Some rough notes on local gov and digital

There was a debate raging late last week about the needs of digital in local government (again). I wrote up some thoughts to share with everyone – I was feeling somewhat limited by the 140 character confines of Twitter – and I may as well post them here too.

The GDS has set out, in the service manual, a pretty good template for how an organisation should go about ‘transforming’ services to make the most of the internet.

It covers taking a user-centered approach; delivering using agile, iterative methods; the importance of good design; and the need for measurement and continuous improvement.

This could easily be taken and given a quick edit to make it work within the local government context. Local government would benefit from having a consistent, shared set of processes to use get this stuff done.

Different councils will use these processes and get different results depending on their context. However, the shared process means they can share experience, staff and other stuff with one another and all be talking the same language.

What local government really lacks across the board is the capability to deliver this change. The service manual talks of what is needed in the multi-disciplinary team. The vast majority of councils do not know what these roles even mean, let alone have people able to fill them.

This is not to be critical of councils or the people working in them. GDS had to go on a massive recruitment drive to bring this talent into central government. Local government needs to find a way to do the same.

However, many councils are too small to justify having full time permanent employees doing these roles. They cannot afford them. Also, even if they could, they would find it incredibly hard to recruit anyone of the required standard. There just aren’t enough to go around.

So, a shared capability pool is something that ought to be looked into. Something made a lot easier by having a shared process, mentioned above. Councils could pool together locally and create a shared digital service. Counties could provide a service to local districts. Private sector suppliers could have consultants available for hire that cover all the necessary roles as and when they are needed.

The other thing GDS has done is built technology platforms and services. The big one is the single domain project, with the publishing platform. This is not the place for local government to start.

With lots of councils using the same process at a similar time, with shared people delivering it, it will soon emerge that lots of councils will be working on transforming the same services at the same time. This should lead to conversations about collaborating on developing digital services – those building blocks that all public services rely on, like booking, paying, registering, emailing, web-hosting, data storing, consulting, etc etc.

So, by creating a shared set of processes, working out how to develop the needed capability to deliver, and then emerging collaborations on technology, a local ‘digital service’ starts to form. Only, it’s not one organisation, it’s not a central gov imposed thing, nor a big fat IT outsourcing contract.

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Dave Briggs

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

4 thoughts on “Some rough notes on local gov and digital”

  1. I agree, Dave. I mooted a similar approach in the charity sector (to NESTA and others)… but a combination of factors arguably make this a non-starter. These include the ‘not invented here’ mentality, lack of sector leadership in this area, and the lack of a GDS-style ‘mandate’. Within the large charities, the competitive muscle out-flexes the collaborative one. It pained me greatly to see large charities investing £100k’s in their own eCRM/single-sign on projects, where surely all could have thrown money into a pot to develop a core system on top of which they could build their own thing. Naive of me, perhaps, but a scandalous waste of donors’ money, actually… and one of the reasons I stepped back from an exclusive involvement with the sector.

  2. Yes, I saw your discussions on Twitter on Friday and wondered, ‘Why are you all fiddling around trying to discuss this on 140 characters on Twitter?’ It’s a really good idea to put your thoughts down here. There are lots of coulds and needs here – when do they become ‘dos’? Is anyone in a position yet to JFDI?

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