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Blog posts by Bekki Leaver

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Musings on a Local Government Digital Service

At SocietyWorks we believe in transparency. One of the ways we live this value is by working in the open, and giving our team members space on our blog to write about what they’re working on, something they’re interested in or even perhaps a mistake or challenge they’ve learned from. 

This blog post has been written by Bekki Leaver, our Head of Product, who shares her thoughts on the potential creation of a Local Government Digital Service. 

There’s been some chatter around what a ‘Local Government Digital Service’ might look like, what it could offer, how it might contribute to digital services for local authorities and how it could be staffed. As a Government Digital Service (GDS) alumna and current digital service provider for local government, I have opinions on where there could be value here and what is likely to ruffle some feathers.

GDS have had considerable success at delivering tools to support central government (and local government, come to think of it) in building better services. They’ve centralised resource heavy processes others can simply tap into, such as GOV.UK Pay, Notify and the future One Login, to make complicated features easy to add. 

The design system and service communities have gone a long way to helping create accessible, consistent services. But now every department has its own iteration of the design system, because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all compendium of components and patterns, which highlights very well the problem with an alliance of local authorities working on digital services.

Even when authorities share a common goal and have the same internal systems, their approach and configurations can be wildly different

As an example, take FixMyStreet Pro and its integrated street reporting, our flagship product at SocietyWorks. While it could be said we “built it once” and can then ship that product out to whoever might want it, what actually happens is we do considerable customisation and configuration to our product so it can fit within the processes and ways of working within an authority. 

The experiences I’ve had at SocietyWorks clearly exemplify that even when authorities share a common goal and have the same internal systems, their approach and configurations can be wildly different, influenced by service level agreements, other systems or applications, or staff delivering a service.

The institution and its services need to reflect the people whom it serves. What works in a metropolitan city environment won’t work in a rural one

I think it would also be fair to say there’s a sense of personality and identity embedded in local authorities, a sense of pride for the place you live, and even a bit of competition with the neighbours. It’s not the faceless behemoth central government can be perceived as; it needs to be local and relevant to residents. The thought of imposing generic service provision onto these entities feels almost cruel. The institution and its services need to reflect the people whom it serves. What works in a metropolitan city environment won’t work in a rural one.

We all want to achieve the same goals, and regularly come across the same problems, but to solve them in the best way isn’t going to be some great overseer. It’s going to be collaboration on the ground at the most appropriate time. I see this in the partnerships throughout the UK of authorities banding together to solve their problems in smaller, more local ways, and in SocietyWorks’ own User Groups, bringing together those who use our services to learn from each other within a specific remit.

Overall, I’m really impressed with the things I see from these smaller partnerships and alliances, and I’m not convinced a LGDS is needed. Smaller partnerships definitely feel more approachable than a centralised organisation when, as part of an SME, I want to get involved. 

We need to properly establish the problem(s) and context we’re working in. We have regional specific groups, problem specific groups, and publications, communities, and awards to highlight the great work coming out of them. Do we need more channels to come together? I’m not convinced, but I’d absolutely volunteer to get involved in establishing the why, what and how!

If you’d like to chat to Bekki about anything in her blog post, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Image: charlesdeluvio

What do we mean when we describe our solutions as ‘citizen-centred’?

At SocietyWorks we describe our digital solutions as ‘citizen-centred’ – unusual wording in a world full of ‘user-centred’, ‘human-centred’ and other similarly phrased products that all essentially boil down to meaning “made with people in mind”. 

So why do we choose to call our solutions ‘citizen-centred’, and what does that mean in practice? We asked Bekki Leaver, our Head of Product, to explain.

What makes us and our products citizen-centred?

When talking about our citizen-centred digital solutions, it’s impossible to do so without acknowledging our history and connection to our parent charity mySociety, whose goal is to help people everywhere be active citizens by engaging in civic society. 

To us, a citizen is anyone who is, or wants to be engaged in that civic space. This mission to engage can be seen throughout mySociety’s tools and services: FixMyStreet makes it easier to report local street-based problems to the correct authority, while WhatDoTheyKnow helps citizens make Freedom of Information requests and consolidates responses. 

They, among the many, many others built by mySociety over the last 20 years, were designed to make the interaction between authority and citizen easier for the citizen. This drive to make things less of a burden on the individual is what underpins our citizen-centric design and we use all the tools in our arsenal to do it. 

As the wholly owned subsidiary of mySociety, SocietyWorks extends the impact of the charity, applying that citizen-centred approach to the development of products specifically for local government and the public sector.

We apply everything we’ve learnt through running our charitable civic tech services to help us advocate for citizens in the design of authorities’ own services, to help them provide the best possible experience for their users.

Citizen-centred service design in practice

Of course, we follow standard user-centred design practices, like uncovering needs and running usability studies, when we make improvements or design new things. This is part of our alignment with the GOV.UK Service Standard and is, in our opinion, the right way to do things. 

We also build and test our solutions with accessibility in mind. Again, these are standard practices in the design and development world these days.

Where we differ is our approach to deploying these solutions. We design our products with the flexibility authorities need in order to integrate into any combination of existing systems and processes. 

Unlike cookie cutter, off the shelf products, we recognise that different clients need different things, but balance this customisable approach with a commitment to ensuring the needs of the authority never clash with those of the citizen, creating what we hope is a positive outcome for both!

In essence, we’ll ask slightly more of you (the authority) as a client, but you want us to, because you’ll have better services and happy residents as a result.

What does the future hold?

As a society, our reliance on digital solutions will only continue to increase. New products and services are being created to reduce administrative burdens on authorities, which are driving more citizens to take a self-service approach. 

With this increase in responsibility on citizens, we, as creators, need to continue putting them at the centre of that creation and persist in collaborating with authorities to find what works best for everyone.

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Image: Centre For Ageing Better

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