Where Next for Open Standards

Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

Practical Next Steps

The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

Lewisham Open311 App Results

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

  1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
  2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
  3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

1 Comment

  1. I applaud and endorse your statement of “…the single most important thing …”. In the 1990s and 2000s I had some frustrating discussions with major business application software suppliers about openness. I tried to take it further by including requirements for standards / e-GIF compliance, open APIs etc into the technical specifications for procurements, but it was obvious that I couldn’t make them mandatory rather than merely desirable: understandably, the business service manager wanted the most mature and fully-featured solution, and usually this was the least likely to meet demands for openness and interoperability. No sane CEO is going to over-rule the business manager’s choice of product in favour of a IT person’s argument for an uncertain possibility of unquantifiable benefits at an unspecified time in the distant future. Suppliers know this and so I think procurement alone is not an effective means of enforcement. This has been reinforced by some suppliers dominating the market for core business solutions by acquisition of competitors, resulting in near-monopolies. I still don’t see an obvious way around this.

    Suppose that Central Government were to issue a mandate on Local Government’s behalf: how would they make it stick if the incumbent suppliers refuse to play ball? Legally-enforceable regulations for new developments could be introduced, as in the property business, but the Local Government software market is small and I don’t see enough natural turnover in system replacement to result in significant change perhaps for decades; and inevitably prices would rise in the short-to-medium term as suppliers would pass on their development costs (plus a hefty profit, no doubt). Maybe Central Government would like to make key suppliers a one-off financial offer they can’t refuse to overhaul their products for compliance and to upgrade all existing customers … but I can’t see that happening: the suppliers could pretty much name their price, and the disruption caused by implementation could bring chaos to the LAs. One thing we do know is that Central Government couldn’t win by threatening to cut out suppliers by commissioning replacement solutions suitable for all LAs – Universal Credit shows that, if we didn’t know it already.