One Local Gov Digital: some further thoughts

An otherwise slightly frustrating day has been brightened up by some really interesting conversation about local government digital today. A (digital) coffee with @bmwelby at the start of the day was followed by an equally good (and also digital) pre-lunch chat with @PhilRumens, @pmackay, @_BforBen and others.

My first observation was how easy it is to use tools like Twitter, Google+ and Google Hangouts to bring people together to discuss common topics of interest. Having seen another of my local government IT colleagues take the bold step of allowing access to the ‘normal’ internet earlier this week, I’m amazed that we still have to put effort into making the case for removing some of the Stone Age barriers which stand in the way of our users getting stuff done. Nothing we talked about today was sensitive, and I feel better off for having had the opportunity to connect with colleagues who are working on the same challenges I am grappling with (with zero travel cost to the public purse too!). And I know that it’s not just tech enthusiasts who want to have these sort of easy collaboration tools at their disposal to help them with their work.

Some broad areas of agreement emerged from these conversations (although the other participants may want to correct or clarify my recollection!):

  • I think we all recognised the importance of reflecting localism, and the need for local government digital to be firmly plugged into the different communities which councils serve.
  • And we were also very focused on trying to make sure that councils can offer their residents and businesses the best of digital technology and service redesign, and make sure that we use shared endeavours to achieve this for the lowest possible cost. We made several references to work which has been developed from the recent Local Gov Camp event, exploring ways to help make this easy.

We discussed several ways that sharing could be useful, in particular:

  • Sharing our roadmaps so that we can easily check where other councils are working on similar areas and spot opportunities to collaborate.
  • Sharing the processes and content we produce as we redesign services for digital.
  • Working towards shared standards so that we increasingly build reusable components that other councils can use, and sharing our design principles and lessons learned to help other councils get the most progress for least cost.
  • And this would be supported by making our code open source too (although I realise that this isn’t a new idea, and others have pointed out that code which is already open source isn’t always being reused).
  • And we should also be sharing our data, ideally as open data.

What I found particularly interesting about the conversations were the challenges we will need to address to make this possible. Key issues which struck me as particularly important were:

  • The need to adopt clear principles of sharing as the foundation of a collaborative approach. It seems self-evident to me that using something like the Open Government licence would be in the best interests of local government as a whole. But I don’t think that this is an accepted principle in all quarters, and as councils look towards income generation to help offset the effects of budget cuts I can see this becoming an area of some debate.
  • The need to pick the right tools to enable the different elements of sharing. Tools like GitHub are perfect for sharing of code, but there needs to be something to bring the various components together in a user-friendly form to create a ‘hub’ for digital collaboration that will be useful for techies and non-techies alike.
  • The need for a ‘gravitational force’ which can draw digital collaboration together. From the perspective of the councils I work with, we’re already benefiting enormously from sharing together and with other councils whose work is helping us drive forward our digital change. But too often this relies on use of our contact networks and keen enthusiasts publicising their work. This is powerful and effective, but also somewhat haphazard. It would be great to see a ‘core’ for local government digital collaboration, building on what feels like promising foundations and becoming the natural first reference point for sharing digital work.
  • And it isn’t all about what councils create. Citizen hackers and a range of groups are creating useful digital tools which could be used much more widely. It would be ideal to use our work to provide a way for the products of their efforts to be made available for public benefit too.