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The future of digital services in local government

I was inspired to write this following an excellent blog post by James Plunkett on the same topic. James is suggesting “Local Government Digital Alliance” as a name for a non-centralised group of organisations working in this area. I’m not sure if he knows there’s a PDF floating around the internet from all the way back in 2013 that is using the same name to advocate for broadly the same thing.

I strongly encourage you to read James’ post, as well as Theo Blackwell’s response. I also wrote another related post on the topic back in August 2020.

My experience in this area

I worked in the Hackney Council Digital team (HackIT) from 2019 to 2021. In addition, back at GovCamp in 2021, I ran a session called “Building centralised local government services. Is it possible? Is it even a good idea?” (session notes here). Following on from that, I ran a number of online meet-ups with interested people from a variety of local government authorities that eventually petered out after five or six sessions. I wrote three blog posts on those discussions, which you can find here: one, two, three.

My hope for that meet-up was to get into the service design and technical discussions necessary to build a platform to host multiple digital services that could, in turn, be used by multiple local authorities (so-called “multi-tenant services”). The reality, however, was that the discussion immediately turned to several of the things James mentioned in his blog post; namely existing contracts, guaranteed long-term funding, support and especially accountability for failure.

The current environment

The current environment is unfortunately not particularly conducive for this kind of conversation. Many local councils that were leading the way in GDS-style digital transformation have run into significant issues that have severely disrupted such progress. For example, Hackney (cyber attack), Camden (staff cutbacks due to financial issues) and Croyden (bankruptcy). The general background is that the financial state of councils all across the country is so bad that one in five say they may go bankrupt this year and Labour has said there’s no quick fix.

This is on top of the decade-long under-investment in technical skills in local authorities, leading most to be completely reliant on multi-year bundles of linked service contracts with our old friends like CGI, Capita and (oh yes) Fujitsu. The vast majority of local government organisations have a number of procurement specialists and people who will fix your laptop but simply don’t have people in place with modern skills for co-developing digital services (by which I don’t just mean technical skills but core functions like user research and service design).

Given everything else that’s going on, most council senior leaders will still rely on what they know — expensive procurement of sub-standard digital services — rather than try something new and scary where the long-term support and especially accountability for failure may be unclear.

People want to help

I spoke to someone recently, who wanted to run a “hack day” to help their local council, which is in severe financial difficulties. I told them that, before suggesting building any new technology, they should consider the following.

  • Capacity for change in individual council departments, given the widespread crisis in areas like housing and social care.

  • The ability to continue to support and continuously improve new technology, especially when most councils do not employ any developers, never mind service designers or user researchers.

  • Integration to existing legacy systems run by providers who are often highly resistant to open APIs and data standards.

Overall, I suggested that their time might be much better spent either helping to introduce free / low cost open source supported services, such as Fix My Street or those from Local Digital (see below). Even better, offer to look at how council staff are using widespread services they’ve already paid for (e.g. Microsoft or Google office products). Offer training to utilise those services better, to improve both internal processes and services to citizens (e.g. by using the online forms products both of the suites offer).

Various organisations offer training in these and other related areas but the decision of central government to close the excellent GDS DIgital Academy was a very short-sighted one that I hope the next government overturns.

Some great work is happening

All that said, some great work is happening. Local Digital, the digital team in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), continues with the impressive work they’ve been doing on funding a number of digital services developed by and shared across multiple councils. They’re also leading on helping councils improve their cyber security. This work happens under the umbrella of the Local Digital Declaration, which has been signed by a significant number of local authorities. What work those bodies have continued to do in this space after recording their original commitments is an open question as it doesn’t look like Local Digital have the resources to keep that part of their site updated. It’s a shame it wasn’t done as a wiki, with councils encouraged to update their own sections.

In addition, the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) is also funding the development of a small number of local authority digital services and the team at Collaborate to Innovate (CC2i) continues to produce and support some admirable products. A number of pockets of similar work are going on elsewhere.

Opportunity in crisis

Before I get into my thoughts on what should be done to help UK local government improve their digital services, I have a more general opinion. Given the spending crisis across the local government space and the likely change in central government before the end of 2024, it’s my hope that the overall current situation can act as a catalyst to introduce genuine radical change to how government provides services to citizens. The kinds of things that Public Digital discuss in Radical How, many of the topics James has covered in previous blog posts and especially the work of Hilary Cottam in works like Radical Help would be extremely difficult long-term cross-cutting projects but would be infinitely better than more digital sticking plasters on fundamentally broken systems.

You’re not special

I’ve had many many discussions with people working in local government over the years and, when I’ve asked various specific questions, I’ve received the same discussion-ending response — “because localism”. There’s often an overriding dogmatic view that every local authority in the country is unique and special and “must be able to create and maintain services specific to the needs of their particular citizens”. My first push-back on this is that almost all local authorities undertake their key services using non-customisable digital services from an extremely limited number of large vendors. Their citizens may have unique user needs but, if that is the case, how they service them is already severely constrained by the digital systems they use.

I fully understand that, from a political perspective, it’s vital that local authorities feel empowered to act in ways that benefit their specific citizens. However, couching that in statements around unique user needs is something that is a great example of “citation needed”. I’m personally just not convinced that user needs for citizens accessing local government services such as local authority housing or social care really are significantly different in leafy Hampshire compared to urban Newcastle.

If I was a new incoming Minister at DLUHC, the first thing I would do, apart from possibly changing the silly name, would be to contract with a medium-sized commercial enterprise with experience in this area. I would suggest they undertake a significant piece of research across at least a dozen councils with citizens across the cultural and socio-economic spectrum to catalogue their user needs for core council services. The aim would be to see, once and for all, whether they really are significantly different and hopefully finally put this argument to bed.

Forcing the market to improve

One of the major things achieved by the creation of GDS was the introduction of strong spend controls for digital services in central government. Alas, over time, the ability to enforce these excellent rules has weakened, especially for the larger government departments. One of my hopes for a potential new government is the reinforcement of these regulations.

Along with this there is an opportunity for DLUHC to draft their own Local Government Spend Controls that local authorities could voluntarily sign up to under the Local Digital banner. It would rightly be very controversial to attempt to persuade local authorities to sign up to this with a “stick”, such as withholding funding, but a “carrot”, such as additional funding, could be highly motivating.

Such a set of controls could include limits to the duration or price of a contract, conforming to data standards, forcing vendors to provide APIs to enable easier interfacing with competitor products and ensuring that purchasing organisations have simple self-managed access to all of their data.

On top of this, further funds should definitely be given to Local Digital to enable them to continue to compile lists of related contracts and expiry dates for every local authority to enable group purchasing to drive down the exorbitant prices of existing digital products.

My main suggestion

In Theo’s post, he uses the phrase “collaboration not centralisation” to advocate for local authorities joining together to create separate organisations which, in turn, produce shared digital services they manage. I simply don’t think this is viable as a long-term solution for the reasons I’ve outlined above.

My preferred solution is for the new government to substantially further invest in Local Digital in DLUHC to enable them to start building high quality, continually iterated and, most importantly, long-term funded digital services that can optionally be used by local authorities.

Using the evidence produced by the widespread investigation into local citizen user needs that I’ve outlined above, the early-GDS model of producing exemplar services could be followed to show local government what kind of digital services central government could provide.

The most important thing to emphasise is that, in this model, DLHUC is simply acting as an alternative vendor to the existing ones in the market. Local authorities who are used to procuring digital tools rather than building their own, which is almost all of them, can have an option of a much more modern high quality product, based on known user needs.

The other key option is that these services could be centrally funded and offered to local authorities for free. Given the current colossal amount of duplicated spending, where each local authority has to buy licences for software products doing the same things for each one, I believe this is a much better model.

These services could be co-designed with a number of earlier adopter organisations in the same manner that the Department of Education is currently undertaking to develop local authority Family Hubs.

So, why won’t it work?

I foresee these main arguments against this proposal.

Firstly, “because localism”. I’ve known many people who work in local government who have longstanding extremely negative opinions about anything coming from central government. It would also normally be a difficult sell to local councillors who want their council to be seen as a unique and separate entity. However, given the current local authority financial crisis, I think it’s more likely at the moment that local councils would consider this than at any other previous time.

Secondly, because of sharing data. Local authorities will have valid concerns about their data in a shared system being accessed by central government or other local government organisations using the same service. I would counter that the risk involved is no higher than their data being locked away in the data centre being used by any of the existing tiny pool of local government digital service vendors.

Thirdly, because of funding risk. Local authorities would be rightly worried that these services might not be funded over the long term as they would be paid out of departmental budgets, which are notoriously subject to change, instead of through the profit motive of a commercial company. I would answer this by ring-fencing several years of investment up front — ideally by putting the money in escrow. This is very unusual for government spending but may be necessary to get risk-averse decision-makers on board.

Finally, because of the potential to seriously damage the market. I’m sure the loudest argument against this will be that it will be unfair competition against the commercial providers in this space — especially if the services created are offered to local authorities for free. There may even be legal reasons why it’s currently impossible to do this. I’d like to come up with a creative and meaningful response to this but, the reality is, I just don’t care. Local authorities are in dire financial straits and are often forced to work with terrible digital systems provided by effectively cartels, who have no motivation to produce good products. I believe it’s time to give another possibility a try by giving local authorities an option to procure from a new vendor in the market — even if it means changing the law to allow this to happen.

What to do first?

Following the project to complete the widespread collection of user needs, I would start with a couple of exemplar projects to see if the model can work. I wouldn’t start with very high profile critical projects like social care or housing. Instead, I would probably start with some less controversial services that are still needed by every council in the country, such as providing parking permits.

Continuing this conversation

After great conversations on this or similar topics, my final question is always: “Where can we continue this discussion?” In this case, luckily the answer to that is easy if you work in local government. I highly recommend the Local Gov Digital Slack as a place to discuss these topics. For those of us not currently working in local government, I guess it’s social media — or the new upcoming events series, currently being organised by myself and some friends. Watch this space!

Author: David Durant

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