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Helping local digital work

Should there be a Local Government Digital Service?

In the early 2010s the UK Government Digital Service spearheaded a transformation in the way public digital work is done.

The impact of GDS’s early work continues to be felt. The creation of Gov.UK, the exemplar digital services that led the way, the shared platform of Notify. And maybe more so the cultural and capability enhancements that followed: the UK government Service Standard, the rise of design in government, the DDaT profession.

Plus the seeds that floated out from GDS to grow into digital teams in central government departments and local government. And the way GDS shaped public digital work in countries like the US and Canada.

The GDS story reminds us how a new institution can add energy, clarity, talent, and excitement to a reform agenda even when — or maybe especially when — there’s already good work being done.

So, where next in 2024? Are there new institutions that could bring fresh impetus to public digital work today?

Adding umph to local digital work

One idea I’ve been mulling in chats with thoughtful people is whether it could be helpful to create a Local Government Digital Service.

This would be a new institution, enshrined in statute, with long-term core funding, and a mandate to support the next generation of local public digital work.

LGDS would of course need to work differently to GDS. In fact, let’s switch the name to something that reflects a more peer-based, less centralising way of working — how about the Local Government Digital Alliance.

The point being that the LGDA — both its work and the institution itself — would need to embody localism. Avoiding the tendancy to centralise or standardise unthinkingly, and instead emphasising local ownership, the importance of local context, and local identities.

In other words, LGDA would need to add umph to the great local digital work that’s already being done, rather than being a distraction or a duplication, or competing for resources or talent.

This great work is being done by the many brilliant digital teams that now exist in local government across England, Wales, and the wider UK, as well as by collaborative initiatives like LocalGov Drupal and LOTI.

Plus we’d want to keep in mind the many aspects of national public digital work, from initiatives like One Team Gov to central government digital resources, that are already helpful to people doing local digital work.

So how would LGDA need to operate to add value in this way?

It goes without saying that LGDA would need to exemplify best practice user-centred, agile public digital work. Indeed one value of LGDA could be to advocate for these practices with local government leadership, especially in parts of the system where this argument isn’t yet won.

LGDA could also help refine the principles of public digital work for the context of localism. What does it take to do brilliant place-based digital work? How can digital infrastructure be built to strengthen our connections to place, rather than weakening them?

The institutional form of LGDA would also be important.

LGDA would surely need to be independent of central government, with an explicit mandate to work in service of local government.

Perhaps LGDA could even be founded by local government. Maybe local government leaders — digital and otherwise — could come together to propose LGDA as an initiative, and maybe local government could be integral to LGDA’s governance, with central government playing more of a supporting role with funding and enabling legislation.

The staffing model for LGDA would matter too. A good aim would be porosity, so that rather than being separate from local digital work LGDA’s work would always be connected, collaborative, and open.

Maybe LGDA could be staffed on a rotational basis, with a small permanent core team but most staff rotating in and out of local government digital teams. To avoid LGDA poaching talent, maybe these secondments could be time-limited. And maybe a decent portion of LGDA’s roles could be part-time, or job shares, with people splitting their time between LGDA and a digital role in local government.

Done right, maybe a stint at LGDA could become part of people’s professional development— a way to pick up new practices and to learn from and share with colleagues from other local areas, while also bringing local on-the-ground knowledge and ideas into LGDA.

Where would LGDA be based? My first instinct is ‘not London’. That’s not to say I’m not a fan of the great digital work happening in London. Just that it might be better to broaden and tap into thriving digital communities elsewhere, for example in a place like Leeds.

But maybe LGDA should be bolder than that and embrace the possibilities of hybrid working. Perhaps LGDA’s staffing model could be remote by default, opening up its roles to people across England and Wales, and maybe recruiting for a geographic spread — across regions, urban/rural settings, and different types of local authority.

Perhaps this hybrid model could also include a regular rhythm of in-person meetups. And maybe these gatherings, as well as being for LGDA staff, could also be opened up to the wider local digital community. They could be moments for people to share, celebrate, and learn from the work being done, but also chances to co-design LGDA’s ongoing work and strategy. And of course all LGDA work would be done in the open.

But what work would LGDA actually be doing?

Surely a big part of the work would be a collaborative effort to build best-in-class public digital infrastructure — a shared technology stack for local government.

A set of modern platforms, reusable tools and components, and shared assets like data registers, designed for and owned by local government, all built with deep insight and legitimacy and ownership from local government.

That shared technology stack would not be mandated, but would be available as an attractive ‘shared public option’ — an alternative to duplicatively building platforms/tools in-house for each local area, or outsourcing to big providers.

LGDA could also facilitate smaller scale collaborations, on the model of LocalGov Drupal, to build shared tools and platforms for a cluster of, say, 20–50 Local Authorities who wanted to collaborate.

This could be done with new legal and organisational mechanisms, or simply by convening people, to make it easier to build software together in small coalitions. These collaborations are already starting to happen but LGDS could make them easier, so that they required less manual effort and opportunism.

Another area of work could be around standards. Could LGDA help local government to align around technical standards for digital products and data? More consistent standards could allow greater interoperability of systems, a simpler user experience for citizens, an easier tech stack for startups to interface with, and easier data integrations.

Might there also be a role for LGDA to help build internet-era cultures and capabilities across local government? Certainly if LGDA worked well, it would diffuse good practices and level up skills simply in the way it went about the day job. Hence that staffing model of secondments and rotations.

Maybe, though, LGDA could also work more directly to build capability, for example by providing shared resources for a local government DDaT profession. Maybe this could include hosting vibrant communities of practice for local members of DDaT disciplines, with a focus on skills that are especially valuable to local digital work

It might be especially valuable for LGDA to also help upskill colleagues in non-digital functions in local government, from finance to PMOs/governance, since it is of course now essential that these functions are run in line with internet-era methods. A world in which non-DDaT professions in local government had internalised internet-era methods would be a world with 1,000 fewer daily arguments, surprises, and frustrations.

Procurement is another area where LGDA could help. Ten years on from the creation of the UK digital marketplace, we might hope that Local Authorities had freed themselves from the tentacles of big IT providers like CGI, but many are still entangled in these kinds of old-school, multi-year contracts. Some have even signed new ones.

Escaping from these tentacles is hard work — it requires deep legal and procurement expertise, determined leadership, and a big dose of chutzpah. Especially when multiple contracts and systems are intertwined, with non-overlapping renewal dates and hard technical dependencies between systems. (Of course this tangle is not a coincidence — it is the business strategy of big IT, and is a big part of how they keep lumbering on.)

So could LGDA be a centre of expertise in legal advice and procurement? A way to help Local Authorities who are trying pick their way out of complex contractual arrangements.

The test of all this is really quite simple: would LGDA be helpful to people doing local digital work?

In fact, the best first step in designing an instituion like LGDA might be simply to ask this question to local DDaT professionals: what would you find most helpful?

Of course, given the state of funding in local government, it’s possible the instinctive answer would be: ‘I just want more resources, not a new organisation’.

At the risk of aggravating people doing digital work in local government, my personal sense is that although this might be the easy answer to that question, it’s probably not the right answer for the long-term.

That’s not to push the particular version of LGDA I’ve described above — I’m just trying to illustrate an idea, not advocate a particular model.

But I do think that, big picture, it’s hard to see how we can up the umph of local government digital transformation without some kind of institutional innovation, and specifically without better ways to support collaboration.

After all, if you go back to first principles, good public digital work is powerful in part because it allows government to leverage the scale of digital technologies —through shared platforms, reusable components, shared technical, and data standards.

So finding better ways to build technology together across local govenrment must surely be a part of the future.

And while it’s true that Local Authorities are already collaborating more than they used to on digital work — and credit to the people who are doing the hard yards on this — at the moment this requires tough, manual labour.

So it seems to me that a well-designed, porous, collaborative new institution could make these collaborations faster, and less contingent on tireless individuals and personal relationships, and therefore less prone to backsliding.

Plus the test of LGDA isn’t whether it would be universally popular. As GDS learned 15 years ago, it’s hard to add umph to digital work without causing some ripples. It’s unlikely, for example, that local government would align behind shared technical or data standards through a full consensus. What matters is that any standards emerge in a way that is informed by a deep understanding of local context and with deep buy-in and legitimacy.

Anyway, my point isn’t really to push specifics, but just to float an idea.

For what it’s worth, my sense is that a bad version of LGDA would be worse than nothing but a good one, well conceived and executed and done in the right spirit, could really help push things forward.

So, I’d be interested in reactions, or even better improvements. What kinds of institutional innovation could be most helpful to local digital work?

Author: James Plunkett

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