Why Open Standards lead to better public services

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can the use of Open Standards lead to improved integration of Information Technology systems and public services? Dyfrig Williams reflects on what he learnt from taking part in the Good Practice Exchange webinar on Open Standards.

Digital has been a key theme of our work for some time now. We’ve delivered a range of events on that theme, from our seminar on Information Technology as part of our assets work in 2013, to our latest webinar on Open Standards.

This is the most techy digital themed event that we’ve hosted since our Cloud webinar, but it’s a topic we particularly wanted to give air time to because of how important Open Standards are in the integration of public services. Training and consultancy services the length and breadth of Britain are currently sending marketing material selling all kinds of products and services with the “digital” prefix. Open Standards are key to enabling many of the services that are being sold to integrate with each other and to enable better public services.

During our webinar, I described Open Standards as standards that are developed through a collaborative process for data, document formats and software interoperability. But as Evan Jones pointed out, there is no universal agreed definition of Open Standards – ironically! So for that alone, it’s well worth catching up with the webinar!

So what were my key learning points?

“Do the hard work to make things easy”

Terence Eden of the UK Government Digital Service gave us so much food for thought during the webinar. He followed up this gem with “It’s not about you, it’s about the users.” The opening question from a delegate was around whether it might be difficult to implement Open Standards with their existing technology. Terence’s response immediately got me thinking that Open Standards are an enabler of better public service, rather than an endpoint in and of themselves. We should be thinking about how we can provide the best possible services for the end user, and using proprietary standards that hinder integration certainly don’t help with that. As Terence said, “Open Standards can save lives!”

We’ve done a lot of thinking at the Good Practice Exchange about the complex and complicated environments in which public services are delivered. Our Manager Chris Bolton has written this great post on the problems that come with implementing a one-size fits all solution in a situation that has many variables. The problem with continually going down the proprietary route is that we’re adding layers of complexity in to an already complex environment. It narrows down service options and means that solutions themselves have to be increasingly complex, which can generate further issues and decrease reliability. It’s worth reading how the New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General made their information systems open by default, which resulted in a more reliable and robust IT system because of the cleaner configuration without endless permissions and restrictions.

Open Standards aren’t just for IT specialists

The discussions during the webinar weren’t just about Information Technology systems working well together. I mentioned above that Open Standards are an enabler for better public services, and as such knowledge and awareness of them shouldn’t be constricted to IT departments. They help systems to integrate and enable collaboration. The data gathered can be used to plan long term, so it’s clear how they can be really beneficial in enabling organisations to work through some of the ways of working that are identified in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. If we want to gather data for effective planning and to work together to provide better public services, then awareness of Open Standards is important amongst everyone from Public Service Board representatives, to Elected Members, to Capital Project Managers.

The power of procurement

Linked to the above point about Open Standards being important beyond IT, it’s something that staff in procurement roles should consider. Not only do they reduce complexity to enable integration, they also open up procurement opportunities beyond major vendors to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is clearly linked to some of the Wellbeing Outcomes within the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, especially around a Prosperous Wales and a(n economically) resilient Wales.

As Evan Jones pointed out during the webinar, Open Standards also help you help you to take a longer term view of systems, as they will be interoperable with the future you. We also had a good discussion about encouraging vendors to work with Open Standards during the webinar, and as Jess Hoare said, it’s important to remember that it’s us as public services who are procuring services. It’s perhaps easy to forget in these situations that as the procurers, the power during negotiations lies with us. Evan encouraged us all to negotiate with vendors – if they can’t store data in an Open Standard, you should be suspicious about their motives.

Where do we go from here?

Resources from this Open Standards work will be fed into our Digital work in order to prolong its impact and also to give people who are interested in the agenda some food for thought. We’re also thinking about how we can share this work internally as well. I’ve fed my learning from the webinar into the Cutting Edge Audit Office project, and we’re also thinking about how we can share the learning with auditors, because Open Standards have a key role in ensuring that systems and organisations can work together effectively to deliver value for money. Short term thinking here has a big impact in the longer term.

We also have a procurement webinar scheduled as part of this year’s programme, which gives us an opportunity to look again at some of the issues raised here. We’ve come across some interesting practice in our initial scoping work on procurement, particularly how CivTech have taken a different approach to driving innovation in Scotland. We’d love to hear from you if you have further practice that we can highlight. Because after all, our work is only a success if it’s learning from and reflecting the key issues that you’re facing as Welsh public services.

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