Running a Rapid Multi-Local Authority Discovery

How do you balance user needs with organisational needs, strategy and constraints? How do you collaborate successfully across local authorities? How do you start to embed digital transformation?

These are just a few of the things we have been exploring through our Adult Social Care Digital Transformation project so far.

The Centre for Digital Public Services Wales has partnered with Social Finance to work with three local authorities, Blaenau Gwent, Neath Port Talbot and Torfaen. The project aims to identify a shared problem within Adults Social Care and explore how digital transformation can support services through a common solution. The work utilises ‘agile’ ways of working, starting with a rapid discovery phase.

With the discovery drawing to an end, we’d like to share what a discovery project is, why we have chosen to run one, and what we have learnt from the process.

What is a discovery?

A discovery is the first phase of agile delivery. Whilst agile methods have traditionally been used in software development, they are now more commonly being adopted elsewhere as they are recognised for helping to deliver projects in complex and changing systems.

A discovery is an intensive exploration process, which looks to fully understand a problem for users. It involves (i) researching the landscape, in this case local authorities and their Adults Social Care Systems, and (ii) speaking to individuals, in this case Adult Social Care staff and the residents they support. It aims to answer questions such as:

· what are the challenges, opportunities and capabilities within the current context?

· what are users’ needs, wants and hopes? and;

· what are the potential constraints one might face when making changes to how the service is run?

Why have we chosen to run one?

Agile projects start with the problem and not the solution. We’ve chosen to follow this method because it’s difficult to develop an effective solution without fully understanding the problem. A discovery supports this because it is all about understanding the bigger picture. This includes knowledge of what services/products are already in place, what users need, and assumptions about what can be improved.

We’ve chosen to run the discovery rapidly to enable us to address immediate issues and demonstrate value more quickly. This is particularly important given the context of C-19 and the need to quickly identify opportunities to support local authorities in their response.

What have we learnt so far?

· Agile ways of working builds upon what already exists within local authority teams. This includes a wealth of internal knowledge on service contexts and approaches to service improvement; willingness from teams to bring previous experiences to new ways of working; and a shared recognition of the importance of capturing users’ voices, particularly in the context of service design.

Nonetheless, agile may be a new way of working for many local authorities and works best with collective input and iteration from all partners to align on ways of working that best fit the project context. During the discovery phase of our project, this included focusing on the purpose of agile approaches rather than getting caught up with specific terminology that might be unfamiliar to local authority teams. It also included adapting agile methods to suit a multi-local authority context e.g. carrying out ‘stand ups’ via Teams chat rather than in person or over video conference to allow for availabilities across a larger team. This flexibility to adapt helps to ensure these ways of working are embedded in the longer term.

· Collaboration on a multi-local authority level can be useful in two respects: teaming up on some areas of work and ‘dividing and conquering’ on other areas of work. Alongside the benefits for the discovery work itself, this can streamline project processes through sharing learning and developing common approaches, for example when developing data sharing agreements during project setup.

What can often be a lengthy process was accelerated by local authorities each assembling their teams, and identifying existing frameworks to work from, such as WASPI, the Wales Accord for the Sharing of Personal Information. Our reflection exercise highlighted opportunities to further streamline the process for future projects, for example by developing a shared template at the outset and exploring a model of collective assurance that enables local authorities to leverage each other’s work.

· Alongside the benefits of multi-local authority partnerships as an effective way to pool resources and tackle issues collectively, we’ve found there’s a balance between identifying common themes and ensuring that a solution can be embedded within the specific context, constraints and opportunities for individual local authorities.

Through the discovery, we’ve identified a number of common themes amongst the three local authorities, as while the specific structures of Adult Social Care may differ, many of the pain points are the same. However, aligning on a shared focus needs to factor in local authorities’ current strategy and any previous or ongoing transformation work, which may point towards different priorities or approaches. To support this process, it can be helpful to embed the identification of a common focus as part of the process of establishing partnerships, ensuring partners come together around a focus that fits with their current priorities and existing transformation work to date.

· Equally, our discovery work has surfaced differences in existing technology and systems that provides important context for the next phase of design, to ensure that any solution can be embedded across these different contexts. We’ll be continuing to explore and share approaches to this as we progress to the next phases of the project, for example exploring design ‘patterns’ as an approach to balance common core functionality with a flexible approach to the detailed implementation in each area.

As we come to the end of this discovery, we’ll be blogging more learning around our shared experiences of using agile ways of working and you can find out more about the experiences of the project leads from the local authorities here.

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