Every competitor is a potential collaborator – #digpen

The second #digpen web developer unconference took place at the Phoenix in Exeter on Saturday the 14th of May – with a lecture theatre full of talented web developers and designers from the South West of England.

The focus was on strengthening the community of developers and designers which already exists in the South West.  There were a series of 3 minute “lightning talk introductions” from individuals and small enterprises from the region, followed by some more lengthy spotlight presentations and workshops.  The conference wrapped up with some 2 minute pitches by representatives of other web related communities of potential interest to attendees.

I would highly recommend that if you live in the South West region that you subscribe for the next #digpen unconference which is on Saturday the 11th of June in Cornwall.  For up to date information please follow the hyperlink in the reference section.

I attended this event to gain more awareness of the types of technologies and tools that freelance and SME web developers are using to build and deploy web apps for clients.  I am especially interested in this as I would like to help make possible a future where local authorities play a key role in facilitating growth of local communities such as #digpen – procuring digital services from the community to help deliver innovative and effective services to the public.

Knowing what technologies freelance developers and SMEs currently favour enables myself and my team to strategise and build the case for a platform on which these developers can deploy their web app solutions without them needing to invest in niche technologies or bespoke integration protocols.  i.e. moving to a point where local authorities provide a thin layer of open standards driven technology on top of which developers can make use of their existing preferred frameworks and technologies to deliver web apps.

What is in it for the local authority?

Local authorise provide a vast number of services to the public.  These are a mix of services that the authority are required to provide (legislated by central government) and services driven by local initiatives.  Since the services are diverse, delivering digital services effectively means investing in solutions architecture – for internal developments.  This helps reduce the cost of IT support and improves reliability and agility in meeting ever changing business requirements.  An example of this is the UK e-Government project which took place 2004/2005 and introduced a technical architecture which enabled 140+ transactional services to operate with a shared codebase.

So within local authorities, there has existed effective solutions architecture for quite some time.  Unfortunately it’s often the case that this level of standardisation is not found in the infrastructure that is hosting procured solutions.   The reasons for this are many, but in my opinion, the most significant being that technical fit against existing technical architecture & strategies is considered lower importance than meeting specific business requirements at that time – they should be the same thing!

So we have a situation where more and more stress is put upon internal IT resources to keep the infrastructure on which these procured solutions are hosted ticking over.  This in turn means that internal IT cannot be agile and provide a coherent service to the business.

To counter this problem, local authorities must communicate to potential web app suppliers an explicit and finite set of parameters which they must operate within.  A service delivery platform enables this to take place.  The challenge is to architect the platform such that it meets the objectives explained above whilst not simply moving the burden to the supplier.  i.e. desensitising the supplier from providing the solution to the local authority due to increased development/support costs or inability to resell their solution.

To summarise – the benefits include reduced cost and increased agility.

What is in it for the supplier?

The cabinet office ICT strategy 2011 dictates that there should be a preference for smaller projects over larger projects and empowerment of SMEs to deliver competitive solutions.  So the main beneficiary of the suggested platform will be the SMEs and freelance developers.

A real issue with UK procurement is that a large proportion of procurement is done via tenders.  The tender framework was designed to make the procurement exercise fairer – unfortunately it has made it more onerous for SMEs to compete for business.  Producing a tender response entails a substantial amount of effort on behalf of the SME who often do not have the infrastructural investment to do so easily.  Producing a response does not guarantee work so has to be weighed against the cost of producing the response.

So how can we cut through the red tape and get SMEs more involved in web app solutions delivery?

I would propose the best solution is to provide easy access to the aforementioned platform.

This way the SME gains an awareness of the kind of technical solution the local authority desires.  This in turn enables them to focus their effort on matching their capabilities against the specific business requirements described by the tender.  The result being that a more educated decision can then be made by the SME on whether or not to commit resources to completing a tender response.

It is fully appreciated that many SMEs will already have technology and framework preferences (why I attended the #digpen conference), and like any supplier, will want to be able to resell their solution to more than one client.  This is why the platform must be very light weight and offer a large number bridges to all the popular frameworks.

So modifying an existing web app development to be compliant with the proposed platform will not require much, if any, effort.

For SMEs who are developing web apps on a per client basis (or want to provide extra value to their clients by integration with existing solutions in use at the authority), the proposed platform will provide a lot of readily accessible services to the SME developers, helping to cut down the amount of development time needed.  For example authentication & authorisation services and access to open data and functionality from other deployed solutions.

Finally, by delivering a solution which is in line with the local authority’s internal technical architecture, this reduces (potentially removes) the need for authority’s IT staff to be involved in changes to the solution.  This enables the supplier to be agile in meeting new business requirements that emerge over time – helping maintain good ongoing relations between the supplier and local authority.

To summarise – the benefits include enabling a more educated decision on whether or not to compete in tenders, faster development through technical support services and improved ongoing relations between the supplier and the local authority.

On to discussions!

I believe that this article has only scratched the surface of what benefits can be realised if local authorities standardised on a well designed platform for service delivery.  I’d be very interested to hear your views on the matter…


If you think you might be interested in attending the next #digpen unconference check out the following links:

If you work as a technical lead or a motivated developer for a local authority and would like to help make the platform a reality then join the IT Solutions Architecture Community of Practice


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