SOCITM 2015 Review - Local government does need a critical mass of revolutionaries

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 20, 2015
Local government may think that it doesn't need a GDS-style organisation to drive a digital revolution. But I think that's exactly what it needs - a critical mass of revolutionaries.

It’s been an interesting couple of days in Leicester at SOCITM’s annual conference, which brought

business fight
together members from local government organisations to discuss and share ideas about how technology can help them better provide services.

Whilst some of the content delivered was very engaging, 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.

For example, take a read of this comment from one of the attendees (who works for SOCITM itself) at the end of one of the morning sessions:

I don’t think anybody in IT doesn’t recognise that disruptive forms of technology would be of great benefit. I just think it’s this thing which people like GDS [Government Digital Service] have papered over, for want of a better phrase - that there seems to be a ditching of perceived wisdom on a lot of solid IT in favour of this sort of rush for digital.

If you wanted to be really cynical, the Mickey Mouse IT [which is meant to run] government - because it can’t. And so when confronted with a digital challenge you’ve probably got to reinvent a whole sort of super structure around it to make sure that not only it works, its secure, its contractable, its all sorts of things.

I don’t think any IT professionals are opposed to where the technology is going, it’s just this sort of blindness. Digital will not work in the government context unless it is properly surrounded.

This comment pretty much sums up my perception of where attendees are at. They get digital is coming, but they don’t really see it as an answer to their problems. They’re still talking about ‘super structures’.

I have already written about how the Local Government Association took to the stage on the first day to declare that local organisations are too diverse and too unique to create any sort of central digital service for local deployment. Equally, when GDS took to the stage on the second day, judging by the questions being asked, there was a definite ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality.

“Don’t you come here, telling us what to do!” - that’s not an actual quote, but you get the idea.

There is no denying that there are huge swathes of local government (because let’s remember that it’s not an ‘entity’, it’s disparate) that fundamentally believe that they are unique, that their services are different from everywhere else and that they need to retain control.

I think the biggest blocker to any sort of digital revolution in local government is the fact that the people running a lot of these organisations have no real desire to change the way things are done. By keeping things local and disconnected, those same people are very powerful in their little microcosm.

Before I go on, let me say that this review isn’t a reflection of ALL of local government. Just a hell of a lot, in my eyes. There are some fantastic people doing really good work across the sector and there are people that really want make this work. However, I am yet to see any sort of significant shift in the right direction that gets me excited.

So what do we need?

What we need is a critical mass of revolutionaries across local government that are willing to work together, are willing to collaborate, are willing to give up their old ways of thinking, give up their old ways of doing things and completely redesign public services from top to bottom.

What do I mean by redesign public services from top to bottom? Exactly that. Ex-Deputy Director for the Government Digital Service, Tom Loosemore, describes it far better than I will be able to here in a talk given to attendees at the Code for America Summit. If you’ve got a spare 50 minutes, I HIGHLY recommend you watch this video:

But what Tom talks about is the need for new institutions that are willing to build new public infrastructure. He describes how digital in government has largely focused on digitising paper-based organisations that are centuries old, which isn’t going to get us very far. We need to think differently about how services are delivered.

“What if we started again?” - that’s exactly what a critical mass of revolutionaries across local government should be asking themselves. If we didn’t have this mess behind us, what would we be doing?

Tom’s explanation focuses on making data in government work for the people, by creating a number of ‘registers’ - canonical sources of truth - that collect, store and manage information on everything from where you live to what car you own to what businesses are operating. At the moment this information is stored (if at all) across a number of disparate silos that have no idea about each other.

If we could organise data better, protect it, and allow services to dip in and out of the registers when they need to authenticate something (only with a user’s permission), can you imagine how much easier it would be build said service?

There’s a lot to this and I haven’t gone into a great deal of detail, but it is something I will revisit in the future.

On top of these registers you then have common platforms that organisations can use to build services on top of. These platforms are essentially the boring parts of web design, but the fundamental building blocks e.g. payment platforms, publishing platforms, identity platforms. Things that are often used, but you don’t really want to put too much effort into having to use them.

Then on top of this you can build whatever services you like. See this image, which serves as a good visual explanation:

government as a platform

So, for example, let’s say you needed to apply for a parking permit from your local council. Instead of having to go to the council website, find what documents you need, get those documents from the other relevant organisations, go to the council offices and apply, you instead allow a service to tap into a number of registers (address, car ownership, car tax, driver’s licence, etc.) that can quickly verify all those things and approve a permit there and then on the spot. It could literally take less than 2 minutes.

Are councils and local organisations so different that this sort of service (which I could list many) needs to be built themselves?

I can already hear some criticisms from the Twittersphere asking: What about complex services like adult social care? Okay, yes, those are more complex and require more resources. But don’t you think freeing up resources from painstaking back-office service provision might help this?

Also, if you do think your local adult social care service provision is so unique that you have to build it yourself, that doesn’t negate the scenario described above. Would it still not make sense to use the registers and common platforms for everything up until the front-line provision for adult social care?

I personally think a collaborative group of revolutionaries could probably come up with a fairly good solution that could be used across all their areas, but if that’s not the case, go and build it yourself. I bet you when someone does come up with a good solution in their area, others will want to use it (code should be open and shareable too).

The problems

I don’t want to sit here and be too critical of local government. They’ve had a hard time under the austerity measures and I’m sure people are doing what they can and what they think is best. But I am almost 100% certain that if what I saw this week is representative of most of local government, then we are so far off what needs to be achieved.

But there are problems getting there. GDS at the centre is already attempting to build common platforms and registers. But does it have the remit to dictate to local gov? I don’t think so. But why is there not a platform that enables an open dialogue between the critical mass of revolutionaries at the local level and the critical mass of revolutionaries at the centre?

GDS doesn’t want to build all those local services, I’m sure. If anything, GDS’ job is the least interesting bit (organising those building blocks). A critical mass of local revolutionary leaders connected to the GDS group sharing ideas and understanding what part each plays would be really exciting.

Can you imagine if at SOCITM next year we had GDS standing on stage alongside an organisation that represented 50 digitally-minded local councils that were all trying to push the platform agenda and could demonstrate some of the ‘What if we started from scratch?’ services they delivered? I’d be writing a very different story the one I am now, that’s for sure.

But all of that requires those that are in power at a local level to recognise that whilst their organisation is fundamentally important and critical to citizens, it possibly isn’t entirely unique.

It also requires that local organisations shift their thinking away from ‘digital is just a bunch of websites’, as per the comment at the start of this story. Digital is not just a bunch of websites. It’s not the lipstick on the pig. It’s delivering services in an entirely new way, made possible by internet-based architectures.

My take

I could go on. This is such a complicated area and I’m not offering this as a ‘know all’ opinion piece on how we get to a digital local gov. But I hope it provides something to think about. I hope it gets local government leaders thinking about how they can work differently and who they can collaborate with. I hope that next year at SOCITM I come away feeling optimistic and energised about the local government revolutionaries.

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