Local Government Association bemoans Whitehall’s “fragmented and disjointed” approach to digital

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 15, 2018
Summary:
The progress of digital government and the effectiveness of GDS is being investigated by MPs. In written evidence, the Local Government Association throws a number of criticisms at the approach to digital in Whitehall.

Westminster Government
The Local Government Association (LGA), a membership body that represents over 400 local authorities across England and Wales, has criticised the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Whitehall departments for their “fragmented and disjointed” approach to digital.

The LGA has provided written evidence to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee, stating that government departments should work harder to co-design digital services with local government from the start of their development and also “keep abreast of changing technologies”.

Interestingly, techUK, membership organisation for the UK tech sector, representing over 950 companies, also submitted evidence that stated that the “current and future mission of GDS needs clarifying to the tech industry”.

It was revealed back in July that MPs on the Science and Technology Committee would be receiving evidence and conducting an inquiry into the progress of digital government and the effectiveness of the Government Digital Service.

GDS has had a difficult year, with its data and governance functions being taken out of its central control and handed to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, leading to widespread criticism. In addition, it was recently revealed that the Cabinet Office will be withdrawing its funding for Verify - GDS’s flagship identity assurance programme, which has faced a number of challenges.

GDS has made some steps to work more closely with local government, particularly around making its service design standards freely available, but it has also long-argued that the work of local authorities does not fall within its remit.

The LGA wrote in its written evidence:

“We want to build on this record by working more closely with the Government Digital Service (GDS) to further improve high volume online transactions for our service users. There is an opportunity for GDS to co-design digital assets with local government that could be implemented across the public sector. Councils want to work more collaboratively with all government departments that are digitising services which are delivered in part by local government.”

It added that the current structure of Whitehall technology makes their job of designing services for citizens locally difficult.

“Government departments are typically focused on specific services, such as taxation, welfare, or health. Their IT systems are therefore designed to support these specific approaches. Councils are place-based, and have to join up a range of services.

“This involves interacting with different IT systems linked to different government departments, which can become complex and time-consuming. To improve councils’ ability to interact with these platforms, Whitehall should work harder to co-design digital services from the start of their development and also keep abreast of changing technologies.”

In addition, the LGA said that councils hold legacy data systems and information which sometimes must be merged with partners to help them identify need, plan support and reduce demand. As a result, the LGA is urging the government to work with it to agree and implement common standards to save money across the public sector.

Fragmentation

The LGA notes that at the moment, different digital strategies and programmes are being pursued by different government departments. It says that this means the landscape of digital government is fragmented and disjointed and that there is “no apparent recognition of the interdependency of these different elements, and to date there has been an insufficient attempt to coordinate activity across government”

It notes that despite the creation of GDS, the various elements of the government’s digital work are spread widely across:

  • The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS): Connectivity, including broadband, Wi-Fi and mobile telephony; open data, data standards, and data science.
  • Government Digital Service, NHS Digital - Digital tools and solutions including the development, procurement and implementation of tools and software, to enable residents, businesses and staff to access services and carry out their business with government online.
  • Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and GDS - Procurement of technology and solutions, including hardware, software and consultancy.
  • DCMS, GDS Digital Academy and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - Digital skills, ranging from the basic skills to go online, to the skills to design, develop and maintain digital services
  • Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) - The Local Digital Declaration, which is seeking to sign up councils to collaborate more to develop and share assets across councils
  • Cabinet Office and National Cyber Security Centre - Cyber security guidance, tools and support for residents and government systems.

It adds that in the last two years there have been two separate digital strategies published by DCMS and GDS respectively, the Industrial Strategy published by BEIS, the National Cyber Security Strategy released, and the creation of the Digital Economy Act.

As a result, the LGA notes, the approach is not coherent:

“Different government departments are working on different aspects, policy and operational areas that impact both on their own digital assets and technology solutions as well as their ability to join up with other departments and other public sector organisations. As a result the solutions and approaches can sometime cross or may not connect up, initiatives can start in one department that are designed to address a particular need and these may not join up with or meet the needs of other departments or other parts of the public sector.

“This means the citizen’s experience of government can be confused, contradictory and complicated. To get the help they need to navigate the different silos of public service providers, they typically go to their councils and this creates future demand and costs for both government and the tax payer. Councils wants Government to work in partnership with them so we can all better join up related services around the resident, rather than respond to a plethora of competing requirements from different central government departments, and this urgently needs to be addressed.

My take

Previous leaders and founders of GDS have recently spoken out about the need for the department to retain central control in order for things to get done. It appears that as time has gone on, and as digital has gained importance across Whitehall, a coherent and centralised strategy has become more difficult. And the impact is now being felt across the broader public sector and in industry.