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.