Tag Archives: wales audit office

Making use of Open Data

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The Wales Audit Office recently released our first Open Dataset. What happened next? Ben Proctor of Open Data Institute Cardiff talks us through how he made use of the data.

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

Oooo! new data

I was excited to see that the Wales Audit Office had released a set of data as open data. Open data is data that anyone can find access and use and it is the most useful sort of data.

Dyfrig Williams wrote about the process they’d gone through to release this data set (a summary of the audit data from each local authority in Wales for each year). The data is a simple table and you can download it as a CSV file (essentially a file that will work in any spreadsheet programme) here.

But there are problems

I downloaded the file and quickly spotted some problems. These are not errors exactly but just things that are missing or inconsistent and will make some uses of the data a bit harder. But this is not a complaint, because one of the attractive features of open data is that I could resolve these problems. I can do this because the Wales Audit Office have released the data under the Open Government Licence. This tells me I don’t need their permission to do anything with the data and there are no limits to what I can do with it (apart from I have to make it clear where it came from).

I can fix the problems

These are the things I did to my copy of the data.

I changed the format of the “financial year column” because in the Wales Audit Office file some of these are numbers and some are text.

I added a column of GSS codes. GSS codes are codes that are used to identify local authorities (and other boundaries). Having the GSS code means you don’t have to worry about whether the data says Anglesey Council, or Isle of Anglesey Council or Ynys Môn. And with the GSS code I could add “polygons” for each council. Polygons are basically instructions on how to draw the outline of each council and information about where to put the drawing on a map.

With these changes I was able to draw a series of maps showing the level of council tax per head in each local authority and how this has changed over time.

And given the Wales Audit Office an improved file

And I’ve been able to hand back to the Wales Audit Office a KML file. This is a file suitable for use in mapping software. Anyone who wants to visualise the Wales Audit Office data on a map can just open the KML file and get going.

You can download this mapping file yourself.

Why did I do this?

I’m part of the core team at ODI-Cardiff so I get excited about open data.
It took me a very few minutes.
I’m trying to get better at using a Google service called Fusion Tables and this is a good opportunity to experiment.
I’m actually quite interested in what this data might tell us.

Releasing Open Data

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How can organisations release Open Data? Dyfrig Williams looks at the process of making the data behind the Wales Audit Office’s Local Government Financial Statements report freely available, and shares the dataset at the bottom of this post.

I’ve previously blogged on how the Wales Audit Office is looking to challenge our existing use of data and technology as part of the Cutting Edge Audit project. My role on the project has been to look at how we acquire data.

How does Open Data fit into acquiring data?

The below diagram shows the rationale behind my work. For me, we need to share the data that we have in order to develop our relationships with our client bodies so that we can gather data effectively. Part of this is about “being the change that you want to see.” Auditors are sometimes seen as being risk averse, but in the Good Practice Exchange we’ve seen that when we work differently, we enable others to do the same. A number of local authorities have reported back to us about how they’ve been able to challenge the limitations of the websites that they’re able to visit and the social media that they can access because of how we share knowledge. By making data openly available, we can demonstrate that there is little risk, as long as the process is well managed.

A cycle illustrating that by open data results from how we share data and how it feeds into acquiring data

As I mentioned in my original post, finding an appropriate dataset was more challenging than I thought that it might be. As we often don’t have the right to share the data that we collect from clients during our audits. However after a bit of research, we found the data behind the Local Government Financial Statements report, which is a report on local government bodies’ accounts. This was safe data to release because it’s already available on each council’s website as part of their accounts, but we are the only organisation that collates this data. The data within the report is analysed on a national basis, but by releasing the dataset we can enable councils and other interested stakeholders to look at the data on a county by county basis and to compare and contrast their accounts against others. The data is used by the Wales Audit Office to support local audit work and for general benchmarking. The report itself looks at the quality of accounts, and is based on the data that’s released before amendments – we don’t keep track of prior-period adjustments.

How did we go about making this data open?

Our starting point was a spreadsheet that we use internally that contains the datasets dating back to 2008-09. We were a bit disappointed to learn that the requirements for local authorities to provide this data in this structure has now changed, so there won’t be comparable data available next year. However, this dataset served as a good test for a future approach. In the longer term it would be worth us looking at how we could make continuous data available in order to reduce the burden of reporting requirements. Lucy Knight from Devon County Council has a really useful example that we can draw on in her lunchtime lecture for the Open Data Institute on Making open data happen in local government

We used Hendrik Grothuis’s post on making data open and the Open Data Institute’s Consumers Checklist as rough guides for the process. Our first step in cleaning up the data was to look at which data was ours to share, and which data was already available from other sources. We decided to remove the data that was already made available through StatsWales to avoid duplication, but should you want to think about using this dataset with some of the ones that we used internally, these may provide a good starting point:

We then used CSV Lint to check whether the file was readable. We were pleased to discover that we had a valid file, but we also found ways that we could improve it. We turned the dataset around so that the data items go horizontally and the years go vertically. We also created a null value to indicate where the data was unavailable. A quick Google search was enough for us to discover how to note empty cells.

As a Welsh public sector organisation, we are required to make the data available bilingually, so we sent it to the translators to make sure that we got each technical term exactly right.

Publishing the data

When it came to publishing the data, we decided to publish it as part of this post on the Good Practice Exchange blog. It would be a very lonely looking dataset on an Open Data platform at the moment, but the hope is that we can identify other datasets that we can release going forward. We looked at potential platforms that could be used, including open source options like CKAN and DKAN (both of which would integrate with our Drupal Content Management System), as well as cloud based platforms like Socrata. As an organisation we’re moving to the cloud when it makes sense, but there may be things that we could learn from Audit Scotland’s Innovation Zone, which has been set up to allow their staff to test new software and platforms in a lightly regulated space. This gives staff the opportunity to test new ways of working.

As per our recent webinar on Open Standards, we’ve chosen to publish the data in CSV instead of a proprietary format like Excel. This means that it can be used by a wide variety of software, and hopefully as wide a variety of people as possible.

It’s now up to us to ensure that this data is discoverable by tagging it effectively, and we will also publicise the dataset through the networks that we’ve built through our prior work on Open Data. Our next challenge is to track how the data is used, so if you do use the dataset, we’d love to have your feedback about the format and what you used it for.

Learning from the Welsh Government

The Welsh Government were a great help throughout my work on the Cutting Edge Audit project. They shared learning from their approaches, and we also attended meetings together to learn more about Cardiff and Monmouthshire Councils’ approaches. It was fascinating to hear that the Welsh Government’s own staff use StatsWales to share and gather data as it’s open and transparent. This is something for us to think about in our own journey forward – how we can make data more accessible for both internal and external stakeholders.

We ended up using the Welsh Government’s approach to Metadata as a template for our own work. Metadata is a set of data that describes and gives information about other data, and it’s really important because it gives context around the data that is being shared. You can find the metadata at the bottom of this post alongside a link to the data itself.

Feedback

Your feedback on our approach here is really important. As this is an initial test of how we might make data open and shareable, your feedback will be used to shape how this might progress. As an organisation, we’re very keen to look at how we can make better use of data to help public services improve, and also to walk the talk in terms of our own digital practice. The Auditor General for Wales talks about enabling innovation through well managed risks before every one of our shared learning events. We’re looking to share our own learning so that people can learn from our experiences, be they good or bad. We always say that there’s no point reinventing the wheel. By working openly and transparently, we hope that organisations can build on what we’re doing so that they can share data as effectively as possible in order to improve the services that they provide.

Dataset: Local Government Financial Statements

Metadata

Title Data from Local Government Financial Statements 2008-09 to 2015-16
Last update 01/04/2017
Next update No longer updated.
Publishing organisation Wales Audit Office
Source Local Government Financial Statements 2008-09 to 2015-16
Contact email good.practice@audit.wales
Lowest level of geographical disaggregation Local authorities
Geographical coverage Local authorities
Languages covered English and Welsh
Data licensing You may use and re-use this data free of charge in any format or medium, under the terms of the Open Government License – see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence

Glossary

Changing behaviour for better digital public services

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The Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office is running a seminar on Improving digital leadership and ownership. Dyfrig Williams shares how the work was developed in the post below.

Last year the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office held an event on Redesigning public services: The strategic importance of digital. From our point of view, it was a very successful event. We had the highest satisfaction rates that we’ve ever had from any seminar, and our speakers also found it a useful way of socialising ideas around how they were developing their good practice. Cllr Barry Parsons told us that the seminar had been incredibly valuable to him, and I certainly found the workshop that he delivered with Carl Haggerty thought provoking – so much so that I subsequently blogged about it.

Our blog posts on the seminar were some of the most widely read that we’ve ever written. We also tested some new ways of working by developing personas with Y Lab to get the right delegate profile. This was successful in that we managed to attract staff who wanted their services to be more agile and responsive to user needs; staff who wanted to work across public service boundaries; and staff who see digital as an enabler of public service reform.

However we didn’t quite manage to access all of the delegates that we wanted. In planning the seminar we realised that there is a gap between people who may have the authority but who lack the expertise to enable digital services, and those who have the expertise but lack the authority. We hoped that the seminar would serve as an opportunity for decision makers to connect with the people who know how to make digital transformation happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t get as many decision makers attending as we had hoped.

Digital as an enabler

Digital is a key theme of our work over the next few years, so we’ve decided to change tack for the second of our digital seminars. We’re going to use an assets based approach to work with the skills that we have in the room and to look at how attendees can affect digital change in their organisations.

Paul Taylor from Bromford has written a great post on how organisations may stifle community creativity. In it he reflects on how controlling organisational environments can also stifle citizen and community strengths. This links perfectly with the thinking that we’ve developed.

My first few pieces of work when I joined the Wales Audit Office was on the theme of asset management. I remember thinking that it was a really dry topic, but it was actually a perfect introduction to the philosophy of the Good Practice Exchange. My colleague Ena Lloyd got me thinking completely differently about the whole thing – we weren’t looking for buildings that were equipped with flashy technology, we were looking for buildings that actively made public services and communities better. We were looking for better outcomes for people, not statistics. I remember really enjoying our seminar on Facilities Management, which I would have said was impossible a few months before. I facilitated a workshop by Charlotte Lythgoe of the Wales Millennium Centre, where she looked at moving beyond style over substance approaches into delivering real change.

A photo of a big building with wind turbines on the roof with a red cross through the image. Part of Charlotte Lythgoe's presentation on moving away from Eco Bling

Charlotte Lythgoe’s slide on moving away from Eco Bling

We’re looking to apply this thinking to our digital seminar. We’ll be looking at how digital can be an enabler for better public services, rather than an end in and of itself. We’ll be looking to equip changemakers with the knowledge and the tools to ensure that their organisations are fit for purpose in the twenty first century.

Kelly Doonan from Devon County Council will look at how some of the digital projects she worked on within the council and how she identified and worked with the power that she had to make change happen. I’ll be sharing learning from the Cutting Edge Audit Office project, which was developed to sidestep traditional organisation bureaucracies and power structures. We’ll also hear from Theo Blackwell of Camden Council about how they’re changing services to make them more effective and efficient.

The Good Practice Exchange are working on our first national study this year, which focuses on behaviour change. In the final session Chris Bolton will lead a discussion on how attendees can look to change behaviours and implement digital thinking within their organisations.

Feedback

As the above demonstrates, we’re an iterative project that builds on our learning as we go. The development of this seminar has been very much based on the outcome of our previous work. Much like the event itself, we are a work in progress, always looking to develop how we work in order to best meet the needs of our stakeholders, and most importantly, the people of Wales. This event is only happening because of the thoughts and ideas we received. If you have any ideas on how we can improve our work on this theme or any other, we’d love to hear from you.

The Good Practice Exchange work programme: What’s it all about?

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Over the past few years the Good Practice Team in the Wales Audit Office have held a series of seminars and webinars to support public service reform. Ena Lloyd and Bethan Smith look at our programme of events for this year.

Ffotograff o Jess Hoare yn cymryd rhan yn nhrafodaeth panel Caerdydd

The plenary session at last year’s Digital Shared Learning Seminar

The Wales Audit Office created the Good Practice Team to bring together ideas and approaches to help public services improve. When we first started out, we used to get some quizzical looks! I guess it’s not something you would naturally associate with an Audit Office. But then, not every Audit Office has an Auditor General who feels so passionate about wanting to help public services improve. Huw Vaughan Thomas is one of a kind. He gives us a ‘safe to fail’ space to research, engage, learn from others and share knowledge, ideas and approaches in a variety of ways. Whether it be a seminar, webinar, blog, videos, twitter, or good old emails!

You can’t help but want to go the extra mile when you are given such trust and space, and why wouldn’t you.

What we have learnt over the past few years, is our Good Practice mantra of:

  • We don’t advocate a one size fits all approach;
  • Equally we don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel;
  • We believe in adapting not adopting; and using our very privileged position in the Wales Audit Office to bring together colleagues from right across the public, third sector and where appropriate the private sector.

How does the programme get pulled together?

We often get asked how we arrive at the topics in our programme. Our ‘starters for ten’ is our Wales Audit Office Strategic Plan in terms of our key priorities. So you won’t be surprised to see such topics as Digital, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and Early Closure of Local Government Accounts included as part of the programme. The topics also have to work across public services and where we can, work in partnership with at least one other organisation. The more partners, the better. We then take soundings from our internal colleagues as well as many people who represent, design and deliver public services in Wales. In fact, the list of people who we chat to virtually or face to face gets longer every year! We meet some great speakers and delegates who just totally blow us away in terms of what they are doing. If you have any ideas about topics you’d like to see in our programme, please do get in touch!

What’s this year’s programme about?

In this year’s programme, if there was one theme that underpins the majority of events, it’s the Wellbeing of the Future Generation Act.

Here’s the programme overview. We have used working titles to give you a flavour of what the seminar is about. However, once we have worked with partners to determine what the focus is, the finalised details can be found here.

The bottom line though, our litmus test so to speak, is what public services colleagues think. At the end of every seminar, we ask for 5 minutes of delegate’s time to complete a ‘Call to Action’ form. Over 1000 delegates attend our events over a period of a year, so it’s a rich source of feedback. We always stress how important it is to us for delegates to complete these forms, not only does it provide us with feedback on the event, but what actions delegates will be taking away and what they’d like to see taken forward by us or other organisations. The feedback we receive also helps shape our programme.

Our events are completely free of charge to all public and third sector organisations in Wales. All we ask in return is that you come to our events armed with ideas, solutions and any issues or challenges in relation to the topic of the event. Our events are called ‘shared learning seminars’ which speaks for itself – we really want delegates to share and learn as much as they can, and take away as much useful information from the event as possible.

For those that have been to our events before, I’m sure they’ll say it’s a packed morning, and we make no apology for that. Our events are purposely designed to equip delegates with as much information and contacts as possible, in order for them to continue conversations after the event.

Every year we seem to have an increasing demand on our events which is brilliant, it means public services are really keen to work together and share ideas and approaches. We have a small budget for our events and whilst they’re free to public services, it is so important to let us know if you can no longer attend before the day of the event as we often have a reserve list for events. We understand work pressures take priority but we’d really appreciate advance notice so we can re-allocate your place to someone else.

Other than events, how else do you share information?

We understand the importance of sharing information in a variety of ways. Whilst seminars might work for one person, videos or blogs work better for another person. With that in mind, our various information channels are listed below:

We share details of seminars/webinars on our website– so keep a look out for them – or if you want to us to add your details onto our mailing lists to receive info for all or some events, then please email good.practice@audit.wales.

Being open by default

How might an audit office open up its systems so that information becomes open by default? Dyfrig Williams spoke with Tom Haslam about the approach of New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General.

The logo of the Office of the Auditor-General New Zealand

As part of the Wales Audit Office’s Cutting Edge Audit project, I am working on an Open Data prototype. During this work, colleagues told me that we could improve our approach to data. Not acquiring new data though – most colleagues said their biggest issue was better knowledge of, and access to, data that the office already held.

Our organisation has two specialist practices – financial audit and performance audit. This division facilitates specialism, so that we have colleagues with incredibly good knowledge in their fields of expertise. However, it also means that we have to work hard to break down organisational silos, sometimes reinforced by the systems we have in place.

Safeguarding data is an important feature of the way we have set up our information systems. Network folders are protected. Access is only available to specific teams and personnel, which means that the data within them is closed to others by default. Our SharePoint system is also set up in a similar way and the search functionality is not as good as it might be. All of this means that unless you know where the data is held, you’re unlikely to find it.

Learning from other audit offices

In my last post on the Queensland Audit Office’s work, I mentioned a well-travelled colleague called Tom Haslam. Tom has worked at the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) in Wellington, New Zealand. And while there, the OAG identified similar problems with how they organised and held their data.

To address this, the OAG implemented a new SharePoint-based information system and complemented this with some pilot cross-office groups known as ‘iShare’. These groups were based around cross-cutting functional topics (for example the Transport iShare) with the aim of helping to break down organisational silos and promote a one-team approach across the office.

Adopting a new information system gave the OAG an opportunity to debate the relative merits of information systems being open or closed by default. This was discussed across the office through various channels.

The previous information systems had encouraged a mainly ‘closed until open’ approach. But the general feeling was that closed data might prevent the office from making the most of the information that they held. The natural tendency of all auditors is to be cautious, so under a ‘closed unless open’ approach, setting information as ‘open’ might be viewed as a risk best avoided, even if this approach wasn’t justified. On a practical level, having information closed off requires various permissions and access rights to be set up. This alone can be a barrier to sharing data.

The OAG structured its new information system so that information was ‘open unless closed’ with metadata to help staff find what they wanted. This approach facilitated sharing, encouraging staff to think about how they could add value by joining up information. A default setting of ‘open until closed’ made staff think more carefully about why they should want to close off access, for example material with national security implications or identifiable personal information.

On a technical level, a cleaner configuration of the IT system without endless permissions and restrictions made the system run more reliably. The improved reliability of the new SharePoint system led to time savings, and increased staff confidence and satisfaction with IT. The iShare pilots encouraged group members to look actively for opportunities to work jointly and share information.

As these pilots progressed and reported their successes to the wider office, they encouraged a more open outlook across teams – ‘look we shared stuff and worked together and it hasn’t all turned to custard’ as our kiwi cousins might say.

Tom also thought there was a trust dimension. Handling sensitive client information is part of an auditor’s day job. Therefore, opening up data was a clear signal that the OAG was a high trust environment.

However, change is a journey and the OAG report that its experience is no different. It continues to encourage and aim for an environment where information is open until closed. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing since introducing the new information system. Some staff have embraced the opportunity to openly share information. Others have been more hesitant in sharing information more or are yet to change what they have always done to be more open. The OAG has had to periodically promote and reinforce the new approach. It recognises that a change of this magnitude won’t happen overnight or without a sustained effort. But the end – using collective knowledge to influence improvement and improve accountability – justifies the effort.

How this fits with the work of the Good Practice Exchange

Our Good Practice Exchange work on effective data sharing shows that this relies on the principle of adopting proportionate steps when safeguarding data.

In a previous blog post on whether data sharing was a barrier to public service improvement, I included a quote from the Information Commissioner, which said ‘People want their personal data to work for them. They expect organisations to share their personal data where it’s necessary to provide them with the services they want. They expect society to use its information resources to stop crime and fraud and to keep citizens safe and secure.’ It’s also well worth watching Anne Jones, the Assistant Information Commissioner for Wales, outlining how data can be shared effectively.

The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation will ramp up the safeguarding of data a few notches, but it’s also an opportunity to reconsider how we can share data effectively. Particularly, how we make sure that auditors are confident enough to make the most of data collection and sharing.

Previously I have blogged about our staff trust event, where we heard that trust is essential if public services are to take well-managed risks, innovate and deliver public services that are truly fit for the 21st century.

Tom is leading on a separate project within the Wales Audit Office to look at how we’re using our information systems including SharePoint. One option we’re considering is the use of SharePoint Online, which would make it easier for us to develop an area that could be accessed by external bodies and partners – a portal. Leigh Dodds ‘s post provides a good overview of what a portal might contain.

A portal would allow us to share data with audited bodies and partners more effectively. We’re testing this concept with a SharePoint based prototype portal for some of our health colleagues. Learning from this will feed back into Tom’s project. And if working on the Cutting Edge Audit project has taught me anything, it’s that joined up and collaborative approaches are the best way to ensure we add real value to the work that we’re doing.

Acquiring data for a cutting edge audit office

How is the Wales Audit Office working to ensure that it provides audit that’s fit for the future? Dyfrig Williams blogs below on his work with the Cutting Edge Audit project.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on the Cutting Edge Audit project, which looks at how the Wales Audit Office can challenge our existing use of data and technology and assumptions that we normally take for granted. We’re thinking radically about how we might use new technology to transform the way that we work.

It’s been a fantastic piece of work to undertake, which has really put that radical thinking into practice. The project’s being led by my colleague Steve Lisle, who is reporting directly to the Auditor General for Wales. This has meant that we’ve moved away from hierarchy into a much flatter structure. We’ve also been outcome focussed – we’ve been testing and prototyping as we go so that our risks are well managed and that we learn from failure.

I’ve been working on how the Wales Audit Office acquires data to give us deeper knowledge and fresh insight.

Data Maturity

data_maturityIt was helpful to think about Data Maturity when we were doing this work. Data Maturity is the journey towards improvement and increased capability in using data. Data Orchard have used this model (which I’ve nicked from a great post by Ben Proctor) of stages in an organisation’s development:

  1. Ad-hoc gathering of data in some areas
  2. Pulling data together centrally
  3. Starting to use data looking backwards
  4. Using data in real time to manage the organisation and move resources rapidly
  5. Modelling the future before making decisions to enable better decisions to be taken
  6. Modelling the future the organisation wants and working backwards to understand what needs to happen now to deliver that future

This is very much a journey for us as an organisation, but it has helped to inform my thinking. It’s helped me think about how we get to point 6, where we’re modelling the future that the organisation is working towards, and ensure that the things that I’m working on set us out on the right path beyond the lifespan of the Cutting Edge project.

My prototypes

I’ve been working on two different tests within this field. The first is an Open Data prototype, which has been more challenging than I expected because the Wales Audit Office is a secondary user of data. This means that we use data that is gathered by others, so we don’t always have the right to share it. I have managed to find a useful dataset though, so my next step is to set it free into the world and look at the challenges around how we can make it as useful as possible.

I’ve been putting the Good Practice Exchange’s principles into practice in this work by visiting other organisations to learn about the work they’re already doing because there’s no point reinventing the wheel. I’ve also been thinking about how we adapt rather than adopt their work to suit our organisational needs, because after all, a one-size-fits-all approach never works.

I’ve blogged before about why the public sector needs to start thinking about its approach to Open Data, and we subsequently ran a Google Hangout to look at why it’s an important topic. Hendrik Grothius has written an excellent blogpost on how organisations can start to publish Open Data, and it will be a brilliant starting point for me as I get to grips with this.

My second piece of work has been looking at how we enable our staff to make better use of data, thereby minimising the audit burden. I’m looking at how we can bring together data from public bodies in a way that makes it easy to access, open to everyone, and give us an improved insight into the performance of the Welsh public sector, and international comparators. I’ve been talking to our staff so that I can better understand what type of approach would be useful to them. I’ve developed personas to help guide our work in this area, which will shape the next phase of this work and ensure that my part of the final report is focused on user need.

Iteration

I’ll be writing future posts to share my approaches, what I’ve learnt and what I would do differently next time. We are working iteratively so that we learn from each development and how we can build on that learning going forwards. If those prototypes don’t work, we’ll be looking to learn from failure and see what the organisation can do differently in the future.

At all our Good Practice Exchange seminars we hear that public services can’t continue to work in the same way in these austere times. It’s been great working on a practical project at the Wales Audit Office, as we’re getting to grips with those same challenges and applying new thinking to our work.

The strategic importance of digital: a conference about culture change

What were the key messages from our recent events on digital? Kelly Doonan from Devon County Council reflects on the main learning points that she took away.

Image of speech bubble linking people to clouds, phonoes and documents

On 13 September I attended an event organised by the Wales Audit Office Good Practice Exchange called; Redesigning public services: The strategic importance of digital. Although I’ve referred to it as a conference for title alliteration purposes, it was actually a seminar event with interactive workshops – and some really fabulous catering – held at the SWALEC Stadium in central Cardiff.

This is my take on the event and the six key messages I came away with. Which, as the title suggests, aren’t actually about digital…

1. Digital means different things to different people… we need a clear understanding of what it means to us

The event kicks off with a speech from Auditor General, Huw Vaughan Thomas. In the speech he states; quite accurately, that: “Digital means different things to different people.”

It does and I think that is a huge problem. When he says that we need a clear understanding of what it means to ‘us’ I think we need one clear definition that everyone understands. It’s the only way that we can have aligned conversations and make aligned decisions.

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has just released their new digital strategy (as a PDF) which explains that Rotherham is putting digital at the ‘forefront’ of their journey to become a modern authority. It links to local health digital strategies, but doesn’t seem to link to a wider culture change or service redesign strategy. Does digital mean the same to Rotherham MBC as it does to the WAO or to Devon County Council? Can we work together effectively if we don’t have an agreed definition?

2. Digital is not doing the same work, but digitally

Huw Vaughan Thomas goes on to clarify that: “Digital is not doing the same work, but digitally.”

Which begins to move us towards a definition of digital, and suggests that we’re starting to talk about culture change and service transformation, not creating a new digital strategy.

3. Mistakes are inevitable; we mustn’t shy away from that

Also from Huw Vaughan Thomas’ speech. This is an interesting one. If common sense was a thing this statement feels like it would be a classic example. Of course humans make mistakes; it’s one of our defining characteristics and how we know that we’re not actually machines surely? Still, it feels weirdly radical to have an auditor stand up and say this. It also feels hugely positive and (hopefully) liberating.

We have to move away from a culture that assumes all mistakes can be ‘policied’ out if only we policy hard enough. Instead we have to encourage reflection, learning and individual responsibility. Back to culture change again.

After the Auditor General’s speech there’s a quick fire question and answer session with the panel. The first questions are prepared by the organisers, but the rest are sourced from the audience – it’s a brilliantly engaging approach and works really well.

4. We can’t ‘do digital’ until we understand what citizens actually need

My cavalier approach to note-taking means that I don’t actually know which panellist said this, but it was definitely one of them.

I get an email every other day from a software development company telling me how their customer portal is going to revolutionise back office systems and save money. They’ve even got a snazzy customer testimonial video featuring a local authority IT manager explaining how this digital transformation has saved him pots of money and tidied up all his back office systems, and no-one ever ever mentions user needs.

We can’t put any digital tools in place until we know that we need them and that they’re solving the right problem – and surely we can only do that if we’re talking to our citizens? Surely we can only do that if we are clearly articulating our purpose and we understand why we’re doing anything at all? What we need is culture change and a different approach to understanding our citizens.

5. These things are not technology problems… digital is an enabler. Buying a load of iPads won’t change your culture.

Beautifully succinct quote from Professor Tom Crick in his workshop session, A digitally competent, digitally capable workforce. For me this session raises some really interesting questions about digital capabilities.

  • Is there a basic digital standard that our workforce needs to achieve?
  • If there is, then shouldn’t this be part of our job descriptions?
  • Do we have a hierarchy of digital capability in our workforce with a digital ‘elite’ who have lots of skills and are working in radically different ways to those further behind?
  • How do we make sure that staff are learning digital skills rather than learning how to use separate pieces of proprietary software?
  • Do we have senior leaders who know enough about digital to make these kinds of decisions?
  • Does every organisation essentially need a benevolent hacker at the top table wielding some real power?

Which is all to say that we probably need to look at changing our culture around staff training and recruitment.

Also in this workshop I share a story about a piece of work we did under the heading ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ which literally makes another delegate’s mouth fall open in shock.

6. Can you build agile, interdisciplinary project teams that can work iteratively?

For the final session I attend the workshop Learning from the Digital Innovators Network run by Jess Hoare and Amy Richardson from Y Lab, which involves marshmallows and spaghetti.

Y Lab is an innovation lab for public service created by Nesta alongside Cardiff University. They have some wonderful, practical resources – most of which are available on the Nesta website.

The workshop involves a quickfire session answering some provocative questions such as ‘[In your organisation] What is the perceived role of IT?’ and ‘Can you build agile, interdisciplinary project teams that can work iteratively?’. We then identify a digital problem and use the Nesta tools, and Jess and Amy’s support and input, to work the issue through.

Fairly quickly we start talking about articulating the problem, identifying users, understanding needs and gathering evidence. We spend the rest of the session looking, essentially, at redesigning the service and the processes.

The problem with digital transformation

Every conversation I had at this event that started with digital transformation ended with looking at culture change and system transformation.

I think we do need to have an agreed definition of digital and it became clear through this event that many people – but definitely not all – understand that digital is an enabler and not an end in itself. I would say that we don’t need digital strategies (sorry Rotherham) rather we need system transformation strategies which include digital enablers. We need to start with purpose and start with users and understand what we’re for and what they need.

I think there’s a real opportunity here though. To start conversations about digital transformation and, through events like this, show how that conversation must move to one about system transformation.

WAO Good Practice Exchange are planning more events in this series and it would be great to see them challenging participants further to think about how we use digital as a catalyst for real organisational change – not just buying a load of iPads.