Alpha: Getting the data we needed to build stuff

12 Jan 2016, 3:34 pm

Linda O'Halloranby Linda O’ Halloran, Head of Products at Local Digital Programme and Product Owner for Local Waste Service Standards Project

My last blog listed our key observations in setting up a standards project and building momentum during the ‘alpha’ or product development phase of our project. This second set of alpha phase reflections focuses on the difficulties of getting the technical documentation and business case data we needed to produce our alpha products.

1. Technical documentation was hard to come by

Partner councils were generally forthcoming with the technical information they had to hand, and a couple of ‘in-cab technology’ suppliers have been really engaged from the beginning. However, it took longer to get technical documentation from most suppliers until they started to see our momentum build. This meant that the alpha phase was much harder to pace, as we didn’t have the technical documentation we needed to hand from the beginning, and a lot of our time was spent asking people for it rather than on analysing and discussing it with partners to inform the standard. That said, for a project that only got going in May, we’ve had widespread support, and the private sector show ever-increasing enthusiasm to engage.

2. Nobody baselines, which made the business case hard to compile

We also spent more time asking around for business case information than on analysing the data and building the financial model. The information was hard to come by, because councils didn’t have it to hand. Almost no council we dealt with had calculated how much it cost them to resolve a missed bin report, or how much money was wasted across all parts of the service collecting bins that weren’t really missed.

There are 2 main reasons for this. Firstly, outsourcing contracts can disincentivise gathering these whole system insights by outsourcing responsibility for missed collections, bin replacement, and other parts of the service that can cost councils huge money. We don’t have the time or resource to address this issue in detail, but we will write some standard contract clauses that might help. The primary focus of this contract clause initiative, however, will be to ensure that future waste contract designers get a standards compliant service.

Secondly, local authority budgets are divided by service area, which often silos customer services spend, web and IT spend, and waste management spend, for example. While all our partnering councils did have call volume and web page data relevant to waste management, none had calculated the average cost of resolving missed bin reports across teams (e.g. when customer services have to call up waste services to find out whether a bin really was missed, then call a citizen back to resolve the issue or book a later collection). We hope our beta business case and the recommendations that Sarah will publish in the Spring will help councils to improve their business insights for this and other services.

3. If you’re going to disagree, show us the data!

In the end, we cobbled together data from any council we could get it from, in addition to data from some helpful suppliers and SOCITM reports. When we unveiled the alpha business case, councils, DCLG waste policy and others in the know contested the estimated savings on the basis that they exceed the annual spend on waste management. Fair point! Given that our data sample is small, it’s possible that our numbers might be too high.

However, upon further scrutiny, no one has contested the financial model we built to calculate the business benefits of implementing data standards. Moreover, most of the savings we’ve identified would not be made by the waste management team, they’d be made by customer services and those who manage the procurement process. We hope to improve the accuracy of our estimated savings and to release a ‘beta business case’ in early February 2016. After this is released, our business case lead, Sarah Prag, will publish a more detailed review of her business case findings, and recommendations for how the sector might use our financial model to understand the benefits of standards for other services.

Next steps

In the final ‘beta’ phase, we’ll try to implement these standards with some councils and suppliers, refine the business case, map out a plan for national adoption, and leave a ‘how we did it’ toolkit for future standards projects. If you have ideas about other outputs we could usefully produce by March, please get in touch.

You can also find all project resources, updates and upcoming events on our project page. Scroll to the bottom for resources, and find all events and registration links in our timeline in the right hand column.

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