#UKHousing As A Platform

A few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the need for Housing Associations to take destiny into their own hands and develop a digital platform for themselves. Something that wasn’t driven by profit, but was driven by purpose.

There are only a few commercial players offering housing systems and the closed, proprietary nature of their products ham-strings us from being truly responsive to our increasingly changing environment. Even where there is a strong appetite to innovate, because we don’t have direct control to modify our systems, we are often at the mercy of paid consultancy to get things done. And it’s really hard to experiment when you have to attach a price tag up front!

The more I thought about WordPress in the context of Housing Association software, the more I realised I was actually thinking about a framework or platform. So, what’s the big deal with ‘open’ platforms?

“If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small…”
– Tim O’Reilly

This approach is being used by the Government Digital Service to transform systems from the inside. Historically, government departments spent a great deal of time and money building bespoke closed systems which couldn’t talk to other parts of government. In many instances they were duplicating effort re-designing the same services over and over, but completely unaware as everyone worked in their own silos. Worst still, digital services were often designed with government processes in mind, not the people who use them. This often resulted in poorly designed user experience and outright incomprehensible content.

In this blog post in 2012, Mike Bracken set out his vision of GOV.UK – A Platform for Digital Government. This passage resonated with me in particular…

GOV.UK has been designed with transparency, participation and simplicity at its core. It will always be based on open standards, and is unapologetically open source. This architecture ensures its integration into the growing ecosystem of the Internet. Inevitably, innovation will follow, driven from within and without. GOV.UK is not Government on the Internet, but of the Internet.
– Mike Bracken

By working in small agile teams, the Government Digital Service have been able to build initially small but functional prototypes for services and then iterate quickly. Every iteration is an opportunity to ask “How can we make this better for users?”. Users are the essential component for everything they do. They are number 1 on the GDS design principles document. User needs – not government needs.

Let’s ponder on that for a moment. Are our systems designed for Housing Association needs or for User needs?

We are organisations that are all about doing social good, therefore we have a duty to make sure our systems are open and accessible for anyone who needs to work with us to improve the lives of our customers. For example, we could potentially form much stronger links with local health authorities and councils if they were able to interface with our systems seamlessly, and vice versa.

An open platform would allow us to develop services WITH our customers rather than FOR them. To design digital services which empower people rather than chuck arbitrary roadblocks in the way because system A doesn’t communicate well with system B.

An open platform would allow us to develop together rather than in isolation. It would stop us re-inventing the wheel over and over again. It would enable us to transparently share success and failure, thus rapidly improving the product for everyone.

I was about to launch into a lengthy diatribe of how this might work in practice, but it turns out a rather clever bloke by the name of Richard Sage (@BakedIdea) had done some sterling work around this very topic last year. You can read his excellent blog posts on the subject here, here and here.

The question of how we get to this brave new world is a difficult one. The Government did it by creating a department with a positive culture for change and a remit for putting users first, eliminating duplication and injecting transparency into everything they do. On the face of it, the task seems monumental and unlikely to work but their track record has been admirable so far.

I would dearly love to see something similar in our sector. We’ve all been toiling in isolation for a while now and many are still bumping up against the same old roadblocks of mobilising the workforce, creating digital services for customers, leveraging data for business intelligence etc. etc. Is it time for a different approach?

It would be great to see a grander strategic vision on how we can improve not just individual organisations, but how we could potentially improve the sector as a whole by pooling our resources and building something of our own. An open platform that serves our communities first and foremost, because if we’re not here for that.. what are we here for?