Driving adoption of the Open Referral UK data standard

Working with multiple stakeholders to develop a consistent way of using data
illustration of a network of icons representing different forms of data, with two people on either side, speech bubbles with ticks in them

Why we need a data standard for community services

There are hundreds of directories in the UK, sometimes as many as ten in a local area. They are all trying to gather and maintain similar information at the same time in isolation from each other – which leads to a lot of duplicated and wasted effort.

Also, different organisations hold and share their information in different ways, which means the directories can lack consistency and be difficult to maintain. This means residents can find it difficult to access the right information about the services available to them.

“The services out there can change peoples' lives. But if we don't have accurate and reliable information, then we're working with one hand tied behind our back. We have a limited chance of helping them.”

Key Worker | Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council

Making the case for a data standard

In 2019, we were commissioned to explore whether a common data standard could help solve some of the problems surrounding community service directories. The report found that a common standard for community services data could result in £7m in adult social care savings nationally per year, and savings of up to £73,096 per year from direct costs across a typical upper-tier* geographic area (upper tier means counties, London boroughs, Metropolitan districts and unitary authorities). 

We recommended that an existing data standard be selected for further development for this purpose, and outlined a vision for a coordinated ecosystem approach to drive its adoption.

Read the full discovery report

After important work by the Local Government Association and various local councils to develop and pilot a standard a UK Standard (based on the existing US based Standard), Adur & Worthing Councils commissioned us to take Open Referral UK beyond the ‘project’ stage by creating the environment and tools needed to support widespread adoption and long term sustainability.

Understanding the needs of early adopters

We learnt that digital leaders in councils often struggled to get buy-in from within their organisations. They  needed to get sign off from service commissioners or other council workers who may not be data-literate. We also learnt that many councils were aware of and interested in the standard, but not yet convinced that it was mature enough and would outlast the pilot project phase. 

Based on this, we developed three main areas of focus for the project:

  • a compelling online presence and digital tools to convey the benefits of the standard, showcase the prior work and community, and support users in the process of adopting it.
  • an ongoing programme of communications and engagement to drive momentum for Open Referral UK across local authorities, national public bodies, software suppliers and the charitable sector
  • a lightweight sustainable governance structure to increase trust and support in the long term future and maintenance of the standard

Running a large cross-disciplinary project with multiple stakeholders

Adur & Worthing was the lead council on this project – with Leeds and Essex supporting. We also worked closely with The Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government, the Local Government Association, iStandUK and CAST. 

In order to coordinate a large number of project stakeholders and project members, we set up a communication channel within Slack so everyone could share ideas and progress at all times, ran fortnightly Show and Tells and ran retros after every sprint to review progress, check the approach was working and adjust accordingly.

  Having a multidisciplinary team collaborating with the people who would be using the product streamlined the process as everyone was involved at all stages of the project. 

Iterative design and testing of a new Open Referral UK website

During alpha, Porism had built the first version of the Open Referral UK website, which focused on providing technical guidance for software developers.

The interviews in the first phase of our project allowed us to define a new set of user needs and for the standard’s online presence. These were more focused on a non-technical audience, who would be the decision makers in adopting the standard. 

For this group, our goals were to explain what the data standard was, how it could benefit their organisation, and guide them through the adoption process step-by-step. We came up with a first proposal of the information architecture and used tree testing to validate that the structure allowed different users to find the information they needed. 

Prototyping a communications strategy using Show & Tells 

We knew from the beginning that developing an online presence for the data standard would be useless without also driving awareness and bringing people to the website. 

We began conducting communications activities early on in our project which allowed us to engage with more people who could give us feedback on our work, and acted as a way of  prototyping a communications strategy.

  These activities included: 

  • blogging about the project via MHCLG’s Local Digital channels
  • creating an Open Referral UK mailing list and sending out newsletters
  • running Show & Tell sessions
  • developing and maintaining an online community forum 

We learned there was a high demand for community engagement and discussion about the data standard. Show and Tells were well attended by different members of our target audience – from local authorities and their healthcare partners, to software suppliers and national entities like the Government Digital Service and the NHS.

Involving stakeholders in the long-term future of the standard

One major insight from our early interviews was that people still didn’t feel that Open Referral UK was a mature standard that would exist beyond project-based funding. This made councils and software suppliers understandably hesitant to adopt a standard which might not be maintained in the future. 

So we applied our usual design process to the question of governance. The Open Data Institute provides a lot of useful guidance on their website for different governance structures and options, which we leveraged to design and facilitate a workshop with key stakeholders to understand the needs of a governance structure for Open Referral UK.

Investing in ongoing support and community engagement

One unique aspect about this project was that we added an additional ‘custodianship’ period where we provided ongoing support and maintenance. We recognised that driving adoption of the data standard is a long term effort, and that delivering a website and communications strategy is just the first step. 

This period focused on:

  • providing 1:1 support to early adopters of the standard and moderating the online forum
  • maintaining outward communications such as the Open Referral UK newsletter
  • facilitating more conversations and roundtables about standard governance
  • defining what else is needed to ensure the standard is sustainable and widely adopted 

This ensured that momentum wasn’t lost, and that important things like adoption support and community conversations continued until the project could secure more funding.

Government approval and widespread adoption 

The UK Government Data Standards Authority Steering Board has now endorsed Open Referral UK (ORUK), so it should continue to be adopted widely by all who share open information on services in the public sector and community organisations. 

This is exactly what all of the many people involved in the project have been working to achieve. Widespread adoption of the standard will lead to less duplication of effort and greater re-use of data so that services are easier to find and data quality improves through greater exposure and feedback.

What this means in real terms for the people who use local services is that they’ll be able to find what they need more quickly and get access to the things they need more easily.

Open Referral UK website 


a screengrab of the website's information about Open Referral UK