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If we aren’t willing to re-think local gov, maybe local-GDS isn’t the answer

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 18, 2015
Digital transformation across local government is going to be an uphill challenge. Is the answer creating smaller pockets of innovation as opposed to digital from the centre and at scale?

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece off the back of attending a local government event, where I was pretty harsh about the current state of affairs when it comes to digital transformation amongst local authorities. I said:

I left the event feeling completely underwhelmed by the ambitions of digital delivery at a local level. Why? I got the distinct impression that a lot of those in attendance don’t really see digital/internet design as a realistic alternative to the cumbersome systems and services that have been built in the past.

Like putting lipstick on a pig, etc, etc.

At the time I was feeling frustrated by the lack of progress and the lack of vision from those in attendance and I put out a piece that called for a group of revolutionaries to come together and form some sort of organisation that resembled a ‘local-government digital service’.

The response to the piece was interesting. It got a lot of traction and it got people talking. Which is good.

However, upon reflection and after having had a few discussions with people, I think I was maybe being a bit harsh and had underestimated that challenges facing those working in local authorities. You think the challenge is significant in central government? Multiple that by at least 100 when you branch outside of Whitehall.

Local government consists of hundreds of distinct organisations, all with their own agenda, all providing services separately, all having to deal with their own political gripes.

And ultimately, the message I got back was that although some would like a local-GDS, it probably wouldn’t work. Each local authority thinks it knows the best way to deliver services and each local authority has been doing things its own way for a long time. Changing that at scale wouldn’t be easy. It might not even be possible.

Secondly, IT functions in local authorities are risk adverse. As one digital chief in local government said to me: “Have you met a 55 year old head of IT, sat on a golden pension and due to retire in two years, is he going to try something new?”. Probably not.

Okay, so the challenge is huge. And at scale transformation, the sort that is being attempted at a central level, probably isn’t going to work. So if we aren’t really willing to rethink how local services should be delivered (i.e. nationally, via a platform approach, delivered via the internet), then we have to think about alternative approaches.

This is me compromising. It isn’t what I’d like to see happen, but I think it’s a more realistic view of what is achievable.

Instead of a GDS for local government, maybe what we need instead are a bunch of digital consortia, organised by local authorities that want to work together and are in close proximity. Here are my initial thoughts (which have been based off conversations with people far more knowledgeable than myself, but aren’t wanting to be quoted).

Collaboration on a smaller scale - Firstly, location isn’t unimportant. Travelling isn’t necessarily a cost that local authorities can claim back. And proximity shouldn’t be underestimated when you are trying to innovate and iterate (just look at how important co-location is to design transformation in organisations). But wouldn’t it be better to see groups of six to eight closely located local authorities working together on a set list of key services that they are redesigning digitally? Each local authority could take a lead on a particular service, could take second lead on another and then just be a beneficiary of the rest. Although this isn’t the ‘mass scale’ transformation of services we would like to see across the country, and yes some stuff would get replicated, but at least it breaks down the silos to a certain extent.

Think commercially - Just because you’re working in groups doesn’t mean that this has to be a free for all. If you’ve led on the design and creation, then you can resell to the rest of the local authorities. Or whoever. This commercial capability then should give you the opportunity to buy in some more digital skills and helps make the business case to the ‘powers from above’. Revenue generation is going to be key to local government going forward, so if you can prove that building this key service will not only save you money, but bring in money, that’s got to help.

Target high value transactions - Although this isn’t about creating a local GDS, it wouldn’t hurt to steal some of their ideas. For instance, looking at the services that have the highest volume of transactions and the ones that cost the most. If you can transform those, then the buy-in should be easier for the rest. Not only that, but cost savings are likely to be higher and resell value likely to be greater. These services are often bought in and customised to the max anyway, so savings shouldn’t be difficult if the service can be built properly.

Embed skills across the organisation - Although working in collaboration with a number of local authorities could work, it’s also important to recognise the problems that GDS is running into at the moment - in that people don’t believe that it can build all the services for central government itself.

Although GDS isn’t saying it would do that, that’s the perception. GDS has also created a bit of an Us vs. Them environment (although not intentionally). Local authorities aren’t going to have the same resources or capabilities as GDS and so they must make sure that the basics around digital design thinking are embedded across their organisation. Train up those service delivery managers and start getting them to think about things like user centred design, personas etc.

Doesn’t have to be end-to-end - One of the areas that the ‘critics’ of digital design for local government point to is the delivery of health and social care, suggesting that its processes and requirements are just too costly and too complex for digital to even help. I would argue that this is a bit short sighted. I think when people hear ‘digital’, they think they’ve got to be providing the entire service digitally. When in fact, if health and social care was redesigned with ‘digital in mind’ this could likely make a huge difference. If we think about things like wearables, the sharing economy, video chat - all these things could have an impact on health and social care, but they don’t have to be built in end-to-end.

My take

Not the radical transformation of local government I’d like to see, but something to consider. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts, so do get in touch.

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