Socitm is the UK-based professional body for people involved in the leadership and management of IT and digitally enabled services delivered for public benefit.

Amongst various activities they regularly produce informative literature on what a digital plan making service should be, how it might work and what it ought to deliver.

In late 2014 Socitm published its “Digital: Vision to Value” briefing which laid down comprehensive ideals of digital services aimed at the public.

In the document were three core principles:

  • Innovation to empower citizens and communities – read below
  • Service redesign to simplify, standardise and automate
  • Collaborate, share and reuse resources and assets.

How can you, as a public sector organisation, use digital services to meet these core principles? Based on our experience delivering e-consultation and interactive digital mapping services for local authorities, let’s explore some ideas.

Innovation to Empower Citizens and Communities

Socitm states several ideals to empower citizens and communities in digital plan making, which we’ll look at in turn:

“Adaptive innovation – create, learn, report – should be built into the culture.”

This requires commitment at the council. Often IT is not used to its full potential or acts as a barrier to adaptive innovation. For example, does a back office system support open standards for getting data in and out? IT can facilitate a culture but not lead it. That said, IT providers like ourselves need feedback to improve what we do, to ensure our software and services support the culture you want to build. That culture may be one where you want to provide digital services by default. Or you may want to supplement existing methods with digital provision.

That’s why we have a feedback feature, an online reporting system and user groups for our e-consultation software. If we’re to learn and innovate together, we need you to tell us what you need. The Software as a Service (SaaS) model we use (hosted software delivered to users through the Internet and any web browser) means we are always improving our software, based on the needs of users and of emerging technology. We call this our continuous release policy and it means that the idea of adaptive innovation is already built into our culture.

In considering financial management among UK local authorities, Grant Thornton produced a report defining adaptive innovation where “councils creatively redefine their role and are able actively to affect their operating environment, often working in close partnership with other authorities.” A number of our clients are working collaboratively with neighbouring authorities to deliver a centralised planning policy function. Operating technology and SaaS models from a hosted platform supports ease of deployment across any organisation or IT real estate.

“All stakeholders must be involved in service design and delivery.”

Certainly the customers of digital service companies are involved in this (if we didn’t give the customer what they wanted, we wouldn’t get very far), but the end user? In effect, we need our customers to advise us on what the end users want. We can offer fresh insight based on feedback clients give us from testing and from their experiences of their stakeholders using our software in the real world. User-groups are a great way to keep this dialogue going. Every software vendor will say, “built with ease of use in mind” but changing legislation, emerging technologies and consumer trends continue to evolve. How do all stakeholders remain in service design and delivery?

Local authorities use surveys to measure their performance, but do they pass this feedback to service suppliers like ourselves? In many ways we are building two-way communication into our software service. In developing an online Local Place Plan for Abergele, the first of its kind in Wales, we’re involving stakeholders such as local Councillors and representatives from community  groups in the creation of the digital platform, who represent the public that will use the system. They include technophobes as well as technophiles, as you might expect. What happens when we go live? That goes back to surveys.

“Digital capability, resources, information and skills should be engaged to build the systems.”

Well this is certainly the case for our services, and will be for most software vendors of course. We all have less control over Internet provision, however, which powers any digital service. Despite the strides being made to provide greater bandwidth to ever-larger areas of the UK, every digital service provider needs to remain mindful of broadband limits and blackspots. Conwy County Council in North Wales, one of our first clients, remains one such area that in effect “caps” the data intensivity of our service because of its limited broadband.

Systems should also be built to be sustainable. This means keeping systems as simple as possible. The more complex you make a system the more likely you are to have to keep modifying it to ensure it retains the performance and accessibility levels you require.

“Ownership of the data should be shifted towards the user.”

Our experience in digital plan making suggests this can be a tough one to swallow! Certainly the use of online technology means there is a live record of every interaction or conversation available. It’s “always there”, as (in our case) are maps and policies. The data is freely available, as it always was, but now it is more accessible. Accessibility isn’t necessarily the same thing as ownership, of course. The use of secure registration certainly gives users a greater sense of data ownership – they own their interaction with you through the system.

Shifting ownership of data to the user means that Councils become custodians of that data. This places a different kind of responsibility upon them, particularly in a world where the user’s default expectation is that a service, a transaction or an information set is available digitally by default.

“Required to act quickly and flexibly.”

Digital technology and the Internet has sped up the world. The potential to act quickly is obvious, but having the structure in place to do so remains a challenge. Software vendors can provide automation and, depending on the quality of data you have, fine-tune it to address individual needs. Quality of data is so important. Beyond this, having sufficient human resources and the skills to get the most from the software is also vital. Software should come with training and ongoing support. With this in place, people are empowered to use technology in new ways. In Conwy where we deployed our interactive mapping, the planning policy department fields enquiries from the public much more speedily. Someone buying a house may want to know what policies govern the area. Officers can answer the query over the phone and send a weblink via email to an interactive map. Previously they would take a message, consult paper maps and digital “Office”-type documents, then reply – but even then the homebuyer would have to visit the office or a library to view the map.

Do your digital services deliver Socitm’s “Innovation to Empower”?

How far would you say the digital software services you use empower people or can be adapted to do so? Do you think Socitm’s principles are important? Are there any missing? As a provider of digital software services to the public sector, we’d love to receive your views and comments.

  • In our next post we’ll look at Socitm’s next digital in plan making principle, “Service redesign to simplify, standardise and automate”