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A Local Govt Digital Service?

There’s been a few posts recently about local govt and the crisis it finds itself in financially and from a digital perspective whether having something like a GDS organisation would be of benefit.

I think the general consensus seems to be no, at least not in the form that GDS was set up but what can we do?

Let’s look at what’s already happening in local govt. We have DHLUC funding various pilots. These are all fine, but for me very slow. The first phase is often a few months’ work to produce a PowerPoint, to basically free up phase 2 funding. Of course, discovery is important, but it just seems to long and too slow with no guarantee of phase 2 happening and realistically telling us what we already know.



From a scale perspective you only need to look at the Planning system build they’ve funded. From what I can tell the work seems good, but it’s part of a system not the full system. But even ignoring that, if you consider that a move to a new planning system is at least a 6-month project then how do you scale that across 300 odd councils. There’s 150 years’ worth of work there to fund and resource.  It’s just not feasible.

And getting them all to agree to use the same system? I’d say that’s near impossible. There are all sorts of barriers to cross here, from procurement to individual needs, individual ego’s, different tech stacks, different processes and much more. Proving you can build something useful is one thing. Working out how to make that available and useful to everyone is entirely another.

We have the Local Govt Digital Declaration. But what is it really? It’s something written by digital nerds for digital nerds. And I know the writers so I can say that. It’s something that councils have signed up to as the right thing to do, but few are really delivering against it. But more importantly I don’t believe that most Senior Execs outside of digital understand what it is or what it’s for. It’s been signed to open up the opportunity to get funding and the spirit behind it is ignored.

For me it also misses the point too. I dislike the whole #fixtheplumbing mantra. I fully understand why it’s there, but it comes across as digital being the saviour to all council problems if we can just get all the bits to work better together. It’s a noble challenge, but even if we get it to happen it won’t make a jot of difference to council finances.

And I believe that by having this as a core message it bypasses those Senior execs who have signed up of the wrong reasons. The declaration should be about how we use technology to deliver better services, but guess what? That means the service has to understand how to benefit from digital technologies. It means they need to understand their challenges and how digital can overcome them. It means that digital teams need to identify problems within teams. But above all it means that you have to deliver services in a different way. And that’s not necessarily a digital issue. That’s a people issue. That’s a change issue. That’s a transformation issue. We can give you all the digital tools (joined up or not) but if you don’t understand how to use them to deliver services differently then there’s no point starting.



That’s harsh on the Declaration. I fully understand why it was written, but it should have the word digital removed. It should be something like the Local Govt Delivery Declaration (ok that’s not a great name but hey that’s not my job!). For it to be really useful and for it to be adopted across the whole council and not just one department it needed to be written in a way that was more inclusive of those other staff.

The issue isn’t necessarily that the digital doesn’t work. Yes, there are issues. Some tech we use every day is terrible. But some also isn’t going anywhere for a while. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work differently.

The more prevalent issue is still that there are far too many leaders in the sector that have little comprehension of how to use digital for the best of the organisation. Harsh but true. And it shows when you go into a digital dept and ask what they’re working on. Then try asking the CEO the same question. They won’t know. Yet tech is one of the ways that councils can help deliver services against this funding shortfall. It should be top (or very near top) of their list of things to grasp.

It also means that digital teams are left to make the decisions on the best projects to deliver. And all too often its still a game of who shouts loudest goes first.

The Declaration could be really good but the wording and the ambition of it needs changing in my opinion.

GDS – we can’t really visit what’s out there without looking at GDS. Now they had a clear remit to consolidate and bring different govt departments together. But that’s not what Local Govt needs. We need innovation. We need new ways of delivering services. We need to take heads out of delivery without services collapsing. We need the space to try and fail at new solutions or models of working.

What GDS has done is good. But its at a national level, not localised and even with a good remit and support they struggled to get depts on board. And the cynic in me says they’ve built a really big website, which again makes things simpler, but its not what local needs. The actual innovation from GDS is in short supply. Yes, notify, pay, verify and other tools are all good, but they’re just govt versions of things that already existed. In local govt we’re in a world of needing to find solutions that don’t exist.

We don’t need an organisation to set the rules on how agile works. Or how you run a Scrum team, or which fonts to use. All useful but its not going to have the impact we need.

We also need to consider that the Digital teams across the country vary in size and skill.

LOTI – here’s an example of something that seems to be working well. The majority of London council have signed up to this. And from the outside at least it seems to be delivering some value. But membership starts at £30k a year. Probably fine for London, but Districts can’t afford this. And it wouldn’t take many councils to cancel their membership for this model to fall over. They look like they operate with a roughly £1m annual income. Compare that to Brimingham that have just (accidentally) spent £100m implementing Oracle. It’s chicken feed really. But if they put their costs up then it might mean a few more cancel. It might not but it looks massively underfunded for what it could achieve.

Again though this is 30 odd councils, and one organisation. How do you build this model out to 300 councils?

Local Govt Drupal is a project I like. It shows how you can bring organsiations together to share knowledge. I still think the focus was slightly wrong, being about a shared CMS and what that means rather than how it can help deliver better services, but again anything led by tech people will focus on the tech. But even then, I know of councils who struggle to find or afford Drupal developers. Would more funding here help create a Local govt Drupal team that can be shared across organisations or are each council kind of bound to have to find a 3rd party consultancy to implement it? What about future improvements etc? There’s a few issues here that I hope they resolve.

But again, is this going to help save local govt from their financial woes? A shared CMS is probably a saving but is it only scratching the surface?

 

There are other groups sharing best practice that have been set up. These are a fantastic resource for councils. It can be a lonely place trying to do things differently. There is certainly more collaboration these days than there was when I was a full time local govt employee. But the perspective here is still about doing what were doing the right way.

The more important question is – is what we’re doing the right thing? And funnily enough it’s a question that often can’t be answered. I’m yet to meet a digital team that isn’t incredibly busy. There’s some really hard-working people out there, trying to make a difference. Genuinely good people. But I still see that they lack real direction of their efforts. They’re doing great work, but it’s not always the right work.

And that comes back to senior leadership and direction. Knowing what they’re doing and why. If you know me, you know I think most local govt digital strategies are crap. And this is why. They don’t give you a clear indication of what projects you should be doing and why. There is a clear link in a strategy from where we want to be, where are we today and what is stopping us getting there. It’s the things stopping us that are the problems we need to fix in digital.

 

Ok – so that’s they cynical me having a bit of a moan about things. So, what can we do?

Councils need the freedom to try new ideas. New ways of delivering services. They need innovators and people who can think differently. If we’re doing pilots, they need to be quick. They need to be able to fail so that we can learn from them. We need the time space and skills to focus on delivering services with less money. We need the funding crisis to be the focus.

Building amazing digital services is nice, but only if it helps councils. This means that whatever organisation we could put together to help local govt needs to have a specific outcome. It can’t be about “giving the amazon experience” or “building digital services so good people choose to use them” – two of the most bullshit quotes in digital.

We need to use digital to deliver in a way that we’ve never been able to before. We need a multi skilled team. And we need free areas where ideas can be tested and explored without recrimination if they don’t work. We need to treat services like a business. The best businesses try things, they pivot, they change, they adapt. When we do marketing we do a/b testing to see what works best.

That means we also need to remove the ridiculous amount of governance that sits on top of projects. What we think was the solution day 1, might not be the solution day 30.

Now if we can find an organisation that can give us that, then that makes sense. But it might need to be 10 organisations that all work with 30 councils each. It might need to be more (or less) we don’t know that yet either.

Let’s be clear here. Councils are fucked financially. Even the ones that have balanced budgets this year, look screwed over the next five years. Doing what we’ve always done. Or tinkering around the edges isn’t going to deliver the results we need. There has to be a fundamental shift in how we think about and use digital.

We need to put ego’s aside and we need to work together and share knowledge and best practice. We need to remove any lingering competition that councils (used to) have with each other. And we need our leaders to stand up and support us.

 

And you can call my cynical with this, but I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen the various fads and the silver bullets. I’ve watched as people added Digital to their job titles, without really knowing why. I’ve seen the big consultancies promise much.

 

We need to get back to basics - we need senior staff more on board with digital and we need the focus to be on delivering services without people involved. You build the service, and you only add people in where it is absolutely necessary. You don’t start with the team you’ve got. You start from 0. But to do that means its wider than digital. And that’s the biggest issue with trying to set up a GDS style organisation for local govt. What we need to achieve is different to GDS. The focus has to be more than just digital. And an organisation to support this would be welcome. But I fear its too big for one organisation.

 

 

Do I have the answers, no I don’t. It’s a big issue. There are steps that each organisation can take. There’s some great work out there. There really is. But there’s also a lot that’s not so good.


We might not be the final solution for local govt, but we’re going to play a part.


Author: Richard Godfrey. Founder, Hashiru Software



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