A GDS for local government?

Richard Copley has written a well considered and detailed blog post about what a Government Digital Service for local government might look like and why the sector should have one.

This is a debate that’s bubbled up a few times in recent times, with Carl Haggerty’s local government digital group emerging to try to push for greater co-ordination and sharing among those working in digital in local government. More details here.

Richard does a good job of highlighting the indisputable benefits of a more joined-up approach – including the potential savings from the removal of duplication in systems operated across hundreds of councils and the benefits to users from a more consistently user-focussed experience on council websites.

The latter is something that is still not properly embedded in the sector. We should recognise things are moving in the right direction, but the local government digital estate is still too dominated by councils doing things their way rather than building around their users.

Internal silos showing up in site architecture, use of jargon, wrangles over ownership and customer journeys dictated by the way obscure back office systems work are still all too common and obvious in many council websites.

The latest generation of council websites recognise the importance of a focus on user goal completion, but often when you look deeper you can see that while there’s a veneer of user centricity on the surface, underneath you’ll still find the clunky processes that are hard wired into old systems that sit within the organisation.

Richard’s vision for a local government digital service rightly challenges the assumption that every council needs its own website.

This is great stuff – it recognises that for the majority (but not all) of tasks that a user seeks to accomplish with their council digitally, there’s not a lot of difference across different councils. So why haven’t we invented a different way to do it for each council?

He then sets out a detailed approach to how the back office integrations for multiple councils would need to work with a single digital front end – which all sounds sensible in theory to me (although in all honesty that’s not my area of particular expertise).

But where I think I have the greatest concerns with the approach is not in its indisputable appeal in principle, but in the context into which it would need to be deployed.

The work of the government digital service has been a success for many reasons – not least because it’s a very sound concept – but one that we mustn’t forget is that it comes with a consistent and long-term political mandate for change from the top within the civil service, with an influential minister backing it.

That’s not to underplay the difficulties they still face in delivering change across many central government departments, but the mandate and consensus around need for change is well established in the machinery of central government.

What I struggle with when applying Richard’s thinking to local government is that I can’t see where an equivalent mandate for such radical change would come from.

The distributed nature of the sector means there’s no single source of such a mandate that could give the backing to a new sector-wide digital approach.

Anyone that’s delivered partnership working or shared services in local government will be familiar with the challenges that delivering change across multiple councils can bring.

So while I think the idea of a local government digital service is a great one in principle and the theoretical benefits are hard to argue with, I think it’ll remain just an idea for the foreseeable future.

I guess that’s why when you look at the current work being led by Carl and others, it’s quite organic and “from the ground up” in its approach – as without a central mandate for a direction of change, it’s only through consensus and the voluntary participation of engaged enthusiasts that digital progression will happen in a cross-sector way.

And sadly that means the scope will always be limited – and the major benefits for the sector and residents that Richard sets out will remain substantially out of reach.

I know this does come across a bit defeatist – which isn’t my normal take on all things digital – but I think it’s important to recognise that the nature of change means that the challenge here is one of transformational change rather than simply improving a digital service.

That said, I was talking this through with a fellow team member today who had a slightly different take – that while there may not be a central mandate for change, if the ground-up stuff is compellingly good, then it will drive adoption among councils the quality will be so high that it will be an easy choice for councils to make individually – with no compulsion or coercion required.

An offer so good councils want to use it. Sounds familiar?

This article originally appeared on Simon Wakeman’s communications, marketing and public relations blog at www.simonwakeman.com.

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