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Structural solutions for structural problems

There have been several articles published in various locations over the years about whether some kind of GDS type agency might help local councils get better at digital (by which I mean technology, online experience, and data). It was when the question was first posed back in 2012 that saw LocalGovDigital emerge as a community of practitioners in the space. 

Phil keeps a handy list of all the articles, and there have been recent additions from the likes of MarkRichardTheo and James, as well as Phil himself (I don't think you have to be a white man to comment on this topic, but it clearly helps).

Of course nobody really agrees what a local GDS is or looks like, but also lots of people do agree on a lot of things even when they are disagreeing about other things. Pretty much everyone thinks Phil is right: local government has done some great stuff by having facilitated collaborations, and more of that ought to be done and properly supported. But some people think that isn't enough, the pace is too slow, too many councils aren't involved, and we need institutional fixes to these problems.

For me, some kind of agency or agencies providing support to the sector in this space is an answer to a question. But it's worth digging a bit more into the real, underlying problems to be solved.


For me, the biggest issue facing local councils in terms of their ability to deliver good digital work is capability and capacity.

  • by capability I mean that the skills just aren't there at the right level in the vast majority of local authorities. This is across the board: leadership, strategy, architecture, development, design, delivery and so on. Of course there are great people working in local government digital, but too many councils don't have them.

  • capacity leads on from capability - there aren't enough of those good people. They are spread too thin, they take too much on, they burn out. What's more I suspect that within the current model of local public service delivery, there will never be enough people for every council, certainly not with the right level of capability and affordability.

However, the problems currently facing councils aren't just about digital. The sector is facing an existential crisis that is profoundly structural, in that councils are coping with issues that are not in their control to fix currently:

  • the population is aging and putting huge pressure on adult social care services

  • the cost of children's social care is rocketing, due, amongst other things, to the market in which councils must operate

  • the housing market is broken with too few affordable homes to either rent or buy in huge swathes of the country, particular the areas where people want to live

  • roads are falling apart all over the place, not helped by the fact that cars are getting a lot heavier thanks to the massive batteries in an increasing number of them (to name a minor thing, but an interesting one for fans of unintended consequences)

These are just four things. There are others, but I am far too lazy to type them out.

Is consolidating digital capability and capacity the answer?

So what's the answer here? Clearly, an awful lot of councils aren't brilliant at digital stuff, one way or another. A lot are good at some things, but many are scraping by, crossing their fingers that nothing catches fire this week.

Now, obviously it would be better for each individual council, and the sector as a whole, if we could do something about this. Better digital does generally mean better organisations - when it is user centred, delivered in an agile way, is proportionately secure, and well managed and maintained (etc). But focusing solely on this element of things is potentially a bit of a distraction and it is in danger of putting the digital cart before the public service reform horse.

The danger of talking about consolidated digital capability and capacity for me is my experience with shared services in local government. In theory, these things ought to make sense. But in practice, in so many cases, they just don't work.

I used to joke about one IT shared service that it was neither shared nor indeed a service. The punchline was that I wasn't actually joking. The four councils involved couldn't even agree on a single supplier of laptops! It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

Why do these things often go wrong? Because they tend to take the concept of economies of scale and apply them without any of the thinking being done around changing the organisations themselves. So what happens is, two teams are munged together, a couple of management posts are deleted to make a saving, and everyone carries on as they did before. Nothing gets better.

Now, again, obviously I am over-egging this slightly. Am sure there are local government shared services that manage to align their member council's policy and service design approaches to enable them to achieve some of the desired outcomes of these arrangements. But I suspect they are quite rare.

So the danger for me with some kind of 'GDS for local government' (appreciating that there are many different forms that such things could take and probably nobody promoting the idea is thinking of traditional share services!) is that it would mean councils end up merely doing the wrong things righter. Digital stuff would improve, but in the meantime councils slide into bankruptcy anyway.

I know, I know... it's not a binary either/or situation - but the danger in promoting 'local GDS' is it puts it front and centre and will be seen by many as the end in itself, rather than the means to the real end of local public service reform.

Getting things the right way round

So let's start with structural solutions for structural problems. The core problem facing local government is not the quality of its digital services - although it is true that in most cases they suck quite badly.

The core problem is that an organisational model that worked(ish) for several decades is no longer effective now, and the currently favoured approach to reorganisations - unitary councils - are just making things bigger, which isn't always the right answer.

Councils are made up of a bewildering array of services that have almost nothing in common except for the fact that nobody else wants to do them. Trying to apply a single operating model to all these services is a fool's errand. After all, maintaining environmental health standards, running an election, and picking up dog poo are three very different activities - and that's only three of the things Councils do on the regular. 

There are many ways that local public services could be radically reimagined and it isn't the purpose of this post to list them. I think for me though, the days of councils as currently organised ought to be numbered: I think some services could be delivered on a bigger scale, and others ought to be delivered even more locally than they are now.

What is needed is proper conversations about radical structural reforms of local public services, with space, time and money given to experimenting with new models. Only that way will the sector have a chance to reverse the decline that has been going on for over a decade now.

Of course, this isn't something that a single council can do alone, and the necessary structural change would only be possible with the involvement and commitment of a variety of public sector players (including central government and health). There are radical reforms that can be achieved just within the sector, but I don't think they will be sufficient to solve the existential crisis we are facing.*

So digital isn't important then?

Wait, hang on, I can hear you. thinking. Aren't you one of those digital utopians who thought this magical elixir was going to solve all the problems all the time? Well, maybe I was once. Am a bit more grizzled these days. 

Nonetheless, digital is and will always be a vital element of successfully delivering the necessary structural reforms, and right now councils lack the capacity and capability to make that happen.

It is, I think, inevitable that some kind of reorganisation within the profession is going to be necessary. But what that looks like is utterly dependent on what the operating model looks like.

Mark is spot on when he points that that every Tesco store doesn't have its own HR system and so on. Depending on the new model, there will definitely be opportunities for scale and bringing things together. But this should never be seen as a one size fits all centralised solution.

After all, centralisation without clear strategy doesn't always deliver transformational change. I would never want to do down the amazing work that GDS has done in the last decade and a half, but the underlying issues of legacy operating models supported by legacy technology are still there. A best in class team is vital, but not enough on its own.

Building capability and capacity in digital at the core of the sector will have a lot of benefits in many areas of work. But it isn't a panacea, and having the debate around it without first demanding that major structural reform of the local public service landscape is designed and initiated, is in danger of missing the point, and turning an opportunity into yet another barrier to significant, positive change.

* the paragraph starting "Of course, this isn't something that a single council can do alone..." was added on Wednesday 27 March to add clarity.

Author: Dave Briggs

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