One Local Gov digital?

There’s been a conversation bubbling around lately about the need for a single Local Government Digital Service (one LOCAL.GOV.UK if you will). If memory serves, the current round of this discussion was kicked off by @dominiccampbell, and I’ve read some interesting contributions to the discussion since. These include:

I’m not at all convinced that the argument makes much sense: ‘digital’ is a much bigger thing than ‘websites’, and local government is not the same thing as central government. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be looking to share services and to do our work as efficiently as possible. The two councils I work for have had their budgets cut by c 40% / 50% between 2010 and 2018, and our focus is absolutely on protecting the money we have left to maintain the frontline services our communities rely on. But having had a year’s experience now in leading work to put in place a shared technology platform across two councils, I think it’s easy to understate the complexity involved in making shared services succeed. A shared digital platform across several hundred councils would be enormously challenging.

I think the place to start is to understand the business of local government. The ‘local’ bit really matters, and councils need to respond to a great variety of local needs. And that’s before you get into the complexity of different responsibilities across different types of council. I don’t find a single local government website plausible — Councillors will (rightly) feel strongly that their council’s digital presence needs to reflect what matters to local residents, and this will inevitably mean that content and emphasis will need to differ across boundaries.

The array of legacy business systems will also mean that an apparently neat solution of one local digital service will be highly complex. Different approaches to insourcing vs outsourcing; security vs flexibility; different contract timescales; and the growing use of cloud services inevitably mean that the information and processes needed to enable true digital services are not simple to join up. And unlike central government, there isn’t a lead agency for each service area so similar work can often be done very differently across authority boundaries (to pick a simple example, some Councils charge for garden waste collection but others don’t).

But I’m not even convinced that ‘one’ is the best answer here. Other colleagues have commented on how the current local authority software market feels very tired, and even medieval in its nature. We desperately need to encourage new suppliers to enter the market and help us drive innovation in local service delivery. I think that a monolithic approach will mitigate against this and take us back to the old fashioned monopolies which we need to move away from. A local approach means that we can encourage small and medium sized enterprises to test out new ideas at a manageable scale, and provide an environment to incubate new ways of delivering services. I’m convinced that variety can be a strength here.

Overall, my main concern about the suggestion of one digital service for local government is that any ‘win’ from savings on content management systems will quickly be lost many times over in lost opportunities for service change and the complexity of governance issues. But that’s not to say that there isn’t much which we can share.

A model based on sharing and reuse of technology, content, service redesign and digital principles has a lot to offer for local government, and I see lots of examples where that’s already happening. Examples include:

There’s lots more potential here, and I’m sure that we can keep pushing hard to make more of these opportunities. But I think it’s important that we focus on what’s practical and best suited for the environment we work in, and that we work iteratively to build momentum across the sector. There’s too much we need to do to spend time on Grand Schemes which won’t actually address the big issues we need to fix.

But overall, I think the argument is probably best made by @MartinHowitt.

‘nuff said.

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