A GDS for local government?

SimonDigital20 Comments

Richard Copley has written a well considered and detailed blog post about what a Government Digital Service for local government might look like and why the sector should have one.

This is a debate that’s bubbled up a few times in recent times, with Carl Haggerty’s local government digital group emerging to try to push for greater co-ordination and sharing among those working in digital in local government. More details here.

Richard does a good job of highlighting the indisputable benefits of a more joined-up approach – including the potential savings from the removal of duplication in systems operated across hundreds of councils and the benefits to users from a more consistently user-focussed experience on council websites.

The latter is something that is still not properly embedded in the sector. We should recognise things are moving in the right direction, but the local government digital estate is still too dominated by councils doing things their way rather than building around their users.

Internal silos showing up in site architecture, use of jargon, wrangles over ownership and customer journeys dictated by the way obscure back office systems work are still all too common and obvious in many council websites.

The latest generation of council websites recognise the importance of a focus on user goal completion, but often when you look deeper you can see that while there’s a veneer of user centricity on the surface, underneath you’ll still find the clunky processes that are hard wired into old systems that sit within the organisation.

Richard’s vision for a local government digital service rightly challenges the assumption that every council needs its own website.

This is great stuff – it recognises that for the majority (but not all) of tasks that a user seeks to accomplish with their council digitally, there’s not a lot of difference across different councils. So why haven’t we invented a different way to do it for each council?

He then sets out a detailed approach to how the back office integrations for multiple councils would need to work with a single digital front end – which all sounds sensible in theory to me (although in all honesty that’s not my area of particular expertise).

But where I think I have the greatest concerns with the approach is not in its indisputable appeal in principle, but in the context into which it would need to be deployed.

The work of the government digital service has been a success for many reasons – not least because it’s a very sound concept – but one that we mustn’t forget is that it comes with a consistent and long-term political mandate for change from the top within the civil service, with an influential minister backing it.

That’s not to underplay the difficulties they still face in delivering change across many central government departments, but the mandate and consensus around need for change is well established in the machinery of central government.

What I struggle with when applying Richard’s thinking to local government is that I can’t see where an equivalent mandate for such radical change would come from.

The distributed nature of the sector means there’s no single source of such a mandate that could give the backing to a new sector-wide digital approach.

Anyone that’s delivered partnership working or shared services in local government will be familiar with the challenges that delivering change across multiple councils can bring.

So while I think the idea of a local government digital service is a great one in principle and the theoretical benefits are hard to argue with, I think it’ll remain just an idea for the foreseeable future.

I guess that’s why when you look at the current work being led by Carl and others, it’s quite organic and “from the ground up” in its approach – as without a central mandate for a direction of change, it’s only through consensus and the voluntary participation of engaged enthusiasts that digital progression will happen in a cross-sector way.

And sadly that means the scope will always be limited – and the major benefits for the sector and residents that Richard sets out will remain substantially out of reach.

I know this does come across a bit defeatist – which isn’t my normal take on all things digital – but I think it’s important to recognise that the nature of change means that the challenge here is one of transformational change rather than simply improving a digital service.

That said, I was talking this through with a fellow team member today who had a slightly different take – that while there may not be a central mandate for change, if the ground-up stuff is compellingly good, then it will drive adoption among councils the quality will be so high that it will be an easy choice for councils to make individually – with no compulsion or coercion required.

An offer so good councils want to use it. Sounds familiar?

20 Comments on “A GDS for local government?”

  1. David Phillips

    Simon, I have to agree but need to add a comment if I may.

    The nature of change brought about by the application of internet technologies in local government over the last ten years has been significant. As you say, there is a long way to go and there is a big gap between the most proficient and the least engaged.

    What is much more important is the need to recognise that the rate and nature of development and consequential change affecting local government now is dimensions greater and faster.

    The most significant area of development is in radical transparency. Using quite simple monitoring tools, and some simple arithmetic it is possible to identify who is employed by local councils. There is no way a council can prevent this. It is probably in the interests of councils to encourage it and in both events there is a need to protect employees now that they work in a an era of radical transparency. Because anyone can now see who is employed, what skills they deploy, where they find information and what is affecting them on a day to day basis (and that is only LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook – there are other social media that adds to this list), It becomes important to be sure that the right people are employed, with relevant and recognised skills and that they live up to the expectations of local government constituents.

    Just to get some idea of the extent of this form of transparency, readers will be be interested to know that that over 80% of bank of England employees have a LinkedIn profile and 30% of HSBC staff are evident on Twitter. Big Data internet management is already here and can find such things out.

    Today, we see the extent to which a major retailer has been wrong footed by lack of commitment to the changes wrought by the internet. Morrisons has a problem. So too will local authorities that stay their hand.

    In many ways this means turning a lot of services on their head.

    Most services will depend on mobile management and delivery in a few months time (the days of people using a PC are numbered). This means that almost every transaction can be by location (mobiles are good at that).

    This is a changed mindset for local government.

    The ‘Town Hall’ has migrated to the handsets of the population.

    From monitoring of social service delivery to knowing where a phone call comes from, this ability to both identify and analyse the location of interventions is but one example of how things will change.

    The ‘My Council App’ will have to be very useful even for people who do not use services very much. It may well tell me the traffic speed on the main road in real time as well as the rate of education spend by day. The contract carers who looked after my mother-in-law last year used their phones a lot but the local authority had no visibility of day to day service using them. It would have provided very helpful management data in real time.

    Does this mean there will be a massive Town Hall administration for all this online stuff. Well, I teach students in Portugal from my ‘office at the end of the garden’. The same can be true for much local authority management too.

    But all of this requires a real and near human presence. Social media can fill some of the gap but it has to be significantly more friendly that it is today.

    The idea that digital democracy is about creating a digital pathway to the council or councillors is narrow. The reality is that it is already happening using SMS, email and mobile technologies. Making it more user friendly has some merit. Can I talk to my councillor in a virtual environment? It is a matter of degree. SMS is the worst option.

    There are some areas where apparently radical ideas can come to the fore. In areas like planning, ‘open by design’ drive through and games consoles are going to be an obvious development. I guess that it won’t be a local authority that will do this but a kid in a bedroom. Loss of control and ‘editorial integrity’ are real issues that will face administrations over the next two years because so many citizens will fill the digital gap left by slow thinking ‘Morrisons’ like councillors. But the council that allows me to see the LG area virtually on a Tablet or a Games Console will connect with constituents more powerfully that for forty years.

    The debate over how much bandwidth the communities need is a false one. How much can we do without it is a better question but the real question about de-regulation and anti trust activity is probably more important. To lay or maintain a cable in a street may well have a new (service instead of money) tax applied (the provision of high bandwith to the domestic doorstep is an example). Of course some vendors will squeal but others will see the opportunities.

    At present we see local authorities responding to the technologies of the, now decade old, Facebook generation. The G+ generation wants much more and carelessly will abandon local government online as easily it did MySpace four years ago.

    David Phillips

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