Dominic Baggott 04 July 2019

Fixing the plumbing

For a while now, there’s been quite a lot of noise around the need to ‘fix the plumbing’.

There’s no doubt that big legacy IT systems present a significant challenge to genuine service transformation in the public sector. They are one of the reasons that organisations can struggle to deliver great services, as they can only really build new customer interfaces, and are forced to leave back-end systems largely unchanged.

Legacy systems can often be inflexible and difficult to adapt to meet the needs of users as they change. This lack of iteration (usually over years) means customers can face lengthy waits in call centre queues as they are unable to find and navigate services they need. Additionally, customer services and operations teams are left under strain as they deal with large volumes of enquiries and outdated manual processes.

These monolithic systems, sometimes with the added blocker of lengthy contractual lock-ins, require a huge effort to fix in one sitting. Doing one big procurement and one massive migration just isn’t realistic for most organisations - and replacing like with like will arguably just create the same problem again in a few years’ time.

So what’s the solution?

‘Fixing the plumbing’ doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, about doing this.

What it is about - and the only way to make real progress - is public sector organisations starting to use technology that can be improved and updated bit by bit. That means we can break down the challenge into manageable chunks. It also enables the gradual iteration of services as user needs and expectations shift over time. The need to use interoperable technology is why open standards are so important - only by agreeing and using the same standards is it possible to substitute one piece of software for another in this way.

It’s as much about good communication and collaboration, as it is the technology, and shared standards shouldn’t just be limited to technology, they should be about processes too. If you’re a local authority and you do things in a similar way to other local authorities, you’re more likely to be able to use the same software. That makes life easier and means you can share the benefits of developments being made elsewhere.

If you want to use customised software for one piece of your service, that won’t stop you from using off-the-shelf, open-source or platform software for another part of it.

Why the local digital fund is good

Using open standards will reduce costs in the long term, for your own organisation and for others. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that it can take more work in the short term. This means that in reality there’s not much incentive for individual cash strapped councils, delivering increasingly under strain services, to work in this way.

That’s why the way MHCLG’s approach to this is good. They’re providing some of that missing incentive through the local digital fund by making £7.5m of central funding available to organisations who commit to building their services in this way. The fund means that local government can focus on the problems they need to solve and gives them the extra support they need to make interoperability happen.

The fund’s had a pretty positive reception so far, so I’m optimistic that it will help things move in the right direction.

My strong advice to local authorities is to be pragmatic and take things step by step:

  • Focus first on solving your own organisation’s problems, but use and contribute to common standards where that makes sense for you.
  • Be realistic and plan for incremental progress rather than trying to rebuild entire services.
  • Remember that even doing things step by step will mean ripping up long standing silos and processes. You will need to help your people through it.

Dominic Baggott is CTO at dxw digital

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Register here for your free copy.

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