A low code platform for local government

Interview: Paul Brewer, director for digital and resource at Adur and Worthing Councils, talks about its approach to building digital services and a strong in-house capability

Paul Brewer worries about the role of a chief digital officer, wondering whether it lacks the clout and the control over finances needed to push change deep into most organisations.

“I would be hesitant to take a CDO role myself as I wouldn’t be sure I have enough long term authority to make change happen,” he says.

Paul BrewerBut as director for digital and resource at Adur and Worthing District Councils he feels that he has the clout, with control of all the support services and the chief financial officer reporting to him. Along with the firm support of the chief executive and the leaders of the two councils, he feels this gives him the authority to really make the role count.

He moved into it three years ago after stints working at Surrey County Council on its Troubled Families programme and at Brighton Council in commissioning and performance.

“When the role came up here it was a great opportunity to shift from trying to push for things to happen from outside the core IT strategy and function, to have the hands on the tiller,” he says.

“Having come from a digital background all of the other stuff was quite a steep learning curve. It was a bold step to put someone with my background in this role, but a clear signal that digital was essentially the part of the role being recruited for and trusting the other parts would be OK.”

Shared service success

It also reflected the readiness of the councils to do things differently: they had set up a full shared service arrangement in 2008, with a joint team of officers and oversight committee, reporting to the two council cabinets. Brewer says it has been successful, made easier by the fact that both councils are Conservative-controlled, and produced savings.

This has come partly from putting into effect a clearly stated approach to developing digital services.

“The main piece is around any organisation, including a council, of any size having control of digital product development,” he says. “It should have an in-house capability to solve problems and produce digital applications.

“The assumption there is that all the legacy estate is problematic; it’s big IT, inflexible suppliers who may be resistant to public cloud hosting or publishing APIs, and a series of issues with the current supplier market. When you try to influence them to change it’s not in their DNA, it’s difficult and can be costly to make progress.

“The other route is to engage with SMEs to produce new products. That’s legitimate and we will do more of that in the future. But for the core business problems in a council there will always be a significant need to develop solutions in-house, because we can control what happens when and control the cost.

“We built a capability map to understand what technical capabilities we would need, built a new target architecture, and defined the new in-house capability to understand the tech the business would need.”

Retention challenge

Of course, the desire to build in-house capability comes up against the old problem of finding and retaining skilled employees when better salaries can be on offer in the private sector. The solution for Adur and Worthing has been in the development of a low code platform that provides scope to design digital services without a heavy need for high level skills.

“We have a handful of mid-range people with skills such as Python and Javascript,” Brewer says. “They are very able to do some of the more technical thinking and design work that is sometimes needed, but we don’t have to have a bunch of expensive freelance coders.

“When we say in-house we’re talking about finding staff in the organisation who we’re able to turn into low code developers.”

He adds that the work is sufficiently rewarding, in terms of what it can produce for the local communities, to keep people onboard over the long term.

The platform was developed with Matssoft, an SME that specialises in low code, and has provided a foundation for a number of digital services. These have included health and safety risk assessments, HR functions, triage and register application services for housing and a process for handling freedom of information requests.

Drag and drop

“It requires very little coding,” he says. “As we solve specific problems there are areas where we’ve needed to ask Matssoft to code a capability that becomes ‘drag and drop’, and locally we occasionally do some coding for integration, but very little.

“Broadly speaking it’s a visual interface of building business process and dragging capabilities into a visual workflow diagram. It’s reasonably technical but not the kind of mindset you need to apply. The best comparison is the skillset of a decent access database creator.

“We have control of the thing that is most important for a business. We can’t build from scratch, but the compromise is the toolset that allows us to build those applications.”

The councils are preparing to launch the most ambitious application developed on the platform, an end-to-end housing repairs system to provide self-service, scheduling for internal staff and contractors, invoices linked to the finance system and connections to the contact centre. It will also be integrated with outside sources such as Google to glean relevant information, such as anything on traffic accidents that will affect when an operative is likely to get to an appointment.

“We did a lot of design work then went into the build, the work on which took four months for the initial product, then we’ve been iterating and are now on six months to finish to build end-to-end,” Brewer says.

“For that one product, if we had gone to market and bought an equivalent that would not have been as good, we would have spent the same amount as we have on the site licence for the platform; and we have a number of products running on the platform, such as all of our waste services.

“We’ve got some big areas of business working on a low code platform, end-to-end operational support. It’s effective and cost-effective.”

He adds: “It feels like the right level. The commodity you shouldn’t consume is the actual business logic, because that sits in the data and it’s that you should have more control over because things change; and we want to change much more quickly than the R&D pipeline of a big supplier.”

Going Local

Another project, which has gone as far as a pilot backed by Local Government Association funding, is for a social prescribing service named Going Local. This reflects the understanding that many people who turn up at GP surgeries with mental health issues have social more than medical needs, and that they could receive support from one of a range of community services.

The team has built a digital process by which a GP can refer a patient to a community referrer, who sees the person and refers them on to the appropriate service or activity.

“We were able to give them a decent application within the pilot and it has been hugely successful, enabling the public health team to collect the data for the impact analysis on the project and has simplified the admin for the GPs, the community referrer and the providers of services,” Brewer says.

“Part of it is the maintenance of a service directory, which is an extensive list of all the community provision available. When a referrer refers a patient to a resource they take their mobile phone number to provide info and contact details, and the agency will receive a notification.

“It’s simple stuff but really powerful.”

Keeping the IP

While the councils pay for the platform as a service, they retain the intellectual property rights on the applications they develop and could make these available for other authorities. They are in talks with two other councils about the application for social prescribing, and Brewer says that from time to time it will sell them on to others.

He claims there are big advantages in cost-effectiveness and flexibility of design, and in bringing out the best in some employees.

“At the moment most staff in councils have the experience of coming up with ideas, but when they tried to make a change that comes with IT the answer is no or it is too expensive. Those with ideas have been silenced.

“But we’re seeing growing levels of excitement and innovation from knowing we can innovate in digital and have control over the process. There’s a sense of optimism and that it’s worth mentioning an idea.”

He is also looking at the potential for data registers for local authorities, and is talking with the data team at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. He relates it to the work on Going Local and its register of community services, but says it could have further applications.

“My sense of that is that different organisations will have different lists of services they refer people to, and it should be the case that somebody, probably the council, offers to provide information like that, curate and edit it for the benefit of everybody else. They might use the Going Local platform.

“My ambition would be that we produce that as a machine readable data register. We have people doing the grunt work to make sure the information is accurate and granular and we provide it as a data service to other organisations to build into their systems. When they’re looking to refer people to a community resource they are consuming a single trusted source of that data.”

Asset management potential

While it is early days, he suggests that another area in which this could work is asset management.

“There’s a lot that can be done locally to provide data resources to others. In the ideal world that kind of data structure would be standardised across the country, so other systems can easily consume it when they exist elsewhere.

“The ambition would be for it to be standard, and we’re keen for what we do to help develop the standard.”

He concludes with what he sees as the most important underlying priorities for any council’s work on digital services.

“The thing we should bear most in mind is that councils have a role as leaders in localities, and that as far as possible everything should be seen from the point of view of residents and community and seen as a system. We’re very clear on the need to use human centred design to be clear we’re designing the right things and not letting institutional priorities get in the way.

“Human centred design and system change is what councils should be aiming for; not just the digitisation of their services.”