Local Digital product: Local Waste Service Standards – Alpha showcase

5 Nov 2015, 2:30 pm

The Local Waste Service Standards project, led by the Local Digital campaign, is the result of a collaboration between the Department for Communities and Local Government and five councils. Last month, more than 50 people from across the country gathered in London to hear about the project so far and offer input in to the next steps. 

In the spirit of ‘design once, re-use many times’ Local Digital has been working on a project to develop a set of technology data standards for commonly-used local waste collection services that could be used by any council in the country.

The project has seen the development of three Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), so that residents could request a range of waste collection services digitally, like ordering a recycling container or submitting a query about a missed bin collection.

The aim is to reduce pressure on councils by minimising the volume of phone calls to councils, preventing duplication, cutting costs and improving efficiency by cutting out manual tasks and joining systems up.

Local Digital recently held its first Alpha showcase event for the Local Waste Service Standards project, to share the work completed, and gather ideas and feedback to inform plans for the next (‘Beta’) stage of the project. The day included workshops; a project update; case studies from Surrey Waste Partnership (watch video) and Luton Borough Council (watch video); gathering opinions and ideas; and networking.

Project Service Design Consultant Sarah Prag detailed the savings and where precisely they could come from including building the ‘front end’ on to the project tools and integration with council systems such as payment systems (see her presentation).

The predicted savings are compelling. Initial estimates by the project team suggest annual savings of up to £400,000 for councils by moving customer contact online, and up to £300,000 each time they renew waste service contracts with suppliers (read the business case).

Watch a video of Prag below, speaking at the Alpha showcase event about the costs, the savings, and how the project team has worked these out.

Alpha… beta… what?

The project has used the Government Digital Service (GDS) method for sector-led collaboration which follows the principles of ‘build quickly and demonstrate if it works’ type thinking according to the format:

  • an initial discovery phase (sketching out how to achieve the project aims with local authorities and suppliers over five ‘discovery days’)
  • an Alpha stage (in which the team designs and publishes initial versions of the data model; publishing standard and API specification, read about the lessons learned)
  • a Beta stage (in which at least one local authority implements the APIs and related features).

As well as hearing from the project team, attendees shared their feedback and ideas on developments so far: essential input for the Local Digital project team as the project now moves to Beta phase.

Pioneering spirit

In her welcome presentation, the project’s Product Owner Linda O’Halloran welcomed attendees against a image backdrop of a Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole. In the audience were pioneers of the local government kind, from mostly local government organisations willing to share ideas, contribute and participate. But it has not always been so.

“Ten years ago I was sat in this room with an open standards open source group, central Government and big national technology players, but no-one from local government”, Gavin Beckett, Bristol City Council’s Chief Enterprise Architect told the audience during a panel debate session.

“It excites me that you’re all here today; a massive audience compared to before interested in standards and how they are going to help us”, Beckett said.

But his enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by an awareness that not all councils share the same spirit of invention. While his own council, Bristol City, offers “good leadership” he described it as frustrating how few other organisations have the same leadership that allows teams the permission and space to innovate in similar ways.

Other panellists were asked about what they had learned from the showcase and the project more broadly.

Dylan Roberts, CIO of Leeds City Council and Local CIO Council member said that the project is well placed to progress the data standards agenda, particularly among senior Government leaders. “It gives a common understanding to Chief Executives how the application of standards could drive savings and benefits”. He encouraged participants and the councils present to get behind the project and help it to become “the first of many”, he said.

“If we put a lot of effort behind this and make it a success – frankly, even members and politicians understand waste – I think that it could be a great start. Ultimately it could be an exemplar to use as evidence then progress to a wider application of standards”.

Roberts said that eventually it would be great to reach a position where councils used not only an open standard in terms of data models, but also in terms of technical architecture.

If Roberts had one complaint, it was that there should be more resources available to develop the project’s data standards. “It would be great if it could be worked up in shared components, so it’s almost like a toolkit to implement in other local authorities”.

Fellow panellist Paul Davidson, CIO of Sedgemoor District Council gave the audience food for thought. “To scale up from the waste API, we need about 500 APIs for all the services we’re trying to ‘digify’ across local government. How do we use lessons from this project and solve other problems in the same way and re-use the same tooling that seems to be about common data models and API protocols?”

Davidson, who is also Director of Standards for the Local e-Government Standards Body, said that during implementation of the waste standards, it would be important to imbue confidence that the standards are “well managed and you can believe in them”. Success will be partly measured on building their business case “into a bigger business case that you could use in other scenarios”, he said.

The only panellist from the private sector, Tim Hobbs from Bartec Audio ID – a vehicle diagnostic and repair specialist – said that based on anecdote, he believes that some suppliers simply think that working with local authorities simply looks too difficult – all the “hearts and minds stuff” as well as “layers of procurement” can be off putting. That is why communicating the benefits of data standards to the public sector will be vital, he said, particularly to those outside of IT, data or standards circles.

Watch the panel discussion from the event below. 

What you can do

The project team is now looking for at least two local authorities to implement the API and one local authority partner to integrate in-vehicle technology using the project tools.

The business case Beta project will run until next month.

If you have feedback, you would like to get involved with the project or you want to take part in the Beta testing, then we want to hear from you. Please email the project’s Delivery Manager Henry Mathes.