Developing digital services using low code
Adur and Worthing Councils implemented a low code development platform to help them take control of their digital transformation. A small digital team is building end-to-end user-centred digital services that are replacing expensive and inflexible legacy systems. Low cost, fast and flexible, this pioneering digital strategy has delivered multiple customer and efficiency benefits, won national awards and central government recognition.
Every public service organisation faces the same challenge in this digital age. How to design and deliver new digital service models across the business at pace, but with limited resources. Most organisations have a complex legacy estate of different IT systems, which are costly, inflexible and were built for a different age - before the emergence of the internet and digital business models. Tackling the legacy IT problem, and creating new user-centred digital services is out of reach of most public service organisations.
Adur and Worthing were like most other local authorities, struggling to maintain basic IT services on limited budgets with a small team. Keeping existing IT systems patched and running was as much as the team could manage. Council services were running on a large number of traditional software systems which were not keeping up with the times, and were costly and inflexible. With new leadership in place from 2014, the Councils recognised that in order to really drive change in the organisation, and create services that were customer-centred, truly digital and more efficient, they needed to find a way to take control of their digital transformation. As two small district and borough councils, it would be necessary to develop a strategy that was low cost, sustainable, and not rely on external consultants or highly skilled hired-in developers. It would be critical to be able to design and build products in-house, controlling what and when, working with users to understand needs and implementing digital services quickly, using iterative development practices.
A strategic review of options was undertaken with the help of specialist consultants, looking beyond public services for inspiration, into sectors such as financial services. A new class of development platforms was discovered - low code - which allowed applications to be built through visual interfaces, and using common components. The skills required to be a low code developer would be in reach for the councils by converting existing staff such as database administrators and excel power users.
The low code platform approach was the key part of a wider ‘cloud first’ strategy, which also involved a move to Google for Work for all staff, and a plan to close the local data centre and move all applications to the public cloud. Since 2015, the councils have designed and built a range of applications on its low code platform, including waste and recycling services, social housing repairs, asset management, customer complaints, human resource management and freedom of information requests. The applications are truly end-to-end and have saved over £200k per year in software licence costs alone. Significant "back office" efficiencies have been delivered, for example in housing repairs. The administration team can now process 150 contractor invoices in 3 hours, compared to 50 per day previously. Customer satisfaction levels are very high with the new repairs service that is fully self-service, allowing online appointment booking, regular progress updates by email and text, and before and after photos of the repair. Similar benefits have been seen in waste services, where the digital team have also built an automated voice service for clinical waste collection.
Perhaps the most exciting innovation so far using the platform has been a digital service to support social prescribing. Social prescribing helps doctors refer patients with social needs to specialist workers called Community Referrers who help connect people to community resources, such as social activities, health and exercise, debt counselling and mental health support. Adur and Worthing Councils received national funding from the UK Local Government Association to build a digital application to support the service, using its low code platform. The digital service was designed in collaboration with doctors and patients, and received a national award from Computing Magazine, as well as special mention from the UK Local Government Minister. Through this project, Adur and Worthing Councils have demonstrated that it is possible to design and build digital services which are used by multiple agencies in a local public service system and which "join up" the experience for the patient or resident. The Councils are able to offer digital services to any public organisation in the area, including charities, and believes great efficiencies and customer benefits can be delivered through local public service organisations moving to use common platforms. It is early days in this area, but the Councils have the tools and strategic thinking to begin to deliver on this vision. The Councils continue to modernise their operations through this strategy, and to increasingly explore new digital business models that transform their ways of working.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The low code digital platform model is innovative because
- it provides an environment for creating robust, enterprise grade digital applications at low cost
- low code developers can be trained from the existing staff group
- it allows for genuine user-centred agile product development
- it allows quite small organisations to take control of their digital future
- it allows for integration with other systems through open standards and APIs
At the date of submission, the low code platform is well-established and has delivered multiple end-to-end digital services. The Councils are continuing to invest in the strategic programme, increasing the size of the digital team, and building service design capacity and organisational development initiatives around the work, to help further increase levels of involvement and engagement of staff. The digital programme has delivered savings of £200k per annum since its inception, and has seen significant reductions in software costs.
What is the current status of your innovation?
At the date of submission, the low code platform is well established and has delivered multiple end-to-end digital services. The Councils are continuing to invest in the strategic programme, increasing the size of the digital team, and building service design capacity and organisational development initiatives around the work, to help further increase levels of involvement and engagement of staff in digitally-enabled change.
The digital programme has delivered savings of £200k per annum since its inception, and has seen significant reductions in software costs. New work streams are being developed around voice user interfaces and open data strategy, where we plan to publish service performance data publicly in real time from the platform.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Consultants assisted with the initial strategy development and implementation of the low code platform. The consultants brought expertise and experience from the private sector, helping us bring new ideas into the public sector. The social prescribing digital project involved the National Health Service and general practitioners who now use the digital service, helping us create a truly multi-agency front line application, and delivering a more seamless service for end users.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens are now receiving an increasing number of digital services which have been designed with their collaboration/in collaboration with them, and have a similar look and feel across different services. By providing regular automated updates, citizens are reassured on progress and chase-up phone calls are reduced. Council staff are experiencing much more efficient and user friendly tools, and report high levels of satisfaction.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
As a result of the strategy, citizens are receiving the modern digital services they experience elsewhere on the web - easy and highly interactive. Front line staff are working mobile, using tablets and phones, making customer services even more efficient and modern. Back office processes are significantly more efficient.
Our digital team is empowered to drive change in the business and there is high satisfaction amongst team members. We are on track to deliver £3m of revenue savings over 5 years against a £600k investment. Our work is now mainstreamed and our costs are low. We are now planning to grow the team having demonstrated impact. Our intention is to also continue to embed the work and deepen the human-centred design approach we have also been developing in parallel. This will make our organisation able to continually adapt and change into the future, and give us capacity to explore new technology innovations such as voice and AI.
Challenges and Failures
Despite high levels of political and senior leadership support, the initial phase of the work was challenging. The concept of building in-house at this scale was new and some areas of the business were wary. At times there was resistance that had to be worked through. There were also some technical challenges in the first year, as the low code platform selected had some functionality limitations that created difficulties. These were resolved effectively with our feedback, and we were able to help shape a very powerful product from a UK SME. There were also challenges in creating enough time for new development work within the small digital team, who had full business as usual workloads. We are still learning agile methodology, especially in terms of business users understanding what it means to create digital products iteratively. Continued support and backing from senior leaders has been crucial and remains strong.
Conditions for Success
The key to success for Adur and Worthing Councils has been strong and consistent leadership. The creation of a Director level role (Director for Digital & Resources) has been vital. It has been important to recognise that an initiative such as this takes time, and the first two years involved much implementation and learning, with the third year seeing the programme in its stride. It is vital that risk is accepted and that there is an ethos of experimentation, acceptance of uncertainty, and also persistence. Identifying skilled, enthusiastic people to join the team is crucial, as is the involvement of politicians, citizens and staff in the innovation process.
The low code platform approach means that Adur and Worthing can easily create multiple applications which reuse capabilities built in previous projects. Our learning is constantly being replicated and refined with each project, and we are working faster each time. We intend to create methods of sharing our work with other local authorities, from workflow designs and UX/UI wireframes for each of our applications. We aim to help our platform supplier create a marketplace for sharing "accelerator" applications, which we will share at no cost. We are licensed to build and implement applications for many public sector organisations delivering services in our area, and intend to offer services to partners within the next two years.
Our key lessons learned relate to ensuring clear and well-structured project and product management practices from the outset. It is important to limit "work in progress" and to ensure that benefit is delivered early, however small. This helps generate confidence all round, and creates a positive environment to work in. In the first phase of our work, our programme took on too many different projects in parallel and therefore each took longer to deliver, creating avoidable doubts among some stakeholders. Ensuring there is sufficient capacity for the work is crucial, and that staff feel able to raise issues and report failure. A supportive and patient environment is very important to let new innovations grow.
Establishing the capacity and tools for continual change is vital for all organisations. A digital strategy has to be ambitious and comprehensive, but designed in a way that means progress can be gradual: small, experimental and incremental, growing in confidence, pace and capacity over time.