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The power of re-use for digital services

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

We’re increasingly a purpose-driven generation, and one of the most obvious embodiments of this is a determination to reduce our ‘footprint’. It’s a trend we’re seeing in almost all walks of life - whether that’s in terms of carbon, fast fashion, or food waste. This mindset of ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, is starting to gain a foothold in the world of digital services too. While individuals might want to spend less time online or make fewer purchases on Amazon, more and more businesses and industry bodies are waking up to the power of reusing existing code and patterns when building a digital service offering.

Here at Caution Your Blast (CYB), for example, many of the UK Government services we design and build use one or more of the hosted service components provided by the Government Digital Service. These are shared and reused across the whole of government, which covers a considerable number of departments and people. By thinking more collaboratively, businesses can save time, money and effort. Sharing and encouraging reuse with other teams and departments can lead to benefits such as lowering the initial cost set up of digital services, and significant quality improvements in areas such as usability and security. In this regard, sharing really is caring.

Understanding and adoption on the rise

There are tens of thousands of publicly available open source software libraries for the development of a digital service and we regularly use over one thousand open source code libraries in building a typical digital service. The cost efficiencies of this reuse are extraordinary, and allows us to deliver at four to five times as fast as the alternatives. And this efficiency applies across the whole lifecycle of a digital service, not simply the capital expenditure associated with an initial build phase. Other benefits include the ease of collaboration, a larger pool of experts to help solve issues, avoiding duplication and unnecessary spending, speeding up projects, and in general much higher value for money.

Similarly, proactively publishing data so it can be reused, so long as it is published well and kept up to date, allows others to use the data to create insights, products and services. This approach to data, common to all forms of sharing, requires a leap of faith to see beyond the initial investment. But those that can see past this can create a foundation for innovation that is hard to compete with moving forward.

GDS is something of a beacon for any large organisation wondering about the value of adopting a culture of sharing and reuse through it’s well known Government as a Platform services. In the wider industry data is perhaps the most advanced and best-known success story for sharing and reuse with Open Data standards being well publicised, understood and increasingly adopted. So with all these benefits, why are some organisations and individuals still not adopting a policy of re-using and sharing data when building and delivering a digital service?

Blocking through controls of the wrong type

One of the primary reasons is control. Organisations with short-term thinking will rarely establish sharing and reuse initiatives. This is typically due to decision makers who are chasing short term career goals. This is happening both at an individual level with people chasing budget savings and career progression, and at a board level with an over-exposure to share price/returns demanded by aggressive investors that effectively control a weak board.

Another control issue is that individuals associated with the delivery of digital services often want to create something of their own, which can be attributed directly to them – put simply, they want the credit for a successful project. Creators are not often recognised or compensated for providing material that can be used throughout the business. This can also be coupled with a lack of trust in another’s work. If I’ve not had a hand in creating a framework for a project, why should I use it? Or simply that people feel they will be accused of ‘copying’. It’s something that needs to change.

And of course, suppliers want more work, not less.

Moving ahead with clarity

Although sharing comes with such obvious benefits, it actually requires effort to drive adoption. It means shifting culture entirely - from a traditionally inward looking approach to something that focuses on sharing and reuse. But by being aware of the barriers, businesses can address them and move ahead to build a culture of reuse in an organisation.

Reuse potential is valuable across design patterns, data, code libraries, products, and entire services. We have evolved a sharing and reuse matrix that captures the different types of things that can be reused and the different means we have of sharing them. These categories link to opportunities, benefits, risks, dependencies, and levels of investment.

The earlier mention of how the government is demonstrating this value can be illustrated by the case study example of the GOV.UK PAY component service which is now used by 270 other government services. Having employed this component many times, we can conservatively state that it saves around £50,000 in implementation costs (usually capital expenditure), and around £20,000 in annual maintenance costs (usually operational expenditure). This equates to an efficiency savings to date for the taxpayer of £13.5M saved in CAPEX, and an ongoing £5.4M in OPEX year on year. It also eliminates costs in software licencing, saves people time through easier reconciliation and refund processes, and offers lower transaction fees.

There is no longer any reason to question the value of sharing and reuse for digital services - in fact, it is something that should be happening in every department. It is imperative to get involved in your organisation and make it the default culture. It’s a shift that will benefit everyone involved in a self-perpetuating cycle of improvement for years to come.

Ben Stewart, CEO of digital practice, Caution Your Blast