Adur and Worthing Councils are two district councils near Brighton which have had a shared officer structure since 2008. Over the past few years, we have begun to use our own low-code platform to develop our own systems. This approach has been recognised as being innovative; we won a SOCITM award for innovation in 2015 and a Digital Tech Leaders award in 2017.
Like most providers of social housing, we want to be more efficient, agile and joined-up across our operations. We want financially-sustainable IT systems that genuinely enable our tenants and officers to get on with the things they need to with the minimum of fuss.
Our approach is to do this using a low-code platform comprising MatsSoft and SalesForce, with tight data integration between the two and links to other systems through open APIs. But what is a low-code platform, and why have we chosen it?
Low-code and the alternatives
To be able to appeal to housing providers across the sector, large and small, with widely varying ways of working, off-the-shelf products sometimes need to be all things to all people. Furthermore, many off-the-shelf products were developed several years ago and have evolved into complex products which, compared to newer software, can be relatively rigid and inefficient. And if bespoke development is needed, this can be costly and time-consuming. In this scenario, organisations are reliant on the software provider to be innovative and this can hamper progress.
Off-the-shelf software is often standalone and without open APIs, it can result in data silos. For example, we estimate that Adur & Worthing councils have around 400 such data silos, which clearly doesn’t fit in with our aim to have joined-up systems and approaches.
We looked at developing with open-source software. One attraction of open source is the ability to share it between organisations and to be able to both provide and receive shared applications. However when we looked in more detail, we found that this was too expensive to be sustainable, regardless of whether we developed in-house or bought in external development expertise.
So what is low-code? Well, it’s a platform for application development that allows people (not necessarily with an IT development background) to use visual drag-and-drop tools to develop applications; the use of actual written code is kept to a minimum. And capabilities are designed to be re-used, so we are not coding everything from scratch but reusing existing blocks of functionality.
With re-usable capabilities already built into the platform, it is quicker for developers to learn and it is faster to develop applications. We estimate that an enterprise-quality solution can be built in four to six months, although the larger scale repairs system we built took our developer around a year to build. Building our own applications with our low-code platform gives us the ability to follow through on the ideas that our staff and customers generate.
Low-code case study: repairs
Back in January 2017, we were challenged to discover what a good value-for-money repairs service looked like. We carried out customer research, journey mapping, data mapping, technology discovery and horizon scanning and then we looked at how this would all fit within our leadership vision.
We wanted tenants to shape the future service so we interviewed around 30 people involved with our repairs service, including tenants, customer-service agents, operatives, external contractors and administrators. Their feedback told us that we were doing some things well but the customer and user experience fell short in some areas, such as from setting initial expectations of the repair right the way through to completion, where a significant number of tenants felt that they were not being listened to and thought that providing feedback was a pointless exercise.
From these insights, we developed some service-design principles (which we think are actually global principles for us around service design): listening to customers; getting things right first-time; enabling smooth and transparent customer journeys; being proactive in communications; enabling tenants and staff; and having well-defined service standards.
Of course, getting to the desired new service doesn’t just involve the provision of shiny new IT systems; first and foremost, this process involves people. For us, technology was just one workstream – we also had a workstream for our service-level agreements with our tenants and staff, and having more integrated ways of working. We also had a workstream for engagement, which included setting up a new user group and providing better external communications.
Our technology workstream consisted of building an end-to-end repairs system. This included a new repairs portal, a new scheduling app (including allowing repairs to be rescheduled when necessary) and a new mobile workforce app for our operatives. Good design has been crucial to providing software that meets users’ needs. In key areas, we used professional UX designers alongside a prototype-and-test approach to ensure that the quality was up to the right standard. Our tenants tested our wireframe prototypes before we developed our applications and this feedback went into improving the screen designs.
We hope our use of low-code will lead to clear and consistent standards, a better service experience, and the ability to act on insights with better decision-making and more efficient operations.
Our new projects in the pipeline include building our own asset management system (starting with compliance), improving estates inspections, void repairs and improving the design for our back-office users (who didn’t get the benefit of professional UX design during our first iteration).
While it is tempting to try to achieve everything at once, this is an iterative process. We don’t need to achieve everything at once; instead we can do things in bite-sized chunks. With our low-code platform, we can be genuinely flexible, experiment and learn. In short, we think this gives us the ability to innovate into the long-term.
Paul Turner is the systems and performance manager at Adur & Worthing Councils.