Some thoughts on SOCITM’s third party suppliers workshop

There is no such thing as a website

Websites are not as most people imagine them to be. In fact you could argue that there is no such thing as a website.

There are digital transactions.

We create a website by bundling them together so that they have a coherence, a consistent look and feel, common language, integrations.

When that happens, it does not, generally delight people. It’s how we expect things to work.

When it doesn’t happen, it’s weird, confusing and feels broken.

In local government we really struggle to deliver this consistency across our digital services.

Mind the gap

Often the break in consistency comes when you move from a digital service provided by the council directly to a service provided by a third party piece of software.

SOCITM, which tries to make local government websites better, organised an event to try to get underneath these issues. And it was largely successful in identifying the problems. It didn’t come up with the killer solution but there were examples of approaches that may help. (They were kind enough to ask me to give a short presentation opining on the importance of APIs and modular design.)

Though in a sense the solution is simple and self-evident: we should buy stuff that works properly with our other digital services. Of course if it were that simple we would already have done it.

Some approaches

Northamptonshire held an in-house summit with suppliers of third-party apps on their site. They involved some business owners (the people in services who hold relationships with the suppliers of specialist software), but on reflection they wished they’d involved all of the owners.

This is one of those ideas that once you’ve heard it, seems so obvious you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. But of course you didn’t. However now I’ve been told about it, I’m totally organising this as soon as possible back at base.

Rochdale have driven an extraordinary level of take-up of online benefits applications (nearly 100% of applications) by working with their third party supplier and making sure that the system worked for users.

At Herefordshire we encourage the use of APIs/web services so that we can handle the front end ourselves and guarantee consistency. This has additional spin-offs and if, as a sector, we could standardise around APIs on some of our services it could really transform the market for customer facing tech.

East Riding have strong governance, essentially they have found a way of describing what good looks like and then ensured that services can only buy systems that meet these standards.

We heard from a couple of suppliers of third party systems. They pointed out that some of the problems users experience may be down to poor implementation of their products. They also pointed to the truism that they sell what we buy.

And that’s the killer point. We can not blame suppliers. We buy what we choose to buy.

What does good look like?

Across the sector there is no real consensus on what good looks like. I think that within web teams there is an ever increasing consensus but our colleagues in other areas may not agree or, perhaps more significantly, may not understand why we think that good looks that way.

We need to find ways to bring other professionals, senior managers and elected members into our world. Because we can deliver excellent digital services.

If we agree that it matters.