The reports below have been written for Socitm by Dan Jellinek, Editor of E-Government Bulletin.
Sunday 12 October
Paul Sloane - Keynote speaker
In the first of many references to the current upheavals in the financial system which has provided a sober backdrop to Socitm '08, Sunday's keynote speaker Paul Sloane noted: "We're in for a really tough time."
With the financial squeeze which has long been a fact of life for public sector bodies set to intensify and demands from citizens ever rising, the question for Socitm members is: "how are you going to bridge the gap?" said Sloane.
Service innovation enabled by IT held the key to the answer, he said. "The people who are going to save local government are sitting in this room right now - and now you know how much trouble we're really in," he joked.
The potential of IT to generate savings and improve services could be seen in a service such as online car tax application, which has saved the DVLA 30% of its administration costs, said Sloane. "The DVLA wins and the client wins."
Imagination, creativity and lateral thinking are vital in the quest for innovation, and at least as important as traditional skills and knowledge, he said. Peter Wood, the man who revolutionised the insurance industry when he set up Direct Line, simply took two technologies that had been in existence for a while - computers and telephones - and put them together in a new and powerful way, Sloane said.
Other examples of innovation through lateral thinking include TopCoder - a website where companies can ask any programmer in the world to create code to solve their real business issues to win money, a concept known as 'crowdsourcing'; and a gold mining company that threw its mine data open to the world to ask people to suggest methods of detecting the best new places to dig, again for cash, the 'Goldcorp challenge'.
But thinking innovatively is not easy, and does not always come naturally, he warned. The golden rules are to check assumptions; ask searching questions; break the rules and take some risks.
It is also important to give your staff some time and resources to try out new ways of working, though it need not be large sums or stakes at risk. "Fail often and fail cheap: carry out lots of little experiments. Give staff time to think about this - little bits of time and a little bit of budget."
Monday 13 October
Wayne David MP, Minister for Digital Inclusion
With the planned ministerial speaker - digital inclusion minister and Welsh minister Paul Murphy - called away to serve on the Prime minister's emergency economic crisis committee, the credit crunch continued to make its presence felt indirectly on proceedings.
His stand-in, deputy digital inclusion minister and junior Welsh minister Wayne David, stepped up to the Socitm microphone after just one week in his new post to voice the government's concern that inaccessibility of digital technology to some parts of society might become "a new driver of inequality in the 21st century."
With one in four UK citizens still having never been online, digital exclusion has a major impact on many key policy areas across government such as education, health and worklessness, David said. Young people need access to the internet at home to help with homework and revision and older people like his own 83-year-old mother were beginning to embrace concepts such as shopping online.
"If people like my mother can see IT as practical and helpful and not frightening and threatening, then we are making real progress," he said.
On Friday 24 October his colleague Paul Murphy would be launching a consultation draft of the government's first Digital Inclusion Action Plan, marking the beginning of a major public consultation exercise including online consultation via the Department of Communities and Local Government website.
The 24 October was selected for the launch because it is also 'Get online day', an event hosted by the more than 6,000 government-funded UK Online centres across the country. Visitors to the centres would be invited to join in with the consultation, and the centres are already carrying out useful digital inclusion work through their use of the 'Myguide.gov.uk' online interface to help people become more confident users of online services, David said.
Ultimately, the complex problems of digital inclusion will only be tackled by government departments and the wider public sector working together and collaborating with the private and third sectors, he said. There is also a European dimension to the work: "This is a European issue, and there are some extremely exciting developments in this field in Europe. The UK is seen as a lead country on this - at the end of November I am going to be the keynote speaker at an EU digital inclusion conference in Vienna."
Harvey Mattinson, Consultant, CESG
A new approach to information security in the public sector, shifting from confidentiality markings on documents to an assessment of the business impact should they be compromised, was sketched out by Harvey Mattinson of the security services' IT protection arm CESG.
Mattinson, lead consultant at CESG on risk management and information assurance professionalism, said the traditional government tags such as 'confidential' or 'secret' have been replaced by business impact codes from 0 to 6.
The codes for local government, drawn up in liaison with Socitm, assess issues such as the effect on business continuity; potential embarrassment to the organisation; or threat to staff or citizens' safety.
Appropriate levels of action should then be taken by each authority to ensure the availability, integrity and confidentiality of each type of data.
Action ranges from simply "being aware there are bad guys out there when you connect", for level one information, to taking steps such as firewalls to deter skilled attackers (levels 2 and 3); taking more sophisticated steps to detect and resist attacks (level 4); and defending with all means possible (levels 5 and 6).
In the past CESG had placed an emphasis on product assurance, testing products and certifying them appropriate to use in various security situations, but this approach too had been replaced with a recommendation that authorities assess each security set-up in a live environment.
One key to security is defence in depth, Mattinson said: councils should "build up layers" and not rely on a single system.
"We are not that interested any more in product assurance:
I need to know that all my products in a line will deter, detect or defend."
Neither should councils fall into the trap of thinking that IT security is purely a technical problem with technical solutions, Mattinson said.
"Don't look for a purely technical solution: I've never been able to solve a risk management problem using technology alone." In fact, there are four elements to any solution: physical, personal, procedural and technical, he said. It was also the case that the majority of security breaches are caused by someone inside the organisation, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
The strongest security systems will be expensive, Mattinson admitted: "the higher the rating, the more it will cost to protect".
But ultimately, IT managers should not fear security as a complex area to tackle. "Keep it simple - security is common sense. You do it all the time - you just need to manage it."
Alex Butler, Director of Transformational Government Strategy, COI
Public servants should learn to love social networking, mash-ups and the widget economy: this was the message from Alex Butler in her workshop 'mobility, instant access and the digital citizen'.
Butler, Director of Transformational Government Strategy at the government's marketing agency COI, said some 73% of people have read a blog - "we see them as mainstream media now".
There are a range of social networking technologies to watch, Butler said. The fastest growing overall are those involving video clips, the use of portable and mobile devices for networking and swapping user-generated content is on the rise and the "widget economy" - the use of mini-applications to interface with networks - is now also taking root among 23% of all social media users.
So what does all this mean for the public sector?
One key feature of many of the new interactive online communities is that people are offering each other help and advice online, a role traditionally played by public servants. "We need to get involved with this."
Examples included 'Mumsnet', a forum where one question highlighted by Butler received two useful answers in an hour. Such work represented "the meat and drink of government services", she said.
She questioned whether the public sector could be so responsive on its own, but said it needed to "connect and participate - it's a dialogue. There are going to be times when we're really nervous about that, we're more used to broadcasting information. So be in there, but don't pretend to be somebody you're not."
Public sector officials could look to the new civil service 'Principles for participation online' for ideas on how they can make helpful contributions to forums while protecting staff and avoiding embarrassment, Butler said.
"There are numerous examples of civil servants who have got themselves into trouble online - I would argue it is quite simple, but it is a new area."
The code, which can be found at:
consists of five key principles such as "Be consistent - encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times."
Finally, Butler turned to the topic of 'data mashing' - the capture and reuse of public sector data by third parties who 'scrape' data from several sites and link or 'mash' them together to create new hybrid services. An example was 'farmsubsidy.org', she said, where a group of campaigners took European agricultural subsidy data from websites across Europe and combined it into a single source.
A government advisory group, the Power of Information Taskforce, is
running a competition to find - and fund, with a £20,000 prize - the
best ideas for new mash-ups, she said
Public bodies should welcome the move, she said. "Think content, not just marketing or service delivery.
"We have got to let go, accept the fact that the data is on the internet means it is going to be used. We can either do it better and work with third parties or put up the picket fences, and I don't think that's going to help."
Steven Noels, CEO, Outerthought
The way organisations store and manage information has undergone a major transformation from the old, rigid database-centred world of the early mainframe computers to the new era of flexible, 'semi-structured' stores of interlinked data, Steven Noels, CEO at open source software developers Outerthought, told delegates.
With the early databases, information was stored in grids and tables organised into rows and columns in a single centralised system and accessed through a single interface, he said. "What users of these systems had to do was to adapt to the system, rather than the system adapting to them."
It has emerged recently however that only 30% of a typical organisation's knowledge is stored in a central system. The remaining 70% is contained on desktops or in other devices in documents such as word files or emails - "these are of huge value, if a system semi-structured or has a less rigid structure."
The best modern systems embrace this flexibility, he said. Google for example use their own semi-structured database system called BigTable which represents the index of the entire web. Yahoo uses another distributed system called Hadoop.
"In these schema-free databases, keys have become URLs, and relations become hyperlinks," Noels said.
Under the old approach, all data had to be entered to fit existing structures. The new approach was to capture all the information that is out there: "we see the storage of documents instead of records."
The next part of the jigsaw is a flexible user interface into the system - not a single gateway to a single portal - and an emphasis on tagging and multiple labelling to ensure 'findability' of documents.
Public bodies must learn by this approach and redesign their systems so that citizens can access them in flexible ways, he said. The nadir of the opposite approach was to simply make the same old bureaucratic forms available as downloads to print out.
Under the prciniiples of web 2.0, users are also involved in the tagging and labelling of data, replacing taxonomies with 'folksonomies', he said. "A lot of people bring different useful ideas and principles. Some might be on your payroll, but some might be citizens."
The credit crunch formed the backdrop to another conference session as Mike Lafford, vice president for IT asset management research at Gartner, offered tips on extracting more value from IT and achieving cost savings.
Cutting IT budgets is not a straightforward exercise, Lafford said. "When government budgets are cut, IT is asked to make cuts. But this often seems irrational, as IT supports all other functions.
"There are risks associated with cutting out some IT costs, as well: it is not taken for granted that we can drop any application without a ripple effect. Some cuts create huge operational upheaval."
On the other hand, when cuts are needed, it is important to be decisive, Lafford said. Delaying spending in areas such as upgrading desktop computers was not an acceptable way to make savings. "One theme we often hear is that the easiest way to save money is not to spend it, but deferring IT spending that you need to make can take you to a worse place. It is penny-wise and pound foolish."
The most sensible course of action is for councils to draw up a cost-cutting decision framework where all IT projects that could save money are assessed for potential savings; associated technical and organisational risk; up-front investment requirements; service levels to the citizen; and political issues.
Time is also of the essence, Lafford said. "You need to balance potential savings against timescale. There is not much point if the saving comes after more than 18 months, unless it is a strategic business transformation project."
Areas where a strong case could be quickly made for most authorities included introducing, rationalising or sharing call centres; teleworking; and videoconferencing, he said. Other smart moves included sharing best practice; renegotiating existing contracts; looking to introduce shorter contracts; and sharing services with neighbouring councils.
The inexorable rise of China and India as global economic, political and technological powers will affect all organisations, including public sector bodies, and presented both threats and opportunities, independent management consultant Charles Chang told conference.
Both were huge countries, with huge populations and huge GDPs, operating on a global stage - "if you do not pay attention to key factors about India and China, you will suffer the consequences."
In the public sector, one of the areas most strongly affected would be the education sector, Chang said. Already several UK educational institutions had set up branches in China, and others needed to look at whether they are gearing up properly to welcome Chinese and Indian students and make them feel at home.
Other parts of the public sector should consider study tours to the two countries, and look at how they might be able to swap ideas in areas such as best practice in e-government, pollution control or traffic management.
"Do any of you have twin towns with India or China?" he asked. One or two in the audience did - Leicestershire is twinned with Sichuan Province in China, for example - but others should look at the idea alongside other twining projects as potentially at least as meaningful in today's world than twinning with European areas, Chang said.
Tuesday 14 October
James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation, De Montfort University
Tuesday's first speaker James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort university, delivered an entertaining session packed with quotes and gags which lifted a groggy, morning-after-the-annual-dinner audience as he steadily piled the hall high with the carcasses of IT-related sacred cows.
Woudhuysen was scathing about what he dubbed the 'worship of youth', which he detects in much of the current talk about web 2.0. "People say my kids know all about IT, but don't rush into worship of youth - just because young people can create a myspace profile does not mean they have a degree in computer science, or can read a book cover to cover."
"Let's hear it for brains of any age, and application and talent of any age."
What is needed to fuel innovation in town halls, as in industry, is more forecasting of technology trends, greater debating of ideas, higher spending on research and development, and more experimentation.
"We need to do more pilot schemes that will screw up and lose money," he said, quoting Einstein's quip: "if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research."
One specific area of technology that is going to figure more and more significantly in the future, said Woudhuysen, is that of the human interface - moving away from mice and keyboards to human-computer interaction involving facial expressions, gestures, touch and voice recognition. "Are you doing enough to come to terms with the interfaces of tomorrow?"
Donna Hall, Chief Executive, Chorley BC and member, Local Government Delivery Council
The difficulties of co-ordinating local government policy work across central government were highlighted by Donna Hall, Chief Executive of Chorley BC and member of the Local Government Delivery Council.
The council is a new body comprising representatives from 14 councils and departments across central government which was set up by the Cabinet Office to help central and local government work together to develop local government policy and improve services.
Specific work programmes undertaken by the council include research into citizen satisfaction with and perception of local government services, (which often seems to be worse than the services merit); organising services around users; and data sharing across the public sector.
"There is an emphasis on delivery - we are not a talking shop," Hall said.
In response to a question from Socitm president Richard Steel expressing scepticism that another quango was needed to try and improve local government efficiency, Hall admitted there was a risk the new body would not be effective: "it does seem sometimes like central government departments always need to create another board to justify their own existence."
But she said the delivery council was intended to oversee and co-ordinate the work of all the other regional and efficiency bodies and quangos that has already been set up. "The aim is to co-ordinate all efficiency and improvement projects across central and local government. That's the idea - the jury is out on how successful we will be."
After an initial show of hands had demonstrated few people had previously heard of the council, and even fewer could say what it did, Hall admitted that a national communications programme was also needed to raise awareness of the body and its work.
In her own council of Chorley, two initiatives had helped the council focus services on the needs of local people, Hall said. The first was 'You said, we did,' an idea "nicked" from Tesco which saw the council offering public responses to all service improvement requests, detailing what action had been taken or, just as importantly, explaining why action had not been taken if none had proved practical.
The second was an approach dubbed the 'circle of need', an approach looking at all a citizen's needs or potential needs rather than simply the one they might turn up or 'present' with on a specific occasion. The concept is similar to that used by the airline easyJet on its website, which offers travellers options to book taxis, hotels and other services when they come to book a flight, Hall said.
Understanding what IT skills your organisation needs and then working out how to develop them is the key to gaining the most value from the people you employ, Mary Wintershausen, principal consultant for Socitm Consulting, told delegates at the public sector IT professionalism workshop.
"You need to ask the questions, what does the service need to look like, so what competency groups will we need, and what skills are missing? Then we need to ask: can we develop the teams and individuals we have to be more effective, can we use their skills differently or do they have skills we don't even know about?
"All these questions are about skills, skills are the key to understanding what we've got at the moment, can they be used differently or do we need to bring people in?"
There are various kinds of skills to consider in making these assessments, Wintershausen said. As well as personal technical skills such as Java, there are generic professional skills set out by the Government IT Profession such as time management and communications skills. These should be examined for everybody in the council, not just management, she said. Then there were 'acquired skills' - skills acquired over many years as an IT practitioner and skills acquired in other life activities outside the council.
Once it is decided what skills you need, your first port of call will always be existing staff, Wintershausen said. "Most of us haven't the luxury of saying what skills do we need? Right, let's go and get them. You're stuck with what you've got as a starting point, as it is cheaper to use existing staff and train them rather than look at partnering or recruiting."
The workshop was held to mark the launch at Socitm 08 of 'Aspire', a new software package aimed at helping councils unlock their staff's potential.
Aspire was developed by Leeds City Council based on a previous product from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and has been undergoing pilot testing at six UK local authority sites including Leeds. It supports the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA - http://www.sfia.org.uk/), developed by the British Computer Society and e-skills UK, as well as the competency framework of the national Government IT Profession initiative (http://www.cio.gov.uk/itprofession/).
The software allows managers and staff to collect and store information about individuals' roles and skills; draw up development plans for individuals and the service; and allows staff to assess themselves against plans and roles and add evidence about their training or skills. The system will then contact the relevant manager to allow them to approve the evidence or discuss it with staff.
"Aspire provides a browser-based tool for everyone in IT to use, not just the management team," Wintershausen said.
Other features of the package include managing training centrally; managing the staff supervision and appraisal process online; and setting development objectives. Pilot testing has been running for nine months now at six councils with involvement from the Cabinet Office, Socitm and the IDeA.
"Nine months in, we are already seeing increased value in support to the appraisal process", Wintershausen said. "People are finding appraisal sessions more useful because they are working with a more objective base of evidence, and they are making better use of development opportunities."
For more information on Aspire see: http://www.aspire-gov.co.uk