Industry voice: Hackney Council has shown it is possible to follow the principles of the Local Digital Declaration while using best of breed off-the-shelf software
Adopting an agile approach to developing digital services involves a strong emphasis on the specifics of what an organisation is aiming to achieve, however, this leaves plenty of space for commodity technology.
Hackney Council has combined the agile approach with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software – IEG4’s eGovHub intelligent forms platform – as a key step in its long-term service transformation.
Speaking at IEG4’s recent Partnerships, Portals and Platforms event, the Council’s Head of Digital, Matthew Cain, explained how the initiative sits within the aims of the Local Digital Declaration – to which Hackney was one of the original signatories – and its own HackIT Manifesto.
The former emphasises the need to design services around what users need, insisting on module ‘building blocks’ and open standards for IT, secure and useful ways of sharing information, and working in the open wherever possible to promote collaboration and sharing good practice.
The manifesto, meanwhile, reflects the priorities of the agile approach: more doing, less planning; think big, act small; make decisions together; fail fast and be ready to learn; share experiences and perspectives; and always act ethically. Underlying this, is the understanding that the demands on councils, and their IT teams, will continue to change.
“It’s not about a programme of change to reach an endpoint,” Cain said. “We don’t know where we are going to be in three to five years, but what’s important is our ability to do new things better, to do change better and to do it more quickly.”
An important element in this is to learn by getting on with things, and the council had identified an opportunity for a quick win in improving its service for people to report a change in circumstance (CiC) in their Benefits. This involved processing over 100,000 documents a year, with about 45,000 being dropped off by customers at the designated office. It was taking an average of 20 minutes to process each one, and ten minutes to help someone report a change at the contact centre front desk - with the cost of processing each CiC standing at £11.63.
Digitising the process did promise benefits, but the project moved slowly because of the identified risks. These included: the need for complex integration with several back-office systems, questions about the likely level of take-up amongst the public, and the difficulties in estimating the cashable savings against the revenue costs of licensing the software. There were also questions around a return on investment for the risk-based verification involved in the processing of a CiC.
But Hackney had a 34-page business case for digital transformation and decided to act on the principles of its manifesto by making a start and learning through doing.
Among the important steps was to create a multi-disciplinary team, including customer services staff, benefits officers and web development specialists. Cain described this as a “trusted team to discover the right outcomes” and that it helped to keep the effort focused on user needs.
Another was to understand the users. This is a challenge, as CiCs often involve vulnerable people at a difficult stage in their life, with the circumstances being quite complex. The customer service team’s experiences were vital for their insights on the experiences of people using the service and their ability to respond to the proposed changes.
Using eGovHub, the team developed three big improvements within the customer journey, beginning on the council website. Hackney has been developing ways of providing further support to people using the service. The latter reflects the vulnerability that often comes with a change in circumstance and involves steps such as signposting people towards services, for instance, job searches, training opportunities or benefits entitlements.
Cain said the council is already confident of more benefits to come, including 24/7 access to the service, a reduction in processing times, better management reporting and analytics, and improving the experience for vulnerable and stressed residents. In addition, potential savings are estimated to be more than £100,000 over the life of the solution.
However, Hackney has already learned some valuable lessons to feed into future projects. One is that there are dividends in the ‘learn through doing’ approach, as it leads to a better understanding of problems and provides indicators to where there is more to learn.
Another is that there is no best approach for the delivery of a digital service; it is about what works best in context. Different factors to those that influence the CiC could apply to other services, and their design and delivery must reflect these too.
In addition, the agile approach can provide gradual, but clear, demonstrations of the benefits of changing a service. This can be valuable in getting the senior officials onboard. They may find it difficult to focus on the subtleties of a business case whilst having to deal with the ‘big picture’ pressures on an authority, but those clear examples of the benefits can help to win their support for a larger change programme.
Overall, the project has provided an important step in a longer-term service transformation, in which the combination of agile and commodity technology is likely to play an important part.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done,” said Cain. “The way we have done it has given us the capability to do change better, to make sure we don’t see this as a programme for a specific service, but building on the ability to really understand user needs and use agile methods to get everything done quicker at a lower risk.
“It’s a lean start-up mentality that ensures we get better value for money.”
If you’d like to find out how IEG4 can help to improve and deliver your digital transformation, the company is hosting a rolling programme of webinars. To book your place click here.
Image of Hackney Town Hall from Flickr Emily Valentine