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A local digital tripartite

To say the ”do we need a local GDS debate” is a slow burner would be an understatement, but recently it’s ignited again, just as it did before the 2015 General Election.

I’ve been compiling people’s thoughts on it for the past 13 years, and looking back through them, what’s striking is that the debate hasn’t moved on a great deal in a decade. In fact some of the same issues Carl Haggerty talked about in 2012 are still being discussed today.

So let’s think about what’s actually being asked.

The majority of digital services offered by councils are procured from and provided by the private sector. Whether you’re looking for a planning application, reporting a pothole, searching for a social care provider, or applying for a school place, you’re probably doing so through something built and supported by the private sector.

Even the growing number of councils building services themselves using low-code are doing so through a proprietary platform supported by the private sector.



 

Whilst it’s certainly true of some functions, those who think each council has their own GDS style team redesigning the majority of their services independently of each other have probably never worked in local government.

In reality what’s being asked fundamentally isn’t ”Do we need a local GDS?” but “Does the current free-market model for the supply of digital platforms and services work?”.

So what are the arguments for a free market approach?

A free market should provide choice and value, and to some extent it does. There are a growing number of forward thinking companies already working with councils, and the Procurement Act is set to assist more SMEs who want to work with the Public Sector.

Compare this with what’s happening in central government and whilst starting off brightly in the 2010s in my view the Government Digital Service is now behind the curve. To take one example, only now are they introducing a forms builder which I understand is still very basic in its functionality, whereas this type of forms building capability has been in use across local government for around a decade.

If the free market works to some extent, why would councils want to emulate something that would essential mean taking a step backwards?

So let’s look at the counter arguments against the status quo.

I think it's fair to say that there are currently large functions served by free market solutions that don’t work so well, principally due to the small number of vendors in that space, meaning therefore the choice and value aspects are negated.

Some of this is entirely down local government’s own making and the desire to choose the least-worst safe option, rather than something innovative but riskier. Councils are seemingly stuck in an infinite procurement merry-go round of moving from one poor offering to another.

There's been some discussion about perhaps using the Heart FM model but to some extent it's already happening, with services developed centrally but showing local content.

In fact it could be said that just like the playlist of Heart, whilst promising a better mix of suppliers, in reality there are just a handful of the same old artists on rotation, and it's very hard for new acts to break onto the playlist.

So is there a third way?

Yes, I wrote in my review of LocalGovCamp 2022 of a new model emerging and since then we’ve seen some real progress. It’s basically this.



  • Central government provide seed funding and initial community support.

  • The private sector provide some of the technical resource and expertise.

  • Local government provide some of the technical resource and expertise, and expert knowledge around user and business needs.

Once it meets a critical mass, the work to continuously improve the services can be funded by part of the savings accrued by each council.

Whilst it’s certainly not a one size fits all model, it’s starting to produce results, and I can point to the likes of Open Digital Planning (ODP), or LocalGov Drupal as successes.

It’s not the LocalGDS model, to take planning as example, it’s actually transforming a local planning authorities by joining up planners and digital teams from across the country.

Just one actual example of that happening in practice is Gateshead Council currently leading on a piece of ODP work, initially on behalf of four councils including my own, which will eventually benefit many more, and there are countless others of sharing the load and creation of new digital planning services.

In my view it’s this approach we should be pushing forward with, not talking about a LocalGDS for another decade, because, as someone much wiser than myself once said, the strategy is delivery and the tripartite model is starting to deliver.


Author: Phil Rumens



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