from peers.

The council is sharing all its user research, the service designs that inform the journey through a system and the code that has been built. Open source approaches to software have become mainstream and game changing in the wider technology world, and Hackney LBC believes that this will have a similarly dramatic impact on public services.

Rob Miller, director of ICT, Hackney LBC

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