Why some centralising of local gov digital is needed

An ongoing debate this. Ben Proctor has had his say recently, and it feels fairly sensible.

There are two issues at stake here – one is whether some kind of ‘GDS’ for local government is needed; second is whether we need a website for every council.

These two things are not necessarily bound to one another.

My view is that some centralising is vital for the sector, for two main reasons.

First, financial. It’s nuts that there are hundreds of broadly similar, publicly funded organisations out there paying again and again for broadly the same thing. There has to be savings to be made here with a bit of rationalisation.

Second, and most important for me, quality. The standard of digital services in local government is variable to say the least. Lots of people are doing brilliant work. Lots more people, it would appear, are being prevented from doing even competent work by some circumstance or other.

I think the first thing local government needs to do is to admit that there is a problem. The majority of services delivered within the sector do not provide an adequate level of quality user experience.

In other words, the current system isn’t working.

The problem, as many have pointed out, is that making this happen would be hard. Who has the mandate to get this done? How to get around political issues, particularly local pride, and so on? Big national IT projects? Arrrgggggh!

… and so on.

However, none of the arguments are strong enough to make this not worth trying. If we can save the sector millions of pounds a year, then putting a few noses out of joint will probably be worth it.

Key to success for me will be:

  • Ownership by local government. Lots of models have been discussed. I would look strongly at putting a mutual together, owned by the sector, where councils pool money by investing in the mutual. This should provide a mandate as well as scale to get things done
  • Focusing on achieving realistic things. Follow the GDS model of building prototypes and getting stuff out quickly. Don’t build the single local government domain as the first job.
  • Quality above all else. Everything that comes out of the mutual should be of the highest quality, firstly because it should be the minimum standard anyway but also to demonstrate to the sector what can be achieved
  • Share everything openly. Even those who choose not to be a part of the mutual should still be able to make use of its products and services.

I’m sure there are lots of holes in these – admittedly very sketchy – ideas. However, so much could be achieved so quickly if even just a handful of forward thinking local authorities got together and made this happen.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

9 thoughts on “Why some centralising of local gov digital is needed”

  1. Radical thought this – how about buying something that’s good enough, from someone or some organisation that has done it before, rather than reinventing from scratch all the time? The pain that is public sector procurement, plus other factors, mean that default option is to do from scratch. And then next option is to set up a multi-LG organisation to share doing it. All of which costs time and money which isn’t taken into account when considering buying it in instead. And I don’t just mean big organisations like the one that pays my salary, I suspect that there are many SMEs out there rolling their eyes and saying “just let me at it”.

    1. I don’t think i have excluded the possibility of buying stuff in my post. Prototypes can be built on existing platforms, where appropriate.

      However, councils have been buying digital services from providers large and small for some years now and for whatever reason (I’d imagine that there are many) they haven’t always met the required standard.

      If the procurement can be done well and can guarantee the required level of quality, then why not? I suspect that a mixed model, with some bits off the shelf and others developed bespoke will be the answer.

      1. I agree with the conclusion but not necessarily how you got there 🙂

        The If in your last para is a big If. I suppose I’m inviting for consideration an option that, rather than thinking of LG in its multiple forms as a *doing* entity we think of LG as a _commissioning_ entity, and consider how would you look to create a market for provision instead. It’s mildly ironic that arguably the most innovative part of the sector is clinging to a delivery model for itself which has been bypassed by many innovative councils. Is developing high quality user-centric web interactions a core competence of a modern council or is it more about obtaining a deep understanding of citizens and their needs to underpin commissioning?

        Different councils will answer that differently. And I’m asking the question not to lead it in a particular direction but because I think it should be considered.

      2. Jonathan your inputs to this important conversation are really helpful, but can I challenge you on:

        ‘Is developing high quality user-centric web interactions a core competence of a modern council or is it more about obtaining a deep understanding of citizens and their needs to underpin commissioning?’

        One of the lessons from Socitm research on the outsourcing of IT and digital is that when it comes to commissioning, ‘it takes one to know one’ ie procuring or commissioning successfully isn’t just about understanding citizens and their needs, its also about understanding the technologies that are relevant and how these are developing. That is a difficult core competence to maintain without a strategic understanding of IT/digital and at least some in-house activity and competence.

        This is also an issue when it comes to leadership of an LG digital service: it needs to be led by a body that understands the customer (LG in all its diversity) but also the IT/digital/technology landscape and how it is developing.

        I don’t even want to think about procurement competence and processes……….

      3. Dave’s right, councils have been procuring junk for years.

        It’s time to buy less stuff and start co-creating and sharing more, in-sourcing the skills and collaborating across the sector and with local communities to do this.

  2. Less radical thought (or is it), expanding on some recent tweetage …

    The most obvious feature of local government, right now, to someone who spends a lot of time seeing it in many different forms, is its spectacular diversity. This is for all the obvious reasons that have always been true like size, location, political stability/mix plus some that are far more important now like quality of leadership and capacity and capability of staff, but also (and this is becoming even more important) quite simply in terms of their financial position. Some councils are in a much worse state than others and the future financial pressures on councils are also very unevenly distributed. http://www.westmidlandsiep.gov.uk/download.php?did=3333 slides 6-13 (formatting went pop when it was pdfed sorry) shows the kind of thing that I mean. The way these multiple factors interact mean that understanding which authorities can meaningfully collaborate has got more complicated. Sharing the work is a great idea in principle but different pressures will pull partnerships apart.

  3. So if this what we should do and granted it is a starting point…the questions for are:

    Who actually kick starts this to get the ball rolling?

    What is the actual first step to get us even someway close to this…?

    When could this realistically happen?

    How much would it cost?

  4. Nice post, Dave. You really hit the nail on the head with the fact that both user experience quality and efficient use of public funds demand some form of bigger entity(s) that can build tools for re-use. But the politics of how to bring councils together – wow – that’s a toughie.

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