Focus: platforms - the Camden Council view
Do it once, replicate, repeat
"The problem in the past was, because IT systems were so inflexible, it was difficult to change business processes and to join up with partners. It was difficult to make things easy to use”, says John Jackson, Chief Information Officer at Camden Council.
Today he says the flexibility of platforms make them more suited to local government than ever, with business processes “changing very fast”, he says - the new joint funding model for Health and Social Care services a case in point.
There are several other reasons for choosing the approach, in Jackson's view. Firstly, its economical. The majority of visitors to the Council website only want to complete a narrow range of tasks. “Most people want to book something or look something up”, he said. “It’s why I’m so keen on platforms”, he says.
Camden is using a platform model to deliver its parking scheme, which uses parking bay sensors to control car parking in the borough. It is underpinned by an Open Systems Architecture, a ‘layered’ approach to the technology configuration.
By building a system using this structure, you can “separate the user layer, the process layer and the data layer” he says. This makes the whole system more adaptable, easier to share and helps to avoid contractual lock in. "And by allowing APIs to work across platforms, the supplier doesn’t matter”, says Jackson.
Since the launch of Camden's app for new parking permits, built upon the platform model, co-designed with residents and linked via APIs to the back office, the council has seen a 25% reduction in calls from residents about parking – “one of the highest volume services” he says.
The technology is also saving costs from a reduction in enforcement staff.
“People are now redesigning services around the customer. It’s a lot easier to do that if you can control the flow of information. Parking is a good example because [previously], parking systems didn’t have Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to talk to Council Tax or Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), you had to send paper documents in, so the flow of information just stopped.
“APIs unlock data in government; it can flow from A to B without impediment”, says Jackson. “That’s key to process transformation”, he tells Local Digital. “APIs are the key to savings in transformational government. If you put an API in the middle of a technology strategy, it frees everything up”, Jackson says.
Making effective use of platforms and APIs relies on good data. But Jackson says there is much more scope for local government to make the most of the data it holds. Often local government holds richer, more up-to-date data than central government, he argues, because they work closer to citizens every day. “My data is better than Experian’s. Why is local government not more involved?” says Jackson. He sees this working particularly well in the realm of combating fraud by joining data up across service boundaries such as Crime and Health.
“Open Data is enabling a whole new way of delivering services”, he says. To this end, Camden taps into its own open data system Open Data Camden, still under development. Aimed at the public, researchers and developers it provides access, analysis and sharing of information about the borough.
Camden plans to make the most of its data mine and is working on an initiative to “unlock” data from the multiple agencies involved in the process of hospital discharges, a procedure which, according to Jackson, is complicated and paper heavy. The Council is also soon to publish its school admissions data to help residents know where they are on waiting lists, for example. And a 'streetworks register’ is also in the pipeline, showing where road are taking place.
Challenges clearly remain. When it comes to convincing technology suppliers of the use of platforms and APIs, Jackson says that while some ‘get it’, he is on a crusade to convince the rest, having recently demonstrated platforms and APIs to two well-known suppliers to the public sector (or in his own words, "turning legacy applications into a really transformational piece of infrastructure”).
“They have to be able to support this. I’ve been badgering them about moving to an ecosystem less about locking you in and more about making it work across government”, he says. “Eighteen months ago, suppliers said it was the job of software houses. Now they are saying they are prioritising APIs. If suppliers pull it around, they’ll sweat their assets longer and move to the next generation immediately”.
Then there are local government's creaking legacy systems. “It’s tricky for some to develop this stuff because their systems are old”, he says. Jackson has a single word of advice for them: collaboration.
"Local government does a lot of collaboration, but we need to scale it up. And central government people need to recognise that local government has a contribution to make".
While he acknowledges the fears around data management, Jackson is sure that it is key to digital transformation. “Digital transformation is about harnessing the power of information to join services up so we do things once and spot problems sooner. We do not want to be doing all this again and again”.