How to build a digital ecosystem that helps the public sector thrive

About this event

ROBIN KNOWLES: Good morning, everybody, welcome to our session: How to build a digital ecosystem that helps the public sector thrive. Incredibly important challenge, particularly with so many different local authorities, so many different systems, so many different silos. Even data silos within individual local authorities. We all know the power this data holds to help us transform public services.

Just to remind you what our topic is, the public sector is in a state of continuous need to update and improve its legacy systems and ways of working. Local government is being urged to progress and digitise their systems for a more efficient, cost-effective and stable future. When solutions are built to solve only the one problem, legacy or data issue, they create silos, the create delays and there is a lot of cost in the long run.

A digital ecosystem, as we are about to hear, is where things are built to be shared and work in the open. That’s the change that the system needs – bridging the gap between what was done before and what can be done now.

Before we start, a little bit of housekeeping. Your cameras and microphones are muted. Please can you put your questions into the Q & A tab that is at the bottom. When our presenter has shown his presentation, we’ll get stuck into some questions before we finish.

Our speaker is the Head of Local Government at Made Tech, Glen Ocska. He is an experienced thought leader; he has worked with all parts of UK public sector on digital programmes ranging from public engagement and civic democracy to improving health outcomes and policy development.

My job now is to get out of the way. Glen, really looking forward to this, over to you.

GLEN OCSKA: Thanks, Robin. Kudos on perfect pronunciation of my surname, which is harder than it sounds. Thanks very much for introducing me. I guess it would help if I did a quick introduction. I’m not going to go into too much about the company that I work for but it is a little relevant.

I’m the Head of Local Government, as Robin said, for Made Tech. Made Tech have been around for quite some time, originally started as a company essentially to do work with the private sector, to take first conversation through to finished product in about a hundred days. We pivoted in 2016 when we started working with GDS and with various different councils, and realised that agile, quick thinking, innovative way of working was exactly what the public sector needed.

Since then we’ve grown across the company. I joined about two and a half years ago, we were about fifty people. I think we are now just shy of 500.

We’ve seen a real opportunity to do incredible things across the entire public sector from my area, local government, through to health and central government. We are also developing SAS, and that becomes a bit more relevant later. We do work across the whole public sector, as I’m sure many of the people on this call do also.

It’s that breadth of experience that has led me to be thinking about what I’m going to be talking about today. As you can see we’ve got a lot of things on the screen of logos and people we talk to. We work with a lot of organisations. I’ve been working with them for quite some time.

This is far from the first digital leaders talk I have given. This time last year actually, I was privileged enough to be here talking about exponential evolution in a digital work. Hence this slide I shared showing my own evolution over the years.

That particular talk went into various different areas, from the law of accelerating returns or the difference between transformation and evolution. I was also able to share some of my favourite facts, like how sharks have existed for longer than trees, or that crocodiles have been around longer than grass, and dragonflies pre-date the dinosaurs. It was all about evolution and changing and growing.

As part of that, I also touched on the topic of symbiotic relationships and the importance of working towards those from a digital perspective.

Symbiotic relationships as I’m sure you know, and as I will shortly come on to talk about, are ones where every single part of an entire relationship has a role to play. Where everything is balanced and where every single part of it can work together, deliberately, or accidentally, to thrive. It was this area which came to mind not too long ago, when I started thinking about what I wanted to talk about today.

Please indulge me as I share a bit of story time. I was at an event recently, and I won’t say when or who else was there. During it, we heard a talk from one local authority about their digital needs, and how they wanted to make sure they were working with a broad range of suppliers, as part of, in their terms, a digital ecosystem.

Now, a representative from a supplier stood up. This was no SME they were representing. They were on behalf of a major player in the space, what I am going to call today a mega-supplier. I shan’t name them, we’ll keep them anonymous, we’ll make up a name, I don’t know, Divica or Deputa or something like that. Anyway, they stood up and thanked the council speaker, and then they started talking about how proud they were to be a supportive and active member of their ecosystem of suppliers, the ecosystem that the speaker had been talking about.

They felt that their company was investing its people and time to actively and excitingly engage with other suppliers and support them, and build a collegiate set of relationships which led to everyone thriving.

Well, I’ll be honest, I nearly spat out my lukewarm tea at that point. What on earth were they talking about? They stood there, with no hint of irony, claiming that their organisation, this mega supplier, was acting with nothing but love and support for others working in that space, and doing everything they could to ensure that everything worked in harmony.

That surprised me, because that wasn’t what I understood to be the case. In fact, just the week before, we had been working with that exact company’s software on a not to be named council. We had been asked by that council to help put together some datasets to do some new and interesting things with them, some of which was held by this mega company, who had been, shall we say, less than engaging with our engineers and data scientists. We had planned to ingest the data that they held, and use it to power some insights. We would have directly improved the lives of residents by allowing us to accurately predict people who were in unreported need, and to do outreach towards them.

So, the day our ingestion arrived, we had done everything we could. We had set up everything from our side and informed the company of our plans, only our plans wouldn’t work. They had decided, with no consultation, to simply switch their APIs off. That was it, we couldn’t access the data. All of our work had effectively been wasted, and thanks to the contractual situation they were in, there was pretty much nothing the council could do about it. Was that the supporting, productive, collegiate ecosystem they were speaking about?

Separately to that, a year or so earlier I was speaking with someone I knew that had been part of a start up for a couple of years. They had been trying to use modern tools, systems, and processes to build a niche tool for a very specific part of the council. Which they felt was really unsupported. This tool had focused on some really focused needs because the tools they were using already in the council weren’t really fit for purpose. My friend had seen to fix it, because they knew that problem space intimately, they had done loads of user research, they had spoken with councils up and down the country to get their input. They had used GDS inspired processes and standards to build an MBP to show people. They had also then spent a year trying to get councils on board. They just wanted one single council to start using their tool, for free, so they could learn and develop it further. With money being so tight across the sector, getting a better tool for free, and being able to make sure it evolved into something truly valuable, that’s an amazing opportunity, right?

Well, my friend told me that they had to stop and shut up shop because every single council they had gone to had given them the same feedback. They love the tool as it is, it’s leagues ahead of what they are forced to use, and they would love for it to get even better. But they are not going to be able to get involved as they have been promised that similar functionality would be coming from their mega supplier. They knew it wouldn’t happen. They knew it would take months or even years for that functionality to arrive, and that when it did, it would essentially be a rehash of other existing tools that probably wouldn’t be fit for purpose, but their hands were tied.

It had been promised, and the promise had also focused on the fact that the other tools and systems provided by that mega supplier were designed only to be used with its own tools, and pretty much not to allow external tools to plug into it easily. They certainly wouldn’t be able to easily or freely move their data around. They didn’t have the API support. If every they wanted to build that support then they would have to pay through the nose for it. This was despite the fact that the council knew that they were already paying more than their neighbours for using an inferior version of that tool and they were also paying less than other people for it, so they didn’t want to rock the boat that way. So, my friend had been forced out of the market, despite being agile, cheap, and meeting all the needs of the sector. Is that the supportive, productive, collegiate mindset that mega supplier was talking about?

I share these two anecdotes not to attack anyone or to accuse suppliers. We all know which handful of suppliers dominate various parts of the market. We’ve all got our stories, some of them really good, and some of them really bad, to talk about them. Whether it’s social care, revs and bens, planning, democratic services, housing or any other part of the public sector digital landscape, the story is the same. A small number of suppliers dominate the market and smaller suppliers simply have no way of competing. That is not an ecosystem.

At this point, it’s probably worth taking a step back from digital, just to spend a little bit of time breaking down what an ecosystem actually is. Because the similarities between the digital and the natural spaces are remarkable when we think about them.

I’m going to take one of my customary diversions and go on a bit of a tangent. Let’s start by talking about ecosystems. A dictionary definition of an ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. So, ecosystems contain biotic or living parts, as well as abiotic factors, or non-living parts. Biotic factors include plants, animals and other organisms. That all makes sense, right? A whole host of things, living and non-living working together in balance to perpetuate life and harmony for all.

That’s not to say that there aren’t competing interests in there, but in total, all of those interests sustain the habitat, and make sure that everyone can survive and that many can thrive.

Throw off the balance a bit however, and things start to change. If one element gets too powerful, then others suffer, until the chain reaction of events has long lasting impacts that hurt even those powerful entities.

It’s the balance of life that matters. It’s the inter-operating of all the elements of that system that make everything work, and which make for a richer, more diverse, more interesting and more sustainable whole. That’s what symbiosis is all about, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or group. An example of this is having managed to use wolves to help sustain salmon fishing in Yellowstone National Park – bear with me, it comes back – wolves have been seen as a risk to people and livestock in the area, so over the years they have basically been driven to extinction. Every wolf was hunted down. In the short term, that was really seen as beneficial because wolf attacks on people and livestock, they were eliminated entirely. People had seen a need, found a single solution and went all-in, because it seemed like the simplest, easiest, cheapest way to meet their needs.

Now, removing the wolves enabled the local elk population to thrive because humans had removed their natural main predator. The elk were more than happy with how things were turning out. Over the next decade or so, the elk population doubled and then nearly doubled again. Elk are huge grazers. I didn’t know much about them until I started researching but they devour grass, shrubs, trees and everything else. Over the years, they utterly decimated the Yellowstone region’s plant life. This meant that small animals like rabbits and mice couldn’t use those plants to hide from their own predators like they normally would. So, their populations plummeted. Grizzly bears would helplessly watch herds of elk eat all their berries. Unlike me, they weren’t able to bulk up and build up the fat layers they needed before hibernation.

Bees and pollinating birds had fewer flowers to feed on. Songbirds had fewer trees to nest in. They all suffered. Even the rivers were affected. Elk normally spent very little time near the water for fear of ambush, but with the wolves gone, they had no such fears. They got used to gathering in huge herds next to those rivers, and they devoured all the nearby plant life. These were plants that had helped to keep the riverbanks in place. So the rivers got wider and shallower. Their hooves destroyed the earth next to the rivers, filling that river with clouds of soil, changing that environment for all the fish. It also meant that there were no trees, so beavers couldn’t build dams. All the local amphibious and fish life suffered, including the salmon, who all but disappeared. In total, the initial problem had been solved but overall, the habitat was sick and dying. You’ll be pleased to know that wolves were actually reintroduced back into Yellowstone in 1995. Forty one wolves were released and since then, that elk population, that huge mega group have been slimmed down from 17,000 to about 4,000 today. Wolf numbers settled at around 300 to 350.

There were fears that wolves would wipe out all the elk but instead, they’ve proved to be a really stabilising force. As with all natural predators, typically, the weakest prey are picked off. So, the elk population overall is much more healthy and robust.

The elk themselves were sticking to the bits they did well; grazing at an appropriate scale, and not ruining the spaces that others should inhabit. The simple fact that the elk were now scared of spending too long at rivers kept them away more. Trees survived. The elk are contributing to the overall balance, once again. Clean water and more trees is paradise for beavers, whose dams are now creating new habitats for fish, amphibians, reptiles and otters. Rivers are now narrowing back to their previous widths, and deepening thanks to the dams and the stronger riverbanks.

Of course, that means that people can go salmon fishing once again because that species has now returned to an environment that was once again perfect for it.

Some people, probably the elk amongst them, if they could understand things and speak, argued that creating an environment that would lessen the hold that the elk herds had on the local environment would be a bad thing. They were worried that introducing a small number of hungry wolves would upset how things had been for forty years or more. Even though they all knew it wasn’t working well enough as it was, they were familiar with it, they feared the change. Instead, everything has benefited from it. The natural balance has been restored. There is still a place for the herds, as massive, slow moving and ponderous as they are, but moving to a much more balanced landscape has created symbiosis, which has benefited absolutely every part of that ecosystem.

Even the elk themselves are now leaner, fitter and more able to survive even the harshest of winters without collapse. So, the elk boom and bust cycle is over, and everyone is better off.

That is an example from the natural world. What if we were able to translate that to the digital world, instead? Replace the elk with the name of your favourite mega supplier, and the story sounds remarkably similar.

Mega suppliers are like super organisms, effectively. They are huge beasts who do one thing, and have done it for a long, long time. They don’t need to be agile because they have no real competition, so they can grow to immense sizes, and impose themselves on all parts of the digital world. They can take up room that other, smaller, more agile organisations would normally inhabit. Essentially, they can make it impossible for them to operate, just by promising that some features will be available on some far-off roadmap. It’s enough to stop most services and procurement teams from being able to turn to more agile suppliers.

The contractual situations they are able to impose mean that it is rarely deemed worthwhile to do so because if there’s no real competition, there is no incentive for them to dynamically deliver what those other agile suppliers would do. So they are able to let innovation to go while they graze and get fat on their core deliverables.

The elk were trampling all over the rivers because they don’t care about them, getting fat grazing on the grass. For mega suppliers, this is them ignoring the need to move quickly to deliver value at no additional cost, as they can make more money delivering their existing tools, and delivering minimum viable innovation, in order to justify another price hike whilst locking the data ever further away from use by others.

They know that there are only a few alternatives. I’m sure the elk knew that the locals would only be able to replace them with buffalo or bison. The end result would be the same, even for those that could be bothered to spend the months or years forcing that change through.

Mega suppliers know that there are only a few alternatives of comparable size who cover as much ground. They know that for every client who moves to a rival supplier, they are probably going to pick one up in return. They’ve got no predators. They either don’t know what a truly balanced, symbiotic ecosystem is, or they don’t care. That’s not good enough.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where we’ve got a small number of mega suppliers dominating our markets, when we’ve been hearing of the need to move to an ecosystem of suppliers for so long? A good place to start is procurement. I want to be clear here, I’m not blaming procurement teams. Procurement is a hugely complex job with massive limitations, and in the current environment, it is under more pressure than every before. Procurement teams are being asked to procure software that does more but with less budget than they ever had available in the past. That’s no mean task and they truly have my sympathy. Having worked in local government myself for nearly a decade, and having been part of countless procurement processes, I’m really sensitive to the pressures they are under. That being said, the way councils procure software is, to put it bluntly, wrong. We have somehow got to a place where systems are only ever procured wholesale, in one go, with a massive list of features handed to procurement teams, which has usually been written or shaped by one of the mega suppliers with procurement simply being given the instruction, “Buy us that.”

That feature-led procurement process details out basically what an organisation already has, effectively making it impossible for anyone else to stand a chance by proposing something different.

If there is more than one mega supplier in the market, their feature sets are broadly identical. They might have a little difference in terminology or user flow but effectively, they are the same set of bloated software which are designed to keep data internal. To only work nicely with other systems that supplier supplies, and to try and stifle innovation from anyone else along the way.

Outcomes based procurement exercises are nothing new. They are not revolutionary, and they have been proven to work more effectively, and drive more innovation that feature-led procurement exercises ever will. Just creating a functional list of requirements generally leads to a binary answer. Have you got this feature or not, yes/no. How well that given set of features will actually meet needs and outcomes is usually hidden under the sheer number of features being requested. Requirements don’t define the business need in terms that are really easily articulated or measured but they do represent that buyer’s view of what the solution needs to look like.

So, it’s no wonder that so many suppliers just list out features and expect that to answer all their questions. But by taking an outcomes led approach, you start to look at the processes that need to be in place for your service to operate most efficiently. It’s about doing more than just replicating that status quo. It’s about procuring 21st century technology to meet 21st century needs.

This is more easily said that done. Just sending a message out saying that we’re looking to buy something that will meet service needs, it’s next to useless. It won’t help you help suppliers to meet your needs because they won’t understand those needs. You need to set out what you are hoping to achieve in a bit of detail. But do so in a way that allows suppliers to tell you how they would meet your needs, rather than simply giving them a set of boxes to tick off.

One recent procurement exercise had a lot of boxes. It had about seven hundred different features, in fact. Page after page of feature requests, covering the most banal of requests, and all adding up to a picture of a massive system that no small or medium sized supplier could ever hope to offer, if it didn’t already exist.

To top it off, the organisation running the procurement process, what it has stated up front was that they were looking for one single supplier who could do the lot. They wouldn’t even entertain consortium proposers, or any proposal where integrations between suppliers were of critical importance. What message is that sending out to potential suppliers?

To those hoping to get involved in shaking things up and offering something different, it was saying don’t bother. That company would have to spend years and millions of pounds of research and development money to even come close to being successful by building that whole platform. Unless they were able to do all of it, they would be allowed to do none of it.

Realistically, no supplier can afford to do that, especially with no guarantees of success at the end. Even though in reality, they could probably meet the ultimate outcomes of that service by working closely with other expert suppliers.

It was telling the mega suppliers that they could relax a bit. All they needed to do was tick all those feature boxes, add a handful of extra ones on top, most of which would probably never be used, and they could just start cashing their cheques. They would be able to name their terms, and put whatever clauses in their contracts they wanted, safe in the knowledge that other than the other mega suppliers, they were peerless and safe.

A better option in my opinion would have been for that procuring organisation to put the effort into setting up the outcomes they wanted to achieve, in order for them to deliver a top drawer set of outcomes for their service users. Setting out user needs, minimum requirements and user journeys, and then stepping back and seeing what suppliers could offer rather than just, do they enable web-forms?

To quote George Patton, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” That lesson applies to digital procurement as much as it does to any other walk of life. There would be nothing stopping those other mega suppliers and proposing their own solutions but it would also enable groups of other, smaller, more agile suppliers to team up and meet those organisational needs together, delivering tools which will link together through APIs, through data and through common standards. And in doing so, break the stranglehold that any single supplier would every have on that organisation again.

The council could much more easily enforce those open standards moving forwards, knowing that any single supplier that fell foul of those, they could be decoupled from the whole and replaced by someone who met them. Mega suppliers could meet some or many of the needs, particularly where stability and scale were beneficial, but they would be forced to play nicely with everyone else, and to open up the data that they had previously locked away.

Smaller suppliers could innovate to their hearts contents, building tools that added real value and which enhanced every other part of the system they are integrated with. In short, we would finally have that ecosystem we have so long hoped for.

How naïve, I can hear people saying at their screens right now. We don’t live in utopia, where suppliers work together and where data can easily be shared, it’s not that easy. Well, no, of course it’s not. It’s hard work and it will take time. But what are the alternatives? How else are we going to drive the changes we need? Are we just going to sit back and expect things to get better by themselves? Are we going to trust that a really small number of suppliers are just going to up their innovation levels of their own accord? They’ll start giving all their customers the same levels of service, start lowering costs and raising standards? If you do think that, I’d like to ask who is being naïve now. We need to go through that pain, put the work in and deal with those challenges now. We just can’t afford another five, ten or twenty years of this. We can’t continue to reinforce a situation where small and medium-sized businesses aren’t able to bring their expertise together and create a truly distributed, stable, symbiotic ecosystem because they are not individually able to offer all things to all people.

It’s probably worth me reinforcing here that I don’t see very large companies, mega suppliers, ever not being needed or not having a place in that ecosystem. Far from it, in fact. There are absolutely areas where scale is of huge value, where the ability to do multiple things can offer economies of scale, and where systems can be designed to work better together with each other because they are developed by the same people.

It’s natural that successful companies will grow and take up a larger share of their markets as they offer more and richer products. However, because we are currently not binding any company to truly open development from the start, we are not demanding interoperability and free movement of data between tools, systems and products outside of that supplier’s offering of products. Or allowing those who are and have been successful to pull the ladder up after themselves and stop innovations. I don’t know why organisations do it when it clearly leads to inferior products which are more expensive and less innovative. I don’t know why information is allowed to be locked away and not freely and securely used to improve the digital offerings for all service users. I don’t know why companies are so scared of encouraging competition.

Those companies who are truly confident that they deliver excellence and value have got nothing to fear from the introduction of a few wolves into the digital ecosystem. If their products are truly all they claim to be, their users will continue to use and love them. Competitors and frenemies alike will come and go, but they will continue to offer the bulk of the digital requirements they previously offered.

However, in reality, I would place good money on the fact that probably wouldn’t be the case. Like the elk herds in Yellowstone, sooner, rather than later, the weaker, older, sicker parts of the digital herd will be picked off. Smaller suppliers working to well-known, stable standards would be able to innovate effectively and efficiently and make improvements to processes. Which would not only secure them a place in that ecosystem but would also strengthen the places of others at the same time. So, everyone would win, not least the end users.

This isn’t a pipe dream. Made Tech’s own housing repairs product is the perfect example of a tool which is widely regarded by those who have looked at it as superior to those being used across local government at the moment. It’s defined, it’s discrete, and it aims to do one thing with extreme excellence. It’s built to integrate with every scheduling tool out there which uses modern standards and APIs. It’s build to GDS standards, it’s built on user needs and it’s cheap. It’s not alone. There are plenty of examples of other tools which individually work with excellence and which will continue to be evolved and focused on because those companies building them are focused on just doing that. Not trying to do hundreds of different things across hundreds of different road maps all at the same time.

Councils just need to start being more brave with procurement, and making those demands that will pay off in the long term. Because local government can’t afford not to. It can’t afford to keep paying huge contracts over extensive periods of time to a small number of suppliers, and just relying on their corporate good will to make sure they are going to give them the best possible tools and receive the best possible return on investment.

It’s not working. Companies have got no need to open up their data for others to easily use so they won’t. They won’t evolve, and things that don’t evolve wither over time.

I’ve mentioned data, and time is getting away from us, but data really is one of the most precious assets a council has. It’s the thing that can unlock more value than almost anything else available. A thing which is so often overlooked in terms of mandating requirements and importantly, enforcing those mandates.

It’s not uncommon at all for those standards which were agreed at procurement stage to then be delayed when it comes to implementation. Then ultimately forgotten about all together. But we can’t accept that, not if we are ever going to have any chance of creating the symbiotic ecosystem we have all agreed we should be aiming for. Data should just flow from one system to another seamlessly. It should be clearly structured in a way that is neutral and most importantly, out of the control of any single supplier. Every single supplier should understand those structures, and they will be able to build on that, whilst themselves adding depth to that data, whether at the top of that data cycle or the end of it. Companies and the tools they build should all remember; they are only mere custodians of data. The data itself belongs to the end users and the council to which they gave it.

To lock it away and prevent free and easy access is at best unethical when we all claim to be ethical in terms of our products and values. Of course, as soon as data is able to flow freely between systems, it stops being limited. There are so many different ways of managing data, combining it in different ways and using it to drive change and improvements.

Many people say data lakes are the future. Vast collections of data that can be dipped into and built upon in ways which unlock real insight. Hackney Council have been doing fabulous work in this area. They have combined previously siloed data sets and are using it to change lives.

A recent example of this really did change lives. They unlocked three specific data sets: vulnerable people, shielding and housing repairs. The thinking behind that was that vulnerable people who had been shielding may well be feeling alone and would benefit from some targeted outreach. They also understood that houses deteriorate over time. With each house having an expected level of repair, requests would be submitted over time for things that were broken or needed fixing. Hackney combined these three data sets and started calling out those individuals who were at the top of that list. One of the very first people they got through to be an elderly man who had been shielding through the pandemic. He did indeed have some housing repair needs, but he hadn’t been able to get through using the normal phone channels to get it logged.

As a result he had tried to fix it himself. In doing so, not only had he made the issue worse, but he had also injured himself. That had been some time previously. He felt lost, alone and abandoned by everyone around him. Within two weeks, his repair had been completely dealt with. He had been given appropriate medical care and support, and for the first time in a long time he felt cared for and not alone.

Just by freeing up a handful of data sets, the council had fundamentally changed and possibly saved his life.

Imagine what we could do if all data sets could be used in the same way.

Even better than a data lake, are data meshes. These centralised approaches to data architecture, it is where the most forward thinking eyes are looking. Like the shift from one mega supplier to one mega system which does everything to smaller micro systems which work in harmony, a data mesh ties together this distributed data sets, which remain in their domains, but supports the mindset of data as a service. It decentralises things and federates data ownership amongst those domain owners, who are each held accountable for providing their data as products. While also facilitating communication between that distributed data across all the different locations.

It is super important because it enables data to be better used for different purposes and at greater scale. Rather than one central platform doing all the transformational heavy lifting, each data set is designed to operate with all others whilst retaining its own provenance. It also means data teams can do more as they have got far more pipes of data to work with. Plus, it has the added benefit of being platform agnostic, so we don’t fall into the trap of having one single entity controlling it all.

Instead at the moment we are just faced with propriety tech with competing data schemes, with contracts that make it impossible to open them up, and where even if it is possible, it never comes for free. Mega suppliers have encouraged a one-ring-to-rule-them-all mentality when it comes to the tools that councils have at their disposal and the way data is held and made available for reuse. We need to throw that mindset into the bowels of Mount Doom where it belongs.

So what next? Where should we go? If you take away any calls to action from all of this, what should they be?

I’ll give you three things. Challenge every single supplier when they even hint of being a digital ecosystem. Whether they are large or small every single one of them needs to accept and agree that the symbiosis between them is vital if you, the client, are to thrive. It’s not enough for them to point to some stale APIs and an old case study of how they once integrated with one single other supplier back in the day. What are they doing right now, and in the coming six months? How are they going to enable and actively encourage other companies to work with them to make their combined offerings better.

Secondly, push back on each and every procurement exercise which involves a long list of features. Prioritise the outcomes required, and actively encourage organisations to work together to meet the whole thing, rather than requiring one platform to do everything. The value each part of that will bring will compound all the other parts and could well unlock huge and rapid improvements in a way that a single supplier simply never could.

Thirdly, talking of unlocking, unlock your data. Demand that all of your suppliers agree with free, no cost access to every data set they hold on your behalf. It’s your data, not theirs. If you want to move it around, you should have the right and the ability to do so. Challenge on the ecosystem, push back on lists for procurement and unlock the data.

Made Tech, we are not the only company out there that operates in this way. There are plenty of other companies that do incredible work and who are all aching to be part of a thriving, symbiotic ecosystem alongside us. Break the stranglehold that these mega suppliers have enjoyed for too long. Open up opportunities for us to come in and just pick off the weakest, oldest, sickest parts of that herd. Then you can sit back and watch the future happen. You can watch digital nature heal itself. You don’t even have to want to go salmon fishing to appreciate that fish will come back to the river.

Always happy to talk, details are on screen, and I’m happy to answer any questions that Robin might fly my way.
ROBIN KNOWLES: Brilliant, thanks Glen, as compelling as ever, is the summary, a great presentation. We’ve got about five minutes so let’s just crack on. The first question we’ve got is, “Isn’t the local digital declaration supposed to do all this?.”

GLEN OCSKA: Supposed to, yes. However – and I say this as someone who was around right at the start of it and loves the work that it has encouraged – far too many signatories are signatories in name only. It’s easy to sign the document, it’s very difficult to actually push through and live those values. Even if one part of a council is trying to push in that direction, sadly, those who are directing and driving procurement processes too often are forced to push for finance reasons and simplicity reasons back into the old ways of doing things.

If your council is a signatory, that should really be used to leverage these processes, to leverage the outcomes-focused side of things. The short, agile contracts, the ecosystem of suppliers. The organisation has already agreed to do this, so this gives you even more leverage to push back anyone trying to do things in a more traditional way. If you are not a signatory, sign up, get it done. It gives you that authority to do things in a way that most other things won’t. So yes, it should, I’d like to see it enacted rather than just being a nice certificate to hang on the wall.

ROBIN KNOWLES: Let’s talk about procurement then. Let’s just get this one out of the way really quickly. Do Made Tech take their own medicine?

GLEN OCSKA: We do indeed.

ROBIN KNOWLES: So, it’s not Glen just imagining the future. Made Tech do this themselves. You don’t lock in data in your contracts, you have clauses?

GLEN OCSKA: Absolutely not. We work right in the open and with Hackney Council in particular we’ve got an Open API Playbook, envelope and data playbook. I recommend everyone takes a look at those because they are freely available to look at, to learn from. There is a military mandate of you are in charge until someone more in charge comes along.

We’re never saying those things are perfect, but until someone shares something even better, actually they are fantastic resources to be able to say, this is how we do APIs, everything we procure must operate like this. You can’t change what comes before but you can definitely change everything that comes afterwards.

ROBIN KNOWLES: You talked about the barriers with procurement being the number one challenge. I hope you agree with this. There is a lack of knowledge of technology in the senior roles in local government, to the point where they delegate big strategic things because they don’t know that they are big strategic things, through the IT department. The IT department know that if it goes wrong they will get shot, and therefore the one supplier solution does preserve your job. We had the Chief Executive of Gloucester Council on our stage yesterday, as part of public sector insight week. He had a major cyber problem a year ago. As he said, this stuff sounds exciting and fun but being audited about what went wrong and why, and who sent what message to who is definitely not fun. So there is a definite fear factor here which begins with delegation out of really where the big strategic decisions should be understood and taken – we want our data for these reasons.

GLEN OCSKA: Agreed. It is a little scarier in the short term, but if you think about it in terms of a kit, if you’ve got one piece and it gets broken, the entire thing is broken. You’ve got a sculpture and it gets smashed. If that sculpture is made of Lego, and a small bit of it goes wrong, you take that out and put a replacement in. Quicker, easier, more discrete and defined to replace that one thing. The whole isn’t affected. Now, if you’ve got one big organism which is doing everything and that is penetrated, that’s it. The whole thing locks down. We’ve seen examples of cyber attacks which years later, are still being recovered from. If everything had been discretely done in smaller chunks and actually isolated from each other but designed to interoperate, actually, the ones that were penetrated would be protected from the rest of it.

Yes, you need to do things in such a way that they will be cyber secure but it is easier to isolate and fix those things that are going wrong if they are smaller and more defined. And to remove and replace them. You can do this on a constant basis. You don’t have to think oh my god, we have to test everything and if it is wrong it’s going to cost millions and take years to fix. If you’re testing constantly and something goes wrong, as long as it is built to agreed standards, get rid of it, get something else in. It’s easier to replace piecemeal and do the ship of Theseus approach to improvement rather than try to recreate the whole thing from scratch.

ROBIN KNOWLES: We’ve probably got time for one more question. You’ve talked about reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone. Some very smart people decided that 41 wolves was the right number of wolves to get that right. It’s clearly a process that needs to be managed, so is there a way that smaller suppliers can convince a Yellowstone that 41 wolves is the right place to start, and can they get together and do it?

GLEN OCSKA: Yes, they absolutely should. I’m not naïve enough to think that any of the big platforms and tools are going to be reprocured overnight in a way which allows small suppliers to get involved in them. But housing is a perfect space. A number of procurement exercises recently whereby they are trying to do absolutely everything. Now, releasing the same contract in a number of smaller opportunities allows it to be broken down in a way that one big supplier can still try and do everything, but allows smaller suppliers to break down and do those chunks. You may end up in the same place, if you think the big supplier is the one to be using but it does allow smaller suppliers to team up, to say we’re going to provide this element, our partners are going to provide this element, they are designed to work together and they are designed to work with the major supplier. You may end up with the same outcome but it will be a conscious choice rather than a default position. So, taking some of those medium sized procurement exercises and breaking them down into multiple silos isn’t going to cost you much more in terms of time and energy, but it’s going to make a huge difference in allowing the wolves to find those sick, weak and elderly members of the herd to pick off. We’re not able to invest those millions of years and pounds to get into that position, so give us a chance to find those niches as part of the main contract. Rather than relying on you to see something and invest something over and above on top.

ROBIN KNOWLES: Glen, thank you so much. It’s been a real tour de force. I will be recommending. We’ll be sending this out to everyone who registered, I think about 365 people registered for today’s talk. You are obviously becoming a famous deliverer of the case for a digital ecosystem that helps the public sector thrive. So, thank you so much, Glen, thank you to Made Tech and I will declare today’s webinar closed. Thank you so much.

GLEN OCSKA: Absolute pleasure.

The public sector is in a state of continuous need to update and improve legacy systems and ways of working. Local government is being urged to progress and digitise their systems for a more efficient, cost-effective and stable future.

When solutions are built to solve only one problem, legacy and data issues are more likely, creating silos, delays and more costs in the long run. A digital ecosystem, where things are built to be shared and work in the open, is the change we need, bridging the gap between what was done before and what can be done now.

In this talk, Made Tech’s Head of Local Government Glen Ocskó will explore how to build a digital ecosystem where everyone in the public sector can thrive – including users!

Key takeaways

  • What a digital ecosystem in the public sector looks like
  • Why we should design and build work that allows others to add value
  • How to make sure data is shared and accessible 


Wednesday, 15 March 2023


Glen Ocskó

Head of Local Government at Made Tech

Glen is an experienced thought leader, account director, engagement, communications and digital specialist with a long and influential career working alongside local government and the public sector.

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