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Do we need a new focus on local digital services

There is some debate going on at the moment, with some recognised and highly knowledgeable analyst on the subject giving some new and great insight (see

But as soon as we try to compare councils with Tesco I know we've missed the point. What the public sector needs is consistent and joined up policy, coordinated investment, and resolution of the things (like data standards) that must be done nationally. But local Government is not like Amazon, Tesco's or any retail business in the main. It is a franchise model that reflects the priorities of an area, a place – a 'connected place'.

Local government must represent the area it services, whether commissioning, delivering or representing public services. Is the key to maximising, well-being, economic performance, and environmental improvements. Local government varies, and rightly so, according to local culture, economy, geography, history, politics, demography and the mix of public sector pressures. It is not, nor should it be adjusted to be homogeneous. That means the way to develops digital priorities in local government is not to apply an Amazon or Tesco-style model.

Central government has for 20 years failed to provide the ingredients required to make local public service successful. That is partly starvation of resources, justified wrongly on the basis that it will drive innovation and efficiency. But it is also partly a lack of understanding or focus nationally about how 'local works' (e.g. money woefully wasted in projects like HS2, GovVerify and many vanity projects). Central government needs to fix its own issues and provide a framework for digital government locally.

For example, a single integrated tax system for all so that we all pay tax fairly (from individuals to big business). Re-modelled local government finances to reflect national and local need and levelling-up. It needs joined up policy and activity between government departments so it has, for example, one HR profession, one finance profession, one way of doing common things across departments and integrated technology that services the business of digital government. It needs the Department for Leveling up Housing and Communities to have much more power and influence across all departments to reflect local interests. And it needs GDS to champion this with a fist of iron and authority to act across the traditional baronies and power of big departmental interests. All national systems need to be designed from the 'outside in' - start with local services and local people, not the traditional Whitehall centric perspective.

And then there is the NHS. Failings of NHS digital, then NHSX, and now the lack of 'grip' on digital from most Integrated Care Boards, speaks volumes. We need an NHS digital body, but very different from the past or present. It needs to focus on PLACE and whole system working, sorting out funding, data and digital architectures that can be shared in regions, joining mental health, social care, community, self-care, acute and primary care services. It needs a blueprint for delivering the NHS long-term plan. Then it should back off and leave it to devolved action - not imposing technology solutions such as 'if we all have an electronic patient record the problems will be fixed' - it won't - and it could get worse by spending on technology solutions from big suppliers without the digital foundations being fixed and the culture modernised.

Mark's article is a great read. It gives an honesty about the problems we face and how badly things have been neglected (some would says deliberately broken) by our government in last two decades. More importantly, it shows how a lack of real digital understanding at a local level has thwarted many attempts to exploit the potential of technology.

So this is a great debate to have, and timely with some very shrewd, experienced and intelligent insight. But we need to be careful what we wish for, especially in striving for homogeneity.

Author: Jos Creese - CEO and founder at CREESE CONSULTING LIMITED (CCL)

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