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.