Like a perennial weed, the expulsion of a councillor from a certain party for them being “a bit too racist” or the inevitable deluge of Christmas memes starting from early November, the discussion about whether or not to create a Local Government Digital Service seems to be popping its head above the proverbial parapet once more.
Ever since GDS was ensconced within Whitehall, many corners of the local government sector have looked on enviously at what was (at least perceived to be) a cross-cutting team taking on some huge challenges and who both weren't afraid to make sweeping changes but also had the ability and authority to do so. ICT and web managers saw quick progress being made on previously intransigent issues, an ethos which cried out openness and pace and a service which wasn’t scared to share its successes and its failures.
When in 2014 it was announced that GDS would have its remit expanded to include local government many felt this was a long overdue development. Local government, that administrative beast filled with bureaucracy and red tape, needed a fresh team to come in, blow the digital cobwebs away and show everyone just how easy it was to build excellent digital systems which everyone could use, from Adur to Wyre Forest.
Since then of course many things have changed. National elections have altered things somewhat, which when combined with some of the most senior staff in GDS leaving (including the spiritual father of it all Mike Bracken) have led to serious discussions taking place as to the purpose and future of the service itself. Some are saying that it looks like GDS will become a far smaller, policy based team who build less and guide more, while others believe the remaining management team will take on the baton and push achievement in new and exciting directions.
Whatever happens in central government, there is a constant discussion around if and how GDS will either influence, support or lead local government to its next digital plateau. Despite the fact that no firm descriptions, plans, timescales or resources have been even hinted at, a small number of clear camps are forming either side of the yes/no debate.
In this first of a three part mini-series let’s begin with the positives, reasons why there should indeed be effort put into the creation of a local GDS.
It’ll never work, will it?
A stock response from the naysayers to the introduction of a LGDS comes in the form of the simple argument that “it’ll never work”. Do you know what? Those are almost exactly the same words which were uttered immediately before GDS itself was set up.
Whitehall is a byzantine conglomerations of teams, departments, services, ministers, civil servants, strategies, policies, procedures, reports, committees and more; how could one small team of digitally savvy people even hope to make a moment’s fleeting progress before being swamped in paperwork?
Well, to put it bluntly, they found a way. Through whatever dark arts they had at their disposal, GDS did indeed make some very quick wins indeed. The development of the stupendously well-received gov.uk (and even its forerunner alpha.gov.uk) showed the direction they were heading in and gave those slower-to-respond departments something visual to look at and understand, exciting them as to the possibilities which lay before them. Some would say that more recent progress has stagnated somewhat as the quick-wins were completed, but that would do a disservice firstly to the progress made over their existence, along with exciting new applications which are only just seeing the light of day, such as the new Verify identification service.
As the saying in financial markets goes, previous performance is indeed no guarantee of future performance, but you’ve got to like the odds here. Yes, local government is made up of hundreds of organisations, each using dozens of systems or more and each at different stages of digital awareness and progress, but that’s nothing new. Using the skills and experience built up over the past few years, LGDS would be perfectly placed to tackle these head-on and cut through much of the inertia that the sector has faced.
Best and Brightest
Way back when GDS was forming out of the primordigital soup a curious thing began happening – local government people who had been talking digital in the public domain started migrating. From writers and bloggers to doers and planners and a whole lot more besides, many of those held up within the sector as either established professionals or up and coming talent found themselves on trains and heading down to what was dubbed ‘That’ London, to sit together and start work on the Great British Digi-Off. (That this writer was never even approached is not something he holds against anyone. Definitely not.)
Hot-housing, as any fan of Silicon Valley will know, works on the basis that bringing great minds together results in exponentially more productivity and better ideas than any of them could achieve by themselves. By bringing together people from local government itself, who understood how that system actually works, and then exposing them to both each other and the work of GDS means we now have a group of highly trained, highly motivated local gov alumni who have developed and tested their ideas on the great central government guinea pig and are raring to put them into action on something
more equally important – local government.
It may have resulted in a bit of a brain drain initially, but we should consider their time at GDS before moving to LGDS an extended training, research and development period. Combine this with a few more of the up and coming talent along with some gems from the private sector (hint hint) and you’ll have a mix of people with every skill required to make this a success.
We should do this ourselves
One of the most passionately argued views from those involved in local government is simple; we don’t need someone else coming in and trying to push us around, we can do this ourselves. Through a wide range of initiatives, working groups and events a network has been building and growing which does all that LGDS would do but has the added benefit of doing things from within, meaning they will be far more palatable for the sector to accept.
Noticed the game changing, systemic sector-wide progress being made so far? Nope, neither have I.
There are many in the sector who have worked incredibly hard to make good things happen, and on a small scale they have. Great projects such as the content standards and Pipeline have been established and shared, but none of them to date have had as much impact as many would like to have seen. It is still seen as a supportive network rather than a dynamic movement.
This is not intended as criticism at all, merely an acknowledgement of the challenges of balancing a desire to make digital change happen with the reality of having a main focus on a substantive role and ensuing responsibilities. Without a clear, focussed group who are doing this as their day job and doing little else, rapid progress is next to impossible. When you spend the first 50 of your 37.5 hours a week doing your normal day job, managing to fit in the extra time required to make sector-wide change a reality is always going to be filed under ‘challenging’ at the very least. And few if any have sector-wide change listed on their annual appraisal targets.
Without LGDS, change will be slow, it will be difficult to share and there will be no requirement for local authorities to do anything other than pay lip service and carry on regardless. LGDS would be the catalyst around which those interested could rally, would set out the work schedules and challenges it would be addressing and would be the gravitic force around which a whole host of smaller, localised digital projects and solutions would orbit, all safe in the knowledge that there was a clear framework for how things should be done and clear standards and guidelines in place to be followed, as well as support as and when required.
We’ve been working on real digital change since before I left school. Since GDS was founded in April 2011 the sector has had access to the same range of digital tools, has seen the development of the same range of technologies and has had the opportunity to collectively step up to the plate and collaborate on major digital initiatives. That it has not done so is not down to any single individual or group, but is indicative of the challenges faced by the sector at large and the pressures which dictate how much time, energy and money can be spent on this.
Essentially, if it were likely to have happened without LGDS it would have happened already.
Where’s the commitment?
One major argument for LGDS is simple; it would once and for all demonstrate that central government truly valued local government as a key and vital part of the governance structures of the UK.
There is no way LGDS would be able to operate without investment, and the provision of such investment would clearly demonstrate that local government wasn’t simply another item to add to the long list of not-so-urgent-priorities for the evolved GDS.
Some argue that GDS itself will remain the same as it is, with simply an additional remit to work with local government translating into an open door being left for any council(s) to get in touch if they want. A proper commitment to LGDS will show that this fear is unfounded and that things are being taken seriously. It will move the relationship on from one of general waving at each other as business is gone about regardless, on to a proper partnership with LGDS leading the way and prompting each and every council to step up to the digital challenge.
The final point in this argument for LGDS leads on from the last; leadership. LGDS would create a clear, unarguable focal point for leadership across the sector, and give all of those involved a central reference point on which to compare, a single organisation which was clearly setting out the standards and practices which would need to be followed by others, not to mention providing practical tools which others could then easily use.
LGDS would not necessarily force others to drop their own plans and use whatever they were putting out (at least not without significant legislative changes) but would quickly become the yardstick by which others were measured. By putting out a number of simple, powerful, effective solutions available at no additional development cost LGDS would put significant pressure on councils to justify why they were paying separately for systems which delivered the same functionality. Should they choose to continue for whatever reason they would of course be perfectly entitled to do so, but the questions would be asked and expectations raised.
A leading LGDS setup would also give access to this kind of digital thinking and output to those authorities which lack it, either through historical inertia or a lack of existing resources. For those organisations, such progress could revolutionise them as working organisations.
Those five points set out just some of the potential benefits the introduction of LGDS could herald across the sector. Looking at things through those viewpoints the argument for its introduction seems laughably simple and irrefutable. Who wouldn’t want to have access to some incredible minds doing amazing things which others until that point had thought impossible to accomplish? A service which would focus on achieving their digital goals over and above all else, which would demonstrate the esteem in which local government was held and which would go on to develop tools and practices which would be made freely available for all. Digital solutions would take a giant leap forward and the world would be a happier place.
So why won’t it actually ever happen or work?
Come back for part two of this series to find out.