A few weeks ago I attended the first event of what will hopefully become a thriving community of local councils using open source web platforms (Open Councils — Drupal Public Sector Exchange). This was a group of public minded web folk who are passionate about using open source software to deliver better, cheaper local digital services, and it was great to have the opportunity to talk about the work we’re doing at Lambeth to build our new website www.lambeth.coop (which is based on the Drupal open CMS). You can read much more about that here: www.madeinlambeth.co.uk.
So, how can we best take advantage of collective resources to meet local needs?
I’m cautious about the concept of creating an equivalent of GOV.UK for local government (although I am a huge fan of GOV.UK). Undoubtedly local councils share lots of areas of our work in common, where we operate in the context of national and even European frameworks. But I think that a ‘one site to rule them all’ approach will struggle to reflect the different challenges of urban and rural areas, and the different priorities that have been set by local communities and their elected representatives.
I think that the most promising prospect for shared success lies in learning from the approach behind thriving open source communities such as Drupal and WordPress. These have been used to create myriad web experiences of huge variety, but with a common code base and a vast array of plugins where developers have packaged their code to be used by others. This open economy of shared work has transformed the tasks of making information and services available online for individuals and organisations (even large organisations who have historically invested in expensive proprietary code), and I think we can build on this to create equivalent shared value for local digital services.
Some key areas where we can focus are:
Sharing our code. As well as using open source platforms we can also make our developments open for others to use, adapt and improve as they wish. We have made our code open using GitHub (https://github.com/LambethCouncil) and will share the modules we develop for others to use across the Drupal community.
Sharing our learning. The Government Digital Design Manual (https://www.gov.uk/service-manual) and Digital Monmouthshire’s writing guide (http://digitalmon.wordpress.com/) are both great examples of where valuable learning can be shared even if the code platform is different. This is letting us focus on what matters locally without redoing what is often months of work others have already done.
Sharing our data. I think the council digital service of the future will be based on digital services, not just a website. At Lambeth we are already hearing demand from the community to get access to our data and content through APIs so that it can be reused in other ways — something we are keen to encourage (https://bytherye.com/2012/08/05/a-big-step-forward-in-opening-up-our-data/).
All in all, it feels like there’s a bright digital future for local government. One where we can focus on local priorities, save money and gain pace through sharing and build a thriving open community of innovation and code. Exciting times indeed!