Tag Archives: information technology

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.

Services in a time of change

Welsh Purchasing Consortium

How can organisations plan for the future in a time of change? Dyfrig Williams looks at the work of the Welsh Purchasing Consortium and how they’re implementing a flexible cloud based software solution.

Reforming local government is a hot topic here in Wales. Whilst there were lots of interesting messages in the Williams Commission report, it was the call for fewer councils that made all the headlines.

In this environment of impending change, it’s important that councils continue to focus on their day to day work, whilst also keeping one eye on what the future holds. It would be far too easy to stay in a period of stasis whilst awaiting re-organisation.

It was really timely and interesting to hear then how the Welsh Purchasing Consortium has implemented a Public Protection Software Framework to improve collaboration and efficiency across Welsh councils.

The expense of bringing existing systems together meant that they procured a new system that has the potential to cover the whole of Wales. This means that the approach can be adapted when any mergers take place, whilst also making it easier to interrogate data on a national basis. Nineteen councils expressed an interest in taking part, so they plumped for a cloud based system. If you’re unfamiliar with cloud computing, you can watch Evan Jones outline the advantages of it in the below video from our Information Technology Webinar.

This Cloud solution will save server costs, and also release IT resources at individual councils. There is also more flexibility in the system, as it can be accessed on any device with a web browser.

If you’d like to learn more, you can find a case study on the work on our website. Obviously the nature of work changes from council to council and from service to service, but there are a lot of interesting things to learn from this work that could be adapted to suit your needs.

Webinars and cloud: breaking new ground

Effective use of Information Technology

The Effective use of Information Technology seminar was the first event that I directly worked on for the Good Practice Exchange, but it wasn’t just a first for me – it was the first time that a seminar had left us with as many questions as answers. The cloud session had provided an interesting starting point for organisations that were looking to work differently, but practically how were they going to get through the red tape to this brave new world?

As anyone who runs events know, they can be an expensive business. We’d already run events in both North and South Wales, and we wanted to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to have their questions answered.

As the session would be looking at cloud computing, a more specific topic than our IT seminar, it wouldn’t run for as long. We plumped for a webinar, which fit nicely with the topic, as it was a cloud based platform. This was new ground for everyone involved, but equally an exciting prospect for us all.

As this webinar was a pilot we kept it small scale with 20 attendees. The presentations themselves were great, with Evan Jones of the Welsh Government breaking down the issues of Cloud Computing, and Peter Middleton of the Cabinet Office talking about the merits of the G-Cloud. One of the benefits of the platform we plumped for was that we were left with a video of the webinar, which you can view above and below.

We were also given an audio of the webinar, which we used to breakdown the question into bite-sized podcasts on Audioboo, so that people can quickly navigate to the issues that affect them.

Unsurprisingly for a pilot, the whole thing didn’t go without a hitch and gave us a few things to mull over. Having multiple laptops in the same room also meant multiple microphones, which in turn meant an echo of the sound for the first half a minute of the webinar. In retrospect we could have avoided this had the presenters and facilitator been in separate rooms.

In future there are also elements that we would like to expand upon. We felt it best not to bite off more than we could chew on our first go, but we would definitely like to encourage interaction on social media so that we could reach more participants and solve wider issues. The question and answer session meant we could directly address people’s concerns, so it would be great to elaborate on that potential by using a hashtag.

All in all the webinar has given us much to think about. It didn’t give the same potential to network, share ideas and solutions as the seminars do, but it did allow us to look at a topic in depth at participants’ convenience. It isn’t a solution for all ills, but it is another tool that we can use that can hopefully help us to share knowledge and improve Welsh public services.

Dyfrig

Don’t buy hardware

Effective use of Information Technology

We all love it.  Hardware has flashing lights, cool lines, and looks really good in racks, humming away.  It impresses strangers; validates us as experts.   It’s also wildly expensive and fantastically underused.  Google (yes, that Google) discovered on the early 2000’s that their data centres were running at 10% of their potential maximum.  Much of the UK public sector is a lot worse with the Cabinet Office suggesting that some of us get as little as 5% utilisation of our most expensive assets.

Ask any IT Head why they spend gazillions on hardware and they’ll say “well, it won’t work without it”, or if the IT Head has an MBA he’ll say “the hardware is central to our mission”. Which raises an interesting question – why do we feel it necessary to buy the means of production for computing when we have no qualms at all about buying-in electricity, or water for that matter?

Back in September over 60 IT specialists, and me, met at WAO seminars in both North and South Wales to share good practice (viz, ‘nick ideas’) and, hopefully, have their preconceptions challenged. I like a good challenge to my preconceptions and the scepticism around Cloud Computing was not so much challenging my preconceptions as mugging them.

Cloud Computing / Cyfrifiadura Cwmwl

There were a lot of reasons why not to adopt Cloud. There’s security.  Everyone will have access to your data. There’s regulation, the Americans will arrest your Chief Executive……. and, well, there’s no flashing lights are there? None of this is necessarily true.  Of course you can mess up security on the cloud in the same way you can leave your own security in a hash if you try, but there’s no real reason why you should, particularly.

I like easy computing. I like to provide a service that just works.  I don’t want to run a datacentre any more than I want to run a power station or manage a reservoir. For me, Cloud Computing offers a chance to buy just as much as I want, when I want it. Period, as the Americans say.  No more capacity than I need.

This isn’t easy for us as a profession. We tend to think of IT as being an exercise in hardware management, rather than service to customers.

Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine your Chief Executive has banned the purchase of anything physical at all. Server provision is easy to purchase through the cloud (and really easy for the public sector through g-cloud), connectivity and firewalls – tick, software as a service – tick, end user devices? More problematic but a good BYOD strategy should see to that. In fact, if you’ve got decent mobile signal coverage (and you can even get around that) you don’t need the building network either.

Of course, little in life is simple, and that isn’t exactly simple either. But it’s worth considering, how much will it cost me if I don’t buy this upgrade but buy it as an on-line service?

It costs a lot to keep all of those servers warm, fed, stroked, and loved.  It might sound like heresy but could you do better, cheaper, with fewer commitments if you bought the service through the cloud?

Not that I’m mildly obsessed, or anything, but on 13 December I’ll be discussing cloud computing: the myths, busted, with Peter Middleton from the Cabinet Office’s g-cloud programme. 2013 has been a pivotal year for public service, a pivotal year in recognising that we cannot continue to deliver under the current model.  We need to be smarter, more collaborative, cheaper, simply better at what we do. Time to ditch some myths.

– Evan Jones, Welsh Government

Jargon busting

Jargon

Recently we’ve been hearing from the Wales Audit Office Communications Team about how our upcoming new and improved website will be simpler to use and also make it easier for people to find the information that they need.

Andrew Purnell, the Wales Audit Office’s Digital Communications Officer, has been educating us as a team about what an effective website looks like, and also how language plays an important part in that. It’s almost impossible to find what you’re looking for if you don’t understand the headings you’re looking under, and it’s even worse if you can’t make head nor tail of the information once you’ve got there. He explained to us how providing a website glossary means that you’ve failed at your duty to provide a clear language website, and if people don’t find the right information first time they’ll simply click away from your site.

As the public service watchdog for Wales, the Wales Audit Office has an important role to play here. It’s important that we show how important it is that information from Welsh public services is clear, because it means that people have a better understanding of the work that we all do.

Cllr Andrew Jenkins recently blogged for us ahead of the upcoming scrutiny conference, saying that ineffective communication between politicians and the electorate has led to distrust in politicians. The same things can also happen with public services, as this moving blog from Mark Neary shows.

There’s lots of information online, including guides from the Plain English campaign and its Drivel Defence tool, as well as the Cymraeg Clîr or ‘Clear Welsh’ handbook from Bangor University.

If you choose to go down this route, there’s no need to start from scratch. Monmouthshire County Council have helpfully already made their staff writing guide available online.

I had the privilege of working with the Citizen’s Panel for Social Services in Wales in my last job with Participation Cymru, where I unfortunately heard too often about how people aren’t given the information they need to help them access the right services for them. It’s important that we all make sure that people can make the most of their public services by making information both easy to find and to understand. I wonder how many public service websites truly do this?

–      Dyfrig

Disaster recovery in action

Effective use of Information Technology

Before I moved to Cardiff a couple of years ago, Aberystwyth was my home for the best part of a decade. I used to walk past the National Library of Wales every day on my way to work and pause for a second by the building so I could check out the fantastic view of the town from there.

When a fire broke out in the Library, my friends’ social media accounts were consumed by the story, as they all worried about friends who worked there, the building itself, and resources that it holds that are treasured both locally and nationally.

Effects of fire on the National Library of Wales

A picture taken from the BBC website of the effects of the fire on the National Library of Wales

The scale of the reaction was dwarfed by the effects of the fire. When pictures emerged we were all shocked by them.

Einion Gruffudd and Owain Pritchard spoke at our IT shared learning seminar about how the Library managed to get their IT systems back online amidst all this. The fire occurred on the Friday, but amazingly computer services were up and running on the Monday, and the library was open for business as usual on the Tuesday.

Owain Pritchard speaking about the effect of the fire

There were lots of lessons to be learnt and experiences to share from Einion and Owain’s accounts. I wasn’t aware that most of the damage was caused by the water from extinguishing the fire rather than the fire itself, but incredibly data was recovered from 90% of the equipment affected. We heard how two data centres, a mesh network and virtualisation had all played a role in the system recovery.

Lots of the key messages from the session were highlighted on Twitter and can be seen on the Storify of the seminars. I highly recommend watching our interview with Einion too. Fortunately few of us ever need to put our disaster recovery systems into practice, so there’s lots for us to learn from people who’ve had to put their plans into action.

–      Dyfrig

Risky business?

Effective use of Information Technology

After every seminar we commit to getting information sent out to participants as quickly as possible so that we can make the most from the momentum gathered from the event. So last week we created a Pinterest board of our Information Technology Shared Learning Seminar, used Storify to collate social media contributions to the event, uploaded interviews with presenters on to Vimeo and we sent out emails with the outputs from the seminars.

In the North Wales seminar, there was a bit of excitement when the Auditor General for Wales encouraged attendees to take well-planned risks.

18. Risk Taking

We circulated this message by email to participants so that they could encourage improvement in their organisations.

This message isn’t just confined to IT though. The Auditor General also had this to say at our Working Across the Generations shared learning seminar:

The Wales Audit Office is hosting this seminar as part of its commitment to support knowledge exchange and bring global practices and experience to Wales. I regard promoting new and innovative approaches as fully in line with our role to provide assurance and promote improvement in public services to benefit the people of Wales. Public services have a duty to keep changing in line with the environment in which they operate and to be well-informed and responsible risk takers. I have therefore made a firm commitment to follow up the well-received work we have already done in promoting the dissemination and adaptation of good practice through an even greater emphasis on shared learning.

The role of the Good Practice Exchange is to share the Auditor General’s message along with other interesting or new approaches to public service delivery. We recognise that people are dealing with similar issues, and we want to share how an organisation has managed an issue and encourage other organisations to think about if it would work for them by adapting the approach to suit their needs.

What it means in reality that lots of the leg work will have already been done and by sharing this knowledge other organisations can benefit in a number of ways. We feel this is vital, because the most needs to be made of every opportunity in a time of diminishing resources.

It’s best to give the final word to the Auditor General himself, who reinforced this message on risk taking on Twitter at the Wales Audit Office’s External Stakeholders seminar.

Risky business?

–      Dyfrig

Using Information Technology to enable better public services

Effective use of Information Technology

Our shared learning seminar on Effective use of Information Technology was the first one that I’ve organised since joining the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office. I’ve learnt a lot in terms of ensuring future events are run effectively, but also on the subject itself.

When we spoke to the Auditor General for Wales about the seminars, he was very clear about the role Information Technology can play to enable new ways of delivering services.

In the seminar I was particularly struck by how Information Technology is having a direct influence on service delivery in some organisations. I was fortunate enough to facilitate Andrew Durant’s workshop in North Wales, which looked at Powys County Council and Powys Teaching Health Board’s collaborative Information Technology service. It was interesting to hear how frontline staff of both social services and health are now better able to co-ordinate their work as they have access to each other’s work calendars.

This wasn’t the only session that looked at enabling better public services. I also attended Wendy Xerri from University of Wales Trinity St David‘s workshop on Green Information Technology, which focussed on the needs of students. Students were often forming endless queues to print their essays, but by focussing on the student experience they moved the essay submission system online, thereby streamlining the system for students’ benefit and vastly reducing the amount of paper that was being used.

As there’s such an array of public service bodies in Wales, it was no surprise that Information Technology approaches and equipment varied between each organisation. It’s clear that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach for Information Technology, but it was really heartening to hear how public service staff at our seminar were all looking to improve the effectiveness of their work.

Dyfrig