A future where anyone (with the time and inclination) can become an armchair public service auditor moved closer this week with the announcement that a dozen councils are to release data into open online 'service dashboards'.
The dashboards have already been launched in 'alpha' prototype form for a range of central government services including online vehicle licence application and application for Carer's Allowance. The platform, hosted on government services portal GOV.UK, presents data relating to key performance indicators such as online task completion and customer satisfaction.
Now, the first local government data - from Solihull council, relating to reporting of missed rubbish bin collections - has now been posted onto the site, delegates heard at yesterday's Society of IT Management (Socitm) Spring conference in London. The move follows ongoing collaboration between Socitm and the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the Cabinet Office.
Matt Harrington, associate product manager at GDS, told conference the concept of the platform is to automate data collection into the platform independent of the original format or proprietary monitoring software in which it is held, ending repetitive manual reporting.
Currently, "lots of time [is] spent by analysts churning out same reports on a weekly or monthly basis - a time better spent working out why there have been peaks and troughs", Harrington said. "We do the hard work to make presentation and interpretation of data simple for users.
"It enables bodies to make decisions based on data."
Following Solihull's involvement a next stage is planned covering three services at 12 authorities, with more to follow, but the ultimate goal is to make the system a self-serve platform so organisations can set up and use it whenever and however they want, he said.
"In the longer term it will be a case of push your data, and you get yourself a dashboard".
Any organisation will also be able to help develop or adapt the underlying software, with the code available on the open source software code repository GitHub, Harrington said.
Outgoing Socitm president Steve Halliday, who by no coincidence is also chief information officer at Solihull, said his council's dashboard showed information on transactions by service channel - the numbers of people reporting missed waste collections by phone, on the web, face to face in contact centres or through other channels such as social media.
The platform generates a unique web address for every statistical graph generated, so people can easily share and discuss findings, and future plans include adding the ability to annotate pages and share these annotations. This would help council managers explain issues such as seasonal variations, for example, Halliday said.
The key to making good use of the system will be in looking at how data might offer insights into better ways of organising services, he said. "How does that data add business value, how could it help us run a service better?"
This could include looking at options for demand management suggested by the figures, Halliday said, including possible preventative actions to be taken both by councils and their service users. "You can use [data] to take out demand in first place, which is often failure demand - we should not have missed a bin in the first place", Halliday said. "So if you look at a bin round and see bins missed consistently in certain locations, it could help create conversations with residents. I want it to lead to innovative conversations."
The topic of "frugal innovation", a new buzz-word among analysts and think-tanks describing a combination of simple, cheap, widespread technologies with new innovations, was addressed by Leslie Budd, reader in social enterprise at the Open University Business School.
Budd said all too often these days there is an automatic association of the concept of innovation with the newest, highest tech - attitudes that could be summarised as 'all you need is Facebook'. The basis of frugal innovation - also often known by its colloquial Hindi name of Jugaad - is often imitation rather than invention, he said.
There are six principles of frugal innovation, Dr Budd said: to seek an opportunity; do more with less; think and act flexibly; keep it simple; include the marginal(ised); and follow your heart. Examples include the world's cheapest car the Tato Nano; or the widely-feted 'M-Pesa' system whereby people in Kenya and Tanzania can make payments for goods or services using their mobile phones.
Such innovations are economical and inclusive, Dr Budd said, and importantly for a local government audience are also often developed locally. It was also pointed out at the conference that GOV.UK - home to the new open performance platforms - takes a frugal approach in its design and development principles. But in a world where the concept of innovation has become synonymous with high-tech in the minds of many, it is not always easy to obtain backing for frugality, Dr Budd said.
He illustrated this with an old Soviet joke: "An inventor goes to the ministry and says 'I have invented a new button-holing machine for our clothing industry'. 'Comrade', says the minister, 'We have no use for such a machine; don't you realise this is the age of Sputnik?'"
Pictured: Delegates voting at the AGM at Socitm spring conference, by Olivia Harris www.oliviaharrisphotos.com
Service dashboards: www.gov.uk/performance
Solihull missed waste collections dashboard: www.gov.uk/performance/solihull-local-authority
Performance platform code on GitHub: https://github.com/alphagov/performance-platform
Socitm Spring conference: www.socitm.net/events/socitm-spring-2014