Collaboration is everywhere - Local Digital Fund application

15 Nov 2018

As proud members of LocalGov Digital we’ve been flying the flag of collaboration for some time. Put simply, as a small team with limited capacity, skills and funding we can’t hope to make as big an impact as we’d like by working alone. It’s why our first Digital Strategy had a core principle of collaboration, and our replacement Customer, Digital and Technology Strategy will continue that commitment.

We’ve had minor success to date in working with Democracy Club on their polling station finder, and with Kings Lynn & West Norfolk in using their skills to develop a new Contact Us page.

But it’s always been a tricky thing to start. How do you find out who is doing what? How do you get involved? How do you start something and get others to join you?

Collaboration initiatives

The collaborative working environment in the public sector has taken off recently giving rise to great opportunities for us to capitalise on. We’ve seen

  • the re-birth of Pipeline, through a LocalGov Digital/Hackney collaboration, to help councils connect with each other on projects they are working on
  • the opening up of Government as a Platform services like GOV.Pay and GOV.Notify to all local authorities in June 2018 . With 60 of them taking up the use of GOV.Notify already it’s proving to be very attractive.
  • the launch of the Local Digital team within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with the express purpose of facilitating collaboration and move the work of central and local government closer together
  • the announcement in July 2018 of the creation of a £7.5m fund to help local authorities build common solutions to shared problems.

Perhaps the most exciting development is the collaborative work starting between local authorities and the GOV.Pay team. The plan is to see how the product can be developed to fill the gap between taking payments and reconciling these with local authority finance systems. If successful this could save a significant amount of money in councils buying commercial third party products. We’re looking to collaborate on this discovery work too with North East Lincolnshire, albeit in a ‘light touch’ only capacity.

Local Digital Fund

In September the Local Digital Team opened the Expression of Interest stage for bids against the Local Digital Fund.

No one was sure quite what the scale of the response would but the 389 submissions received from 171 organisations took many by surprise

Many councils submitting multiple bids (Southwark entered 13. The average was 2.2 per local authority). The quality and ambition of these was varied, but it showed the massive interest in working together to resolve issues.

Our Local Digital Fund application

Expression of Interest

We decided to put together an exploratory bid to the Local Digital Fund for some work we were interested in starting with chatbots and AI.

Like a lot of authorities, we’d starting to look at this capability as another tool in our set for automating straightforward tasks, improving service to our customers and reducing costs. We’d begun to look at Dialogflow as a potential platform, but then we realised we were starting down the path of individualisation.

Wouldn’t it be better if we had a common approach? What if all councils used the same platform, used a common process library and managed it themselves as a sector? Wouldn’t that be breaking the mould?

We realised that as we didn’t have any user research at all and we’d need to do some legwork to find out more. So we put an (ambitious) concept together as an expression of interest (EoI) to put this into practice.

We posted our EoI on the LocalGov Digital slack team to try and entice others to join us, as lots of other councils did, but by the time of submission on 5 October we hadn’t found anyone to join us. We thought this would mean our bid would get nowhere.

Invitation to Apply

On 16 October we were pleasantly surprised to get two emails confirming we’d been invited to make a full application. Each was an invitation for a category;

  • Chatbots, artificial intelligence or robotic process automation with six other councils
  • Local government as a platform with nine other councils

After a bit of back-slapping we realised we were still in the same situation as before with no partners and just 3 weeks to find some to submit a robust application.

Starting the discussion

To get things started we emailed every council in the Chatbot category on 17 October (including those not invited to apply), set up a dedicated Slack channel for the category and posted a summary of the applications and their status to help improve the visibility a bit.

By 19 October it still felt like nothing was really moving so we started a Doodle poll to set up a kick-off meeting with everyone. This took place on 24 October via a Google Hangout with an open agenda for everyone to add to. Nine councils were able to join in, with two others trying.

The discussion began to fork into two groups. It was clear some councils were already well established in using chatbots and wanted to extend these into personal assistants, and another group were in the ‘chatbots from scratch’ area not knowing how to start.

It was possible to get an outline agreement from some of the councils present to join one or other of the groups, but with a total of 22 councils in the overall category it was impossible to know what the overall intentions were.

Surveying the category group

We decided that the best way to get an overview of intentions was to put a short Google Form together to survey the field. This went out on 25 October.

Even using this method, and a number of email reminders, only 14 responses were received, the last being on 5 November. Despite this, it was an effective way of councils stating their preference, or that they were withdrawing from the process altogether.

This lack of information was a real blocker in moving things along and finding collaborators early enough for them to make a significant contribution to our developing application.

Gathering collaborators

We began to attract councils as a result our survey form, but also through the use of group emails sent to everyone in the category. Taking a proactive role in pushing the conversation was the best option in ensuring momentum.

The timeline for our growing list of collaborators was;

  • 0 councils (16 October)
  • 4 councils (24 October)
  • 8 councils (29 October)
  • 9 councils (1 November)
  • 12 councils (12 November)
  • 14 councils (15 November - on the application deadline!)

We were really pleased to attract three councils that had the opportunity to make their own applications, but saw the value of working together.

What struck us in particular was the distribution of the councils that got involved. This was not a London-centric group.

Talking to the market

As the application began to take shape, we reached out to a friendly supplier (DXW Digital) to test the feasibility of the proposed project, what would make a good Digital Outcomes proposal and if it would attract a digital supplier to bid for the work involved. This was invaluable and felt like an essential step any applicant should go through as part of the process.

The insight we gained was;

  • We would need at least one day with everyone together in the same room at a kick-off meeting to ensure expectations are common and everyone understands what is required of them as a participant
  • Discovery projects are predominantly about user research and its findings rather than evaluation of tech choices; it’s about properly understanding the problem to be solved rather than going straight to a solution
  • Trying to achieve too much with the project could test the capacity of any supplier and undermine the value of what we get out of it.
  • Showing the value of the project is important – the business case for spending the money must stack up. Just exploring for the sake of it won’t be robust enough as a reason.
  • Even if we write the best proposal for a supplier they may still not go for it if;

    o they don’t have the capacity due to other projects

    o they don’t think it’s been scoped properly, or is uncertain what it wants to achieve

    o they don’t have the sort of staff required for it

    o it won’t make them enough money

  • The biggest challenges will be cultural ones; expectations on what is possible, unfamiliarity with Agile, unfamiliarity with user research, lack of understanding about the value of discovery

Finalising our application

We were really clear throughout the process that the purpose of the Fund and the projects arising from it was to ensure the sector as a whole benefitted from the outcomes. So that focused our minds on what would be in the application.

For other authorities, like us, what would be the most useful starting point? We felt this would include;

  • An overview of the technology choices and their relative merits
  • A methodology for evaluating the suitability of chatbots as a business case
  • A set of case studies, drawn from a range of service areas, that could apply to a range of councils

At the same time we wanted to keep to our original EoI and explore the feasibility of a common platform we could use across the sector.

On 14 November we held another Hangout, this time to have a final read-through and sign off our application. It felt like an achievement, separate to the success or otherwise of the application, to have formed as a group. We made new contacts in new areas, and a number of spin-off opportunities could arise from this.

On 15 November we submitted our application. But the work doesn’t stop there; because of the tight delivery timescale we need to start work next week on preparations for procuring a digital agency so that we can press the ‘go’ button on the exercise the minute the next email is received from MHCLG to say we’ve been successful.

Unless of course we’re unsuccessful…