The introduction of a Local Government Digital Service (LGDS), building on the work done by central government’s GDS, is an ongoing discussion which divides opinion as neatly as the introduction of a new grammar school “annex” in Kent. Each side is equally as convinced it is right, and totally unable to understand why the other cannot see the reason behind their own arguments.
Part 1 of this series set out why some people think LGDS is both inevitable and a great idea, while Part 2 explored why this isn’t really the case. Part 2’s admittedly pessimistic, yet arguably more realistic angle was that, while in some ways LGDS might do some good things, in all likelihood it is never likely to get off the ground and be given the chance, the authority and the resources to make itself a success.
That being said, it could be that there is still a place for LGDS. It isn’t perhaps in the same form as those who promote it might envisage, but it is still a form which will enable it to take up a key role leading and supporting the sector.
Shared standards, processes and schema
A couple of months ago a workshop was held in which it was shared that in another industry a total lack of any shared standards was hampering the ability of software providers to easily exit contracts, pick up from legacy systems and even talk with other applications when required. A common set of standards was required, though none was established nor was work being coordinated by government, central or local, to create them.
In the end, a group of the main suppliers to that sector decided enough was enough and came together to agree on a set of standards and schemas to which they would all work. They met regularly after that to review and update these, with proposed changes being put forward, discussed and agreed by them all. None of this was demanded, none of this was ‘owned’ by the authorities and none of this was mandatory.
Yet it worked. Each company was better able to deliver applications and systems which worked effectively with others, none forced others to operate in a way which would damage them, and the sector found itself in a position whereby changing suppliers was no longer the headache it once was.
LGDS would have the ability to facilitate and lead exactly such a group for local government. Using their expertise and knowledge they could easily put forward open standards for development which others would be encouraged to follow and be involved in shaping and evolving. They would not be dictating these standards but supporting their evolution, resulting in the private sector being far more willing to engage and buy in to the process. Some of these would be relatively straightforward to agree, while other, more niche areas would require more investigation and work. However, at the end of each process a central library of standards would exist.
Delivering workable, supported common applications
It wouldn’t just be in terms of standards and guidance that LGDS could operate. Due to inevitably fewer resources than would be ideal, LGDS would need to be incredibly selective when it came to choosing which applications to focus on. However, were it able to take a small number of common requirements and develop a viable, sustainable solution which others could then use that would be of great use to councils up and down the country.
To be clear, this is not intended to be a call for anything approaching a shared CMS for every council to use. While the arguments for such an approach are well known, realistically this is simply not likely to happen. However, the release of self-contained applications, each built as robustly yet simply as possible, would potentially give councils an additional option when it came to renewing their own systems.
For example, rather than commissioning a separate payments system for every service which collected payments, a simple interface could be built which delivers this function and which can then be plugged into other systems to securely share data as appropriate. The same could be offered for other well defined issues, such as forms, search engines or emergency alerts. None of these would be forced onto councils, but each would stand alone as a baseline to which others could be compared and which anyone could both install themselves as well as see (and potentially improve) the code behind it.
Not too many of these would be needed before suppliers started understanding what was expected of them, along with how they could make themselves better in order to be even more attractive and offer greater value for money. Win-win.
Acting as short term, free troubleshooting consultants
GDS is full of some amazing minds doing great things; it can only be hoped that LGDS would be equally as packed with talent. Team members are often encouraged to work on projects outside of their normal duties for a proportion of their week; however, to date, these have mostly been internal to GDS.
Imagine if that talent could be taken out of the office instead? Imagine a team of LGDS staff, trained and experienced in digitising services and improving the experience for customers, who were available to come in to solve a particular challenge within a particular council. Having trouble working out how to digitise your parking services? No problem, here is six weeks of intensive support to get you started. Can’t get buy-in from stakeholders for improving your intranet? We can help with that. Planning a huge CMS redevelopment procurement process but haven’t got the experience to do it all from scratch? LGDS to the rescue.
Short term, targeted support could be made available to councils up and down the country from LGDS. As well as having the benefit of bringing LGDS practices and principles to a wider range of councils than ever before without bogging things down in a year-long programme of work which ends up achieving little, this would also have the ongoing benefit of constantly forcing LGDS to engage with new councils across the country. There’s nothing like actually seeing a service, talking with staff and working with end users to improve your understanding of what is really needed rather than what you thought it needed.
Being a point of leadership
Finally, figureheading matters. Without a well-publicised figurehead, no matter how good your work is it will often go unnoticed. While there is confusion over who is driving something forward or where the direction is coming from it will be incredibly difficult to make significant progress, or to measure whatever progress is made.
LGDS would have the kudos of its heritage and an instant status within the sector. It would have a lot of work to do in order to win hearts and minds, and would need to build and rely heavily on the work already being undertaken by people such as Local Gov Digital, but thanks to its name and awareness at ministerial level it would arguably be far better known more quickly than anyone else.
Of course, care would need to be taken to ensure that it didn’t get too big for its boots, didn’t start trying to dictate to the sector and to suppliers, and that it didn’t become a bottleneck and blockage to otherwise excellent digital work. It wouldn’t be easy, but a guiding, leadership-from-within role is the only way LGDS will ever be accepted within the sector.
It cannot impose, but if it doesn’t offer something that hasn’t been offered before it will not be worth doing. It must both engage with and challenge the private sector rather than trying to force it out. It must do all this and more with extremely limited resources, and give something meaningful back quickly.
In the previous article a simple premise was explored; that the introduction of a Local Government Digital Service (LGDS) would be a good thing for local government in the UK. If you’ve not read it yet you probably should. It discusses the positive aspects of bringing talented people together and allowing them to focus solely on the digital challenge along with providing them with the resources to make real and lasting change.
So what’s the problem? Why wouldn’t it work? And where does that leave the sector?
No-one can possibly know for certain what the introduction of LGDS would mean for local government. Nor, at the time of writing, has anything at all been released as to the scope, resources, mandate or timelines for such an introduction, meaning much of this conjecture may change over time. That being said, like the argument for or against the sequel to Dumb and Dumber there are far, far more arguments against this than for it.
What’s the scope?
Scope creep is an insidious, constant beast which stalks the pages of every project plan ever made, especially those with the phrase ‘digital’ anywhere near them. The temptation to add an extra widget, an extra function, to use a tool in an additional way or to tackle an additional project is ever present, especially in a world where the things that could be done significantly outnumber the number of things which should be done.
Local government delivers literally hundreds of functions to millions of people, every single day. Yes, some of these have similar back-end processes which need to be replicated, but simply understanding them from an independent standpoint is nigh-on impossible, especially when you start getting into the intricacies and nuances involved. Each one directly impacts on the lives of people, often immediately, so there is little room for failure or error.
Like a minimalist tidying their house after the extended family have visited for Christmas day, it is almost impossible to know both where to start and where to stop. Every single service could make an argument for its priority, from claims that children might die, older people will be left isolated, vital housing and building programmes which lead to housing shortages would slow to a crawl, emergency services need to be better coordinated, democratic processes which have barely changed in centuries not being fit for purpose; the list is seemingly endless and multi-faceted.
Who says you can?
These are not times of plenty. Councils do not have limitless funds to throw in whichever direction they see fit, and often even those ideas which might have long-term benefit for them are often put on hold in the short term as they simply cannot afford the time, money or focus to get them started while still delivering the things they are legally obliged to do.
Many times over the past few years councils have said that soon they will be stripping themselves down to only doing what they legally are required to do, nothing more. There is no legal requirement at the time of writing for councils to work together or follow the guidance of a single service when it comes to digital services. Therefore, like it or not there are a sizable number who simply won’t do it.
Yes, of course they would be better off doing so. Yes, ultimately they would not only save money but would deliver a better service. Yes, it’s simply the right thing to do. But since when has any of that mattered in real life? Like telling a teenager to do their homework at the start of the holidays so they can enjoy the rest of their time without worrying, the majority will still leave it until the very end, when they have no choice other than to do it. Those who do indeed do it early will then strut and tell them how right their advice was, but that won’t change the reality of the situation. We do not live in such an enlightened world, and presuming that everyone thinks in the same way as forward thinking early adopters is naïve to say the least.
Every council in the country, almost without exception, is fiercely independent. Yes, they may all be a family in some way shape or form, and of course they want the other members of their family to succeed. But, deep down, the more honest will agree that they don’t want any of their siblings to succeed more than they themselves are.
Councils work hard on building up their positive reputations within the sector, on showing others how ahead of the game they are and how others should follow their leads. Senior officers build reputations and indeed careers on being (and, just as importantly, being seen as) better than those around them.
Imagine their realistic reaction when they are then told that they don’t need to worry any more, that LGDS are coming in to do things for them, that all the processes and systems they have built up over years are now going to be replaced with something new and centrally controlled. They may be able to have some influence over it, to help shape it, but they will no longer be able to decide what to do, when to do it and in what way it needs to be done.
It’s only a small leap to then imagine them spending an inordinate amount of time working to prove how they are already better than whatever is being proposed. The best don’t want to be thrown in with the others; they want to be the exemplar held up by LGDS and the sector at wide and which others aim to replicate. Without a legal requirement to do so they are never in a million years going to agree to become part of a unified single CMS platform or suite of applications; at the very least, not without a serious, lengthy fight and equal challenges from their existing contracted suppliers.
Independence also comes into play regarding the choice of systems. Each council may indeed have good reasons as to why it is in fact using certain systems or processes. They might work exceptionally well. They may be incredibly cost effective. They may be proven and trusted. They may have financial incentives to continue using them, or penalties should they stop. There could be a whole host of reasons, practical or imagined, why not using a centrally controlled system or application is the right course of action.
That’s localism in action.
The small matter of money
A properly funded LGDS, with ideal staff and resources behind it, might do some wonderful things. But we’re not going to get a properly funded LGDS, are we.
Unless Mr Osbourne has found an uncashed cheque down the back of his parliamentary sofa, all budgets are constantly being cut and will be for the foreseeable future. Even the budgets of GDS itself are under pressure. What makes it likely that the finances needed to make LGDS a reality and give it the opportunity to succeed will simply be found somewhere?
GDS has not been cheap, and so far it has worked with a limited number of departments on a limited number of exemplar projects. There are 353 councils in England, 32 in Scotland, 22 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland. When you start to talk local councils such as parishes, village, town, community, neighbourhood and more the number rises to around 9000.
That's a lot of stakeholders.
Simply meeting with and understanding the top level of needs of a small number of them, then building, testing and rolling out applications which meet a small number of their stated needs is a gargantuan task which will take a lot of time and a LOT of money, money that we are not rolling in at the moment.
We’re all different
Leading on from that point is the fact that, whether they are in reality more or less far apart than they believe, nigh-on every single council will have firm ideas as to why it faces a unique set of circumstances, why it’s different from its neighbours or comparators and why it’s different so needs different solutions.
As with the famous Monty Python scene from The Life of Brian, they may (almost) all be pretty similar from a certain perspective, but every single council understands itself and its world, and each of them do indeed have nuances which dictate the digital directions they have taken. Each of them will have an entire eco-system of applications, websites, systems, databases, bridges, processes and hacks which work for them but which no-one else would go near. Many of these are interdependent; remove one and the knock-on effects are huge.
LGDS might be able to have a long-term impact on future projects but this is based on improving the processes and procedures for scoping and delivering future projects, as well as establishing clear standards to which suppliers will need to begin adhering. This will be notably difficult to quantify and place a value on, making measuring LGDS impact challenging at best.
Only the most naïve of observers could not realise that behind all of this lays the spectre of politics. Whichever party is in power, the others will do whatever they can to disrupt their plans and undermine them politically.
Of course not one politician would ever openly come out and say that they were opposing something they saw as actually good for the community for political reasons, but it does happen. Wearing a different colour rosette to whomever is in power gives added incentive to make things as difficult as possible, and as the hundreds/thousands of councils across the country are all essentially political hotbeds this gives ample opportunity for the opposition to make things difficult.
It is important to note that this is not targeted in any way at any one particular political party; whoever is in opposition will act in the same way. Each would absolutely decry this publicly; that doesn’t make it any less likely.
That’s not my job, mate
One of the most often hated aspects of local government is the perception that it’s full of jobsworths who accept no responsibility for something which isn’t their direct job to do. True or not for all, the mindset of “that’s someone else's job” is an easy one to slip into.
The development of LGDS would allow every single council which wasn’t committed to making personal advancement digitally to put all digital onus on a separate service should they want to. They would not need to think about standards; LGDS are doing that. Thinking of changing a payments application? Let’s not worry about that for a while, LGDS will give us something.
Digital development and progression of digital thinking must be everyone’s responsibility. Digital is not a separate thing which someone else does to your team; it needs to be at the heart of what your service actually is and how it does its normal business. By abdicating responsibility to someone else, someone distant and far removed from the day to day life of a local government service, we risk setting back digital thinking and advancement a decade or more.
What’s the answer?
So where does that leave us? It might be cynical to think in this way, but there are clear arguments that LGDS would be a service without a clear legal mandate for working and an impossible task when it came to deciding on the scope and scale of its work. Either it delivers a small number of projects more fully or tries to spread itself too thinly to make a difference, an impossible situation due to the likely lack of funds and resources it will face. It would further weaken an already threatened GDS through a haemorrhaging of key staff and resources, and would instigate a culture of “they do digital over there” rather than “we all do and indeed are digital”. All of that on a backdrop of fiercely held council independence, hugely complex historical ICT architecture and processes along with an often denied but nonetheless very real political challenge from opponents of whomever is in government at the time.
In terms of setting up an organisation who can make a quick, instant change to things, it’s not looking good.
But it’s not all hopeless.
To misquote Tolkien; One LGDS to rule them all, One LGDS to find them, One LGDS to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. It doesn’t have to be that way. There can be a role for LGDS, a way for GDS to keep to the pledges made in its name that it will work with local government but without them needing to do all of the work themselves.
Come back for part three to find out how.
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.