I turned up in Leicester yesterday expecting to hear a lot about how local councils and cities are doing interesting things with digital technologies. I expected the excitement of digital that has been happening in central government to have filtered down to local bodies over the past five years. I expected to be surrounded by people that had a different mindset to those that had been running things in days gone by.
And we got a bit of that. For example, there was a pretty interesting talk from Bristol about creating the world’s first ‘open and programmable city’. There was also a pretty insightful keynote from the Danish Agency for Digitisation.
But as I looked around the rooms and as I wandered Leicester’s King Power Stadium, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about the lack of energy from delegates. Deflated is probably the best word to describe it.
And that’s not the fault of SOCITM, which has put on a pretty decent line up and put together a well organised conference. The atmosphere was just deflated.
But maybe that’s hardly surprising given that local government and councils are anticipating the upcoming Spending Review and are faced with another five years of public spending cuts and austerity. I’ve heard a number of people at the event question where the hell they’re going to find another £100 million of savings over the next five years, having only just delivered the last £100 million of savings.
I’d be feeling a bit deflated too.
However, energy levels were brought right up as soon as the Local Government Association’s deputy chairman Peter Fleming took to the stage. “Welcome to the revolution”, were his opening comments.
We don’t need a local GDS
What surprised me about Fleming’s speech was the vitriol with which he dismissed the idea for a central digital service for local government.
Given the growing importance of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in central government in recent years (despite recent setbacks), it is unsurprising that many have been calling for a similar ‘solution’ to local government. Whilst GDS over the years has continued to insist it doesn’t have the democratic remit to encroach on local government going ons, many continued to ask when and how a central digital service could be utilised.
However, Fleming took to the stage to argue on behalf of local government that there is no way that a local digital service is the way to go. Why? Because the whole point of local is that it is different. And no mandate for common services from the top, or the centre, is going to work or be useful.
I disagree to a certain extent, but I’ll leave my views until the end. Fleming said:
In Budget 2015 specific reference to digital and the extension to the Government Digital Service’s remit into local services was made. Some of us said that that’s the wrong answer to the wrong question.
And of course it is interesting to note that since that point, GDS is in some ways imploding.
That was just the start of it. Fleming went on to say:
We have shown councils are using digital and technology effectively to deliver better services. Whilst we agree this will look different in different places and some councils will better than others. Oooh controversial! The thing about local government, is that the key word is local. That means that we aren’t the same everywhere. We will be different.
If there is one thing that Westminster politicians hate more than anything else is difference. What they want is that they want something neat across the whole of the sector and not just in digital.
But none of that sounds much like a revolution to me. Digital is a lot more than just websites, APIs, platforms and transactions, which has been the main focus of GDS’ work. For councils it is about how we solve issues like adult social care.
The crux of the problem (according to Fleming)
Fleming continued his “rant” (as he described it), by saying that GDS in Whitehall has focused on
digitising multiple, large scale transactions. The sorts of things that millions of us do and a small change in each of those transactions can bring a huge number of savings. However, he believes that the problem facing local government is entirely the opposite. He said:
We have a small number of our residents who actually cost us the vast majority of our budgets. It’s complex needs around things like adult social care, which will cause the financial tipping point in local government. Not how we change small scale transactions that we do day in and day out.
Whilst its nice to talk about how we can be more efficient around getting people to pay their council tax or how we can make it easier for them to pay their parking fines. What actually is the problem is the problem that none of us are really facing up to In many cases it’s about what we do already, but better.
The LGA has been pretty vocal about the need for Chancellor George Osborne to find billions of pounds to protect the provision of social care to local communities.
Fleming went on to say that he felt like local government was at war with those at the centre. He said:
Councils should be allowed to determine what services they digitise. Not have a government telling them that all councils should digitise their top ten transactions. This will not bring about the savings and change that we need. Some of the proposed local GDS solutions will hold the best of the sector back.
Top-down simply does not work. Local government was excluded from the roll-out of Universal Credit until, surprise surprise, the government found it was quite complex and actually local solutions would be better.
Local government set free from prescription will always come out with better solutions than a top-down model. Is it a revolution or is it a war? Sometimes it feels a lot more like the latter.
At the end of Fleming’s speech, Dominic Campbell, founder of FutureGov, an organisation that describes itself as using technology, digital and change to make public services more human, challenged the idea that local government is so unique that it can’t benefit from some standardisation. He asked Fleming:
Two things. One is, as a person who has worked with 50 to 100 local authorities I would really question how unique every local authority is. I would imagine that there are plenty of things that we can replicate, otherwise companies like Capita, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t exist. So why does the sector not take a lead in those solutions for itself? Number two, if we have got it covered? Where are those world class local public services?
But Fleming was undeterred and responded by saying:
I’m not going to get into a row with you Dominic. We need to evangelise beyond this room. We need to evangelise to the local government leaders. Both the chief executives and the political leaders, who are not sat in this room, about how we move it on.
And actually there has been a lot of good work done Dominic and much of it has been done by you. I don’t think we should do local government down, but actually the problems that we are facing are not the simple transaction problems that GDS set out to solve.
They are big scale, adult social care and health issues that nobody is facing up to. We can waste all our time on APIs, on digitising services and websites. But until we find a solution to adult social care, none of us will be around to work on those other things.
My takeI was incredibly grateful for the passion and enthusiasm Fleming (and Campbell) brought to the first day at SOCITM. Otherwise, I would probably be sitting here writing a far less interesting story.
However, despite me sympathising with Fleming about the need to reform adult social care (which I don’t disagree), I do think he underestimates that amount of savings that could be brought from the standardisation and commoditisation of core services across local government. Whilst they may seem trivial in isolation, at scale they could make a big impact.
Which, let’s be honest, could then in turn help protect spending in adult social care?
I also don’t buy into the idea that ‘digital’ or ‘platform thinking’ means that every local government or council or city has to provide standardised services. That’s rubbish. The idea is that you give these bodies the fundamental building blocks, the things that don’t need to be different (e.g. compute power, storage, APIs, identity authentication, publishing platforms, payments, etc.), to then go out and build the services they want to build. Differentiate at the front-facing data layer.
Does Fleming really think it’s important for each local council to go out and build their own set of requirements for things that could be bundled and bought/procured by a central body over the web?
I’m not sure that being different requires that to be the case. Nor are adult social care reform and digital mutually exclusive.
I fully understand the local is different to national ideology. But unfortunately, when I hear “we are different”, what I really think they mean is “we don’t want to change”.