Easing the shift to digital services

Nick Ford discusses the barriers to digital transformation in public sector and explaining how Knowsley Council has overcome these

Guided by the UK’s creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2012, there’s a huge drive for digital transformation in both local and central government. The pursuit of digital in the public sector is being driven by two factors; the need to operate within tightening budgets and a requirement to meet the digital expectations of constituents. While pursuing digital transformation can be challenging enough for any organisation, public sector agencies also find themselves competing with the private sector for top technical talent, when given today’s IT skills shortages such talent is already hard to find and to keep. Current approaches to software and application development are simply not maintainable if the digital goals of the public sector are to be met.

From a cost-per-transaction perspective a study of local councils reported by the BBC shows that face-to-face transactions cost £8.62 (on average), in contrast to £2.83 per phone interaction and only 15 pence for online transactions conducted via a website. With public sector spending budgets being so tight, the incentive for government digital transformation is clear; certainly to save on operational efficiency costs, but also to meet the evolving digital expectations of constituents. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos for Sopra Steria, the vast majority of citizens are ready and willing to use current digital government services and additional services too, when they become available.

Spending cuts and new approaches
However, the path to digital transformation hasn’t been easy for councils and government departments. While the Ipsos study suggests that 64 per cent of respondents find online public services to be ‘advanced,’ public sector spending cuts have hit IT departments hard leaving them sometimes struggling to maintain the systems and applications they have now, let alone find the budget and resources to develop new services. As a result, some digital transformation initiatives are being held back. And with IT staff salaries typically lower than the big numbers available to skilled staff in the private sector, not just recruiting, but retaining talented developers can be a struggle.

However, the good news is that new approaches to software development are easing the strain. Many councils and departments have discovered that the traditional process by which IT software development projects have been led, a methodology called ‘waterfall,’ does them few favours when it comes to innovating new digital versions of services. That’s because it relies on having a highly detailed requirements specification and often necessitates highly skilled coders for development work. Many have instead turned to a different process called ‘the agile methodology,’ that’s already well practiced in the private sector. Some too, have discovered ‘low-code’ visual modelling tools such as Mendix, a rapid application development approach which advances the agile approach in several key ways.

Low-code supports collaboration. Within such platforms, the developer and a business user can view and understand the structure, logic and flow of an application. Low-code platforms remove the technical code, translating it into graphical components and workflows that a wide spectrum of professionals can understand, from technical developers to business stakeholders. This allows people such as the developer and user to work together to hone an app for new ideas as they iterate towards a final working version. It’s a very fast process; an experienced low-code developer can build an application, including the user interface, in just five-10 per cent of the time that a skilled coder would need to write the same app. And because low-code is such as fast development method, it’s a much more affordable approach for cash-strapped budgets as well as an enabler for meeting tight deadlines.

Low-code approaches mean too that councils and government departments can rely less on recruiting (and keeping) top-end expensive coders; they can instead engage people as developers who understand the detailed logic of how a service works and who come with the soft skills to collaborate using visual workflows to build what’s right, first time, every time. Another benefit of low-code is that skilled coders can be released from basic development work and deployed to more technically challenging requirements. For example, to systems integration projects to improve the extent to which digital government services are ‘joined-up’ services rather than the silos that sometimes frustrate citizens. (Nobody likes to have to insert the very same personal information each and every time they access a different new government service).

It is widely accepted that if used correctly, agile development can contribute to positive outcomes in application software development projects. When matched with the use of a low-code platform, the benefits of agile thinking are complemented by facilitating close collaboration between developers as the people who really understand the public service being digitised and the businesses and citizens who will use it. Applications can be developed via an easy-to-share graphical workflow process, towards meeting users’ evolving needs and government demands for digital innovation. The outcome is faster delivery, higher levels of user acceptance, improved engagement and reduced costs for local and central government departments.    

Case study - Knowsley Council
The Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley near Liverpool is home to around 148,000 residents and is the base for some 2,700 businesses. Knowsley Council, a unitary authority, provides a full range of services, some 160 of them in fact, from emptying bins and looking after parks and highways, through to planning,  and adults' and children’s social care. It also collects council tax to fund such services.

Knowsley is no stranger to local government spending cuts and the council has sought ways to serve its citizens more efficiently. Under a strategy it named ‘Channel Shift,’ the council has worked hard to develop the necessary application infrastructure to support digital transactions. It encourages citizens to engage via the Knowsley Council web portal where appropriate and it runs education sessions for the less digitally savvy in the benefits of being able to serve themselves online and how to do so.

Following its agile development ethos, Knowsley Council created a low-code development team. A key benefit has been the ability to recruit from a much broader base. The council  has engaged existing staff who understand the nuts, bolts and logic flows of a service and have the soft skills to be able to work in close collaboration with local citizens and businesses. Through this hybrid approach, which includes graduates and experienced development staff handling application integration, the speed of development has proven extremely fast, with some applications having taken just days or weeks to build and launch, when they would have taken months to develop using traditional programming languages. The ability to quickly and easily alter applications to accommodate feedback has brought the council the freedom to continually iterate and improve applications, further increasing value and satisfaction for users and therefore uptake numbers.

As of March 2018, Knowsley had attracted local businesses and citizens to conduct some 35 per cent of all transactions online. That’s up from just two per cent or so of transactions back in 2013 and represents savings of approximately £350,000 per annum. The council is targeting 50 per cent of transactions to be online by 2019 and is confident of approaching 75 per cent by 2020.

Nick Ford is technology evangelist at Mendix.