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Should there be a Local GDS? Probably not. It Depends.

Since the world and their cats have reignited this debate again, and Phil Rumens has been keeping a running total, it seemed remiss of me not to add my thoughts. Most of the sector already knows what I think anyway from informal sharing, but since the point of a blog is to put ones thoughts into the public domain more widely for all to see rather than just one's chums, here they are.

First of all, it's important to be clear about what people actually mean when they talk about a Local GDS - do they mean a direct local analogue to the central GDS, or do they mean something fuzzier, cuddlier, more nebulous?

Replicating Central GDS

If this is what people are talking about when they posit the idea of a Local GDS, then my answer is unequivocally no, absolutely not.

The aspiration of the Central GDS is to be the One Digital Service Provider To Rule Them All; the intention of Central GDS is that if you're a service area within government wanting to improve the digital offer of your service, then you can't contract out to third parties, you can't create your own digital team, you can't deliver your digital service the way you want to deliver it, you can't even do your own user research to determine the best way to deliver your particular service to your particular users, you can't have your own content management system and case management system to deliver that service, you have to do everything The GDS Way. OK, I'm hyperbolising a little bit there, but I'm only hyperbolising because GDS has not been 100% successful in meeting that aspiration - there are still some indomitable Gauls out there doggedly holding out against the Roman Aggressor.

What I do like

Don't get me wrong - I applaud the spiritual aims of GDS as it was originally conceived by Martha Lane-Fox and Francis Maude when they saw the uncoordinated mish-mash that was the overall government digital estate, and the stories of services being quoted £2,000 just to replace the shared asset of a logo image file on a website, and said 'enough, already'. Kicking out shysters from the marketplace is good, and creating a common design language which enables users to use their accumulated knowledge of how one online government service works to enable them to easily transfer that knowledge when they need to use another online government government service is so obviously good it beggars belief that it even needs stating.

The problems

The first area in which I differ from the reality over the aspiration is the automatic assumption that everything GDS does is the best way to do anything - 'it conforms to GDS standards' has now become one of the two (and the other one I'll save for a future blog post...) ways of shutting down any discussion, any criticism about anything which is offered up which is plainly a load of rubbish. My main disagreement with the 'GDS Standards' sui generis shibboleth is when it comes to form design; I frankly do not believe that the overwhelming majority of users when presented with a form of 10 questions actively prefer those 10 questions to be spread over 10 separate pages rather than contained on one single page. I want to see the independent user research and the underlying methodology of that research before I'm prepared to believe it.

What could be lost

So any idea of a Local GDS similarly setting themselves up as the Unquestionable Authority, declaring that what will work for the London Borough of Hackney will unquestionably work equally well for Rutland County Council, I'm immediately suspicious of.

The second, perhaps more important area in which I disagree is - and I'm afraid you might accuse me of being an evil capitalist here - well, competition.

In the arena of Web Content Management Systems - the mainstay of our public-facing digital offers - there are many to choose from. Notwithstanding the claims some of the people who I might number amongst my friends who work for some of the companies supplying those CMSs might make, there is no one single CMS which is the absolute perfect CMS. Jadu, Umbraco, LocalGovDrupal, Placecube-using-LifeRay, Wordpress, IEG4 - they all have their strengths, and they all have their weaknesses; and the implementation partners of the open source solutions, they also have their strengths and their weaknesses. The fact of all these different companies and advocacy organisations being in competition with each other incentivises them to Do Better. Company C sees a weakness in its product compared with Company D, so is incentivised to plug that weakness. Company A sees itself losing market share to upstart challenger Company B and is prompted to a period of self-reflection to consider why that might be and address it - or go under. We as cynical users of those CMSs in the sector might grumpily go 'well they're all a bit rubbish in their own ways so where has competition improved them', to which the answer of course is to look at the digital services provided by monopoly suppliers in any specific service area and consider how good they are...

But it's not just the competition amongst financially-incentivised companies with families to feed where we all ultimately benefit. The fact of different councils all doing our own things, whilst on the surface is somewhat chaotic, does give us the opportunity to benefit from our collective hive mind and see that Council F is providing a certain service that Council E is doing badly really well so we can look in detail at that and adapt it for our own context, and similarly Council G can adapt the other service Council E happens to be doing really well. It's been a long time since I've been in any position of design influence over any specific council website, but if at some point in the future I do manage to persuade some organisation or other to give me such a role again, then it would absolutely be the second thing I might intend to do after saying hello to my team to do a qualitative and quantitative analysis of some of the leading players in the field to see what I can learn and share. Indeed, pending me persuading an organisation to give me such a role, that's part of my intention with this site - as a sandbox to demonstrate some of the thinking I'm writing about, and to build the kind of council website I'd want to build if I had a real council website to be in charge of.

The fuzzier version of a Local GDS

So having said what I don't want to see and why, here's what I do want to see, which might in some eyes constitute a version of a Local GDS. In a nutshell - more cooperation and knowledge sharing between councils.

I want to see more people like me who have ideas about how to do things, who have knowledge, experience, and insight to share, sharing it - I want to see more blogs like this one written by people working in or for local government, with more actionable content as well as more strategic thought leadership. I want to see more active sharing of knowledge and experience - not just by people sharing code in public Git repositories or writing inspiring blog posts, but by people's employer councils being willing to share their staff with other councils to help them solve specific problems or kickstart specific service design and delivery projects, maybe via some kind of sectoral consultancy effort. And we of course need to harmonise towards common standards for interoperability to enable multiple different systems to talk to each other - something I wrote about way back in 2019!

And it would of course make sense to have some kind of group or organisation - maybe LocalGovDigital, maybe the Local Government Association, maybe even Local Digital, coordinating all of this, to make it easier for everybody to actually find that knowledge which is being shared.

Author: Simon Gray

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