Rob Miller believes that many software suppliers need to change their approach to dealing with local government or they will lose ground in the market.
The director of ICT at the London Borough of Hackney recently posted an open letter to suppliers, declaring the council’s support for the Local Digital Declaration and its intention of breaking away from a dependence on inflexible and expensive technology that does not join up effectively.
It includes an emphasis on features that many in local government IT see as virtues: modular building blocks, open standards, a common structure for data and interoperability. But talking with UKAuthority he says most legacy suppliers still take a different line, focused on tying councils to technology rooted in an outdated and less flexible approach.
“If you look across any council we run lots of different services and traditionally people have used a lot of systems that would have been the sparkling shiny thing back in the e-government days but are now legacy and too often running on old technology. Simply exposing these to our residents doesn’t provide a good digital experience and we are determined to do better,” he says.
“There are usually a small number of suppliers in each of the different service areas - housing, benefits, planning – and just going out and procuring stuff doesn’t change anything as you just move from one supplier to another.”
He points to their attitudes to opening up APIs to give councils more flexibility in using the data on their systems. Hackney has a strategy to make its key datasets available through REST (representational state transfer) APIs as a step towards developing new digital services. It has made progress, but also found the legacy suppliers have often insisted that cooperation comes at a heavy price.
“What we’ve found, and this has been a problem for a long time, is that traditional vendors tend to make those APIs quite expensive,” he says. “You’re thinking ‘Here’s a useful way to make a digital service better for our residents’, but for reasons of the capability of the API, the commercials around it or the quality of the data we can’t do it.”
He believes there is scope for this to change, pointing to the way Microsoft has switched from tying the use of Office firmly to Windows towards a cross-platform approach reflecting a more open attitude – and has subsequently seen a surge in business and profitability.
While most legacy tech suppliers have been reluctant to take a similar approach, Miller predicts that over time market forces will push them into opening up.
“There is still a mindset among traditional suppliers of trying to use the data to secure their business position. I think that is not the way they should do it; they should see themselves as part of a digital ecosystem and suppliers who do that will probably flourish.
“Those who don’t will probably find that eventually their business disappears.
“The Local Digital Declaration is helpful, which is why we wrote about our aspiration for the suppliers we’ll be dealing with to commit to its principles. It’s a strong articulation of what we need as a sector and I hope it will make it clear for suppliers who haven’t got it yet.”
While Miller expresses frustrations he also finds causes for optimism. He says Hackney has had more success working with smaller, often locally based, digital agencies that are more responsive to its thinking. This has helped its digital team develop their own skills and produced some new services.
“In housing we’ve made good progress in making it easy for people to check and pay their rent online,” Miller says. “That has come from working with local digital agencies to develop the front end, then using APIs into our housing system so tenants can see live data on their rent balance and it is quickly updated when they make a payment.
“We’ve been doing that across housing rents and repairs and are now doing interesting stuff with Camden and Southwark around planning.”
He also points to the potential in commodity software, with Hackney exploring what it can do with Microsoft Dynamics 365, some councils doing likewise with Salesforce and positive signs in the development of a low code platform by Adur and Worthing Councils.
Hackney’s in-house team has meanwhile made use of low code technology from OutSystems and open source code developed on Ruby with digital agencies, and learned a lot from HM Revenue & Customs’ efforts in developing APIs. It has also been learning new coding standards and how to use REST.
The council has deployed its Hackney API and supporting standards initially for housing repairs, and has moved on to looking at the re-use of data for new digital services, and providing the potential for third parties to develop new apps or connecting existing ones. This should help to reduce the dependency on legacy systems and increase the visibility of integration between systems.
“The idea is the front end should be more diverse and then the information comes together because we have our API strategy right,” Miller says.
Need for change
There is a wide consensus in local government that its way of developing digital services has to change; the traditional emphasis on specialist line of business software has become a constraint, and the financial pressures demand a more cost-effective approach. Miller’s overall messages reflect the desire for more open environment to overcome these challenges.
“For suppliers it comes down to thinking of themselves as part of a broader ecosystem,” he says. “I think suppliers who succeed will be those who do in a local authority context what Satya Nadella did with Microsoft in a global technology context. With that approach to open integration, helping councils do more with user focused and agile digital services, those suppliers will be successful.
“For councils it depends on the context. We’re lucky in having an in-house development capability, but for smaller councils that won’t be the case. The right answer will depend on what kind of authority you are.
“We can share the work we’ve done so others can take and learn from it and help us to improve it. That principle in the declaration about learning from each other is quite important and we’re committed to it. We also want to work on sharing user research and how we can make our pipelines of work visible to help identify opportunities for collaboration.”