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Labour's digital review sparks debate about what do to with local government

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 2, 2014
The report called for closer collaboration between central and local government, as well as the creation of 'digital factories' – but not everyone agrees.

Two man boxing
Whilst the current government in the UK has made some excellent progress in transforming public services into digital products and changing the way that technology is delivered at a central level; local government has struggled to pick up similar momentum.

There are some excellent examples from specific councils and local authorities that are leading the way, but it's generally accepted that progress has been patchy and there isn't a clear strategy for the broader public sector to progress.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, central government doesn't actually hold any powers to dictate to local government what it should be doing. As a result, given the disparate nature of the public sector outside of Whitehall, there isn't a common agenda being set and progress is largely dependent upon individual needs and use cases.

Secondly, whilst local government has organisations that represent its needs and provide guidance and best practice, none of these organisations have taken it upon themselves to be the driving force behind a digital transformation agenda.

Also, from what I understand, both central government and the organisations focused on local government are wary to take it upon themselves to adopt the lead role, given the challenges involved.

As a result, the general impression many are left with is that no-one really knows what to do with local government. Do we create a local government digital service, replicating the one created in the Cabinet Office, and which centrally coordinates strategy across the broader public sector? Do we let GDS take control at a central level and dictate from Whitehall? Should we let a group like SOCITM, the national association for public sector IT managers, take up the role? Do we let local authorities figure it out on their own? Is there a different solution altogether?

It's a complex debate and inevitably everyone has an opinion – which given the hundreds of different parties involved, creates problems for any real progress. But given that most citizens' transactions take place at a local level, and not with Whitehall, there is a huge opportunity too.

However, we saw some fresh ideas emerge last week when Labour launched its review into digital government. Shadow Minister for digital, cyber and social enterprise, Chi Onwurah MP, touted the idea that GDS at a central level should work closer with local government on its digital transformation and that there should be the creation of new 'digital factories, which will deliver solutions to common challenges. The report states:

There is a need to catalyse amongst local authorities and their partners a new, small network of ‘local digital factories’ to produce and run as live services modern digital public services based on best service design practice. The method for the service can then serve as a template for others whilst, where possible, the underlying software for the service should be developed as open source so that it can be reused.

For instance a ‘local planning factory’ would be a group of local authorities who wanted to build a better planning service using modern service design principles to cope with a major burst of house building and save money. They work together to design build and run a service in their boroughs, publishing their benefits, savings, code and methodology for others to use or copy.

From what I understand, Labour would like to see collaboration between local authorities that have a common need to build a particular service – e.g. a planning tool – that would then be built within a 'factory' that uses open source code and a flexible architecture, which allows for reuse by other local authorities across the UK.

With this in mind, analysts and stakeholders have begun to respond to the review and thus far the the response has been mixed. I myself quite like Labour's approach to local government, but others aren't entirely convinced.

Ovum's lead public sector analyst, Chris Pennell, believes that local authorities will be somewhat reluctant to embrace increased collaboration with GDS in Whitehall and that the report missed an opportunity to focus on data sharing between agencies – stating that Labour's focus on a creating an authoritative postcode database, which could be used by all agencies and the private sector, is too narrow. He said:

Although it is unclear how much of the review’s recommendations will eventually be adopted as official Labour policy, it is clear that more emphasis is being placed on the inclusivity aspects of the digital work to date. Successful implementation will very much depend on the willingness of local government to take on board some of the more contentious ideas, such as the expansion of the remit of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to include organizations outside of central government. This is unlikely to be welcomed by local authorities, which have so far resisted attempts at infiltration by GDS.

In other areas, the review does not go far enough to address some of the barriers to increased adoption of digital, such as failing to address data sharing between agencies. Although an open address data set will go some way toward helping to standardize fields, perhaps, it does nothing to address the wider issues of information management across government, which remain a priority according to the respondents to Ovum’s most recent ICT Enterprise Insights survey. Removing many of the barriers to data sharing across agencies would have a more beneficial impact than providing a common post code checker. Perhaps this will be addressed as part of the recommendations for a framework to look at emerging ethical issues around the interaction of the state, citizens, and corporations via digital technology.

Digital government is as much about changing the way government works as it is about the way it interacts with citizens. This change should be viewed beyond just the underlying IT; consideration needs to be given to the broader government context, of which digital is increasingly a part.

Georgina O'Toole, director at TechMarketView, meanwhile favours the approach that Labour is promoting – with specific regard to the digital factories. She believes that this is better than simply trying to create a GDS for local government. O'Toole said:

Local government has for too long sat on the edge of the Government’s digital agenda. But this is where the greatest value from digital technologies could be realised i.e. it is where a large proportion of the interactions with citizens take place. Labour’s review acknowledges that key innovations will need to come from local initiatives.

This has been recognised by the coalition government but no-one has before identified firm steps to make that happen. Good news to see talk of a new national organisation of ‘local digital factories (open, collaborative and not for profit) that would encourage the collaboration across local organisations that has been so difficult to achieve.

Better that than a mirror image of GDS at the local level.

However, it is the response from SOCITM – an organisation that represents the interests of IT managers in the broader public sector – that has garnered the most interest. SOCITM is influential in this space and has put forward its own ideas in recent months for how digital at a local government level should be targeted, namely through the creation of a properly funded local government digital service.

Whilst SOCITM has said that it “welcomes” Labour's review and in particular likes that Labour is putting people at the centre of digital, it also has some

concerns. In particular, it calls into question Labour's digital factories and argues against getting GDS more involved.

SOCITM said in a statement:

With regard to the Review’s suggestion of setting up ‘a new national organisation to create “local digital factories”, run on a fundamentally open, collaborative and not-for-profit basis’, we cannot see how this differs in substance from Socitm’s suggestion, made earlier this year, to create a ‘local GDS’. We described this ‘as a team of advisors available to support top teams in local authorities in implementing digital strategies and associated transformational change, and to help identify and promote best practice and opportunities for sharing digital assets’ as well as ‘co-creation of shared transactions’ for ‘integration into local solutions.’

We do agree that such an organisation ‘will require funding and people to kick start it into existence’, but we are clear that it should be led by local, not central, government, and be advisory, delivering change through best practice and peer pressure. We believe that one of the weaknesses of past IT/transformation initiatives has been a lack of willingness by central government to work through local government and associated local public services.

We are not fully comfortable with the recommendation that "GDS should be given the remit to work with local government". GDS works for central government and has a mandate and authority to disrupt and change central departments, regardless of departmental opposition. No such authority exists to apply a similar principle in local government, which would in any case stifle local innovation and adaptability to local contexts.We do recognise the high value in much work undertaken by GDS and have been keen participants where there has been opportunity to work on joint activities. Socitm supports the principle that GDS should produce its assets in a way that makes them usable by local public services, but believes that GDS should remain advisory, continuing and expanding its offering of the use of best practice assets.

My take

My views lie somewhere in the middle. I don't think that we should disregard GDS in how it could help local government, just because they operate at a central level – they are an experienced team and have been on this journey for a number of years now, and as a result could prove to be a valuable asset.

However, their role should be advisory, rather than it mandating from Whitehall. I also don't know that setting up a local GDS is necessarily the way forward. Given the disparate nature of local government and the differing needs of all the unitary authorities, I'm not sure one central organisation is really up to the task.

I do, however, like Labour's idea of local factories based on collaboration between local authorities, which in turn create services based on common needs that can then be repurposed. This seems like a better way to spark innovation.

But that doesn't mean we don't need a central body to coordinate this. A central organisation at a local level that serves as a platform to pull all the pieces together and to advise could very valuable indeed.

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