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Why’s it so difficult for councils to adopt the same technologies?

Of all the questions I get asked by people outside the local government sector, perhaps the most common one is: “Why can’t all London boroughs just use the same technologies?”

It’s not a bad or unreasonable question. Adopting the same tech seems logical both financially and practically. If every borough could just buy the same systems, they could procure together, getting huge economies of scale. Support would be easier. Training would be easier. Influencing the wider tech sector would be easier. 

So why doesn’t it happen? 

Below, let me share some of the factors I see in London and how we’re responding as a LOTI community.

Reason 1: Every council has a different starting point

The first thing to point out is that London is not one city, at least at a local government level. Each of the 32 borough councils and the City of London are autonomous organisations who can and have procured a range of different solutions over many years to enable their back office functions and the services they deliver. The result is that every council now has an almost unique technical architecture. This variability is no more surprising than the fact different charities use different applications to manage their fundraising activities. But councils’ different starting points set some limitations on their future tech choices.

Reason 2: There’s not one customer

Related to reason 1, I’m often approached by tech companies who ask me how they can sell their solution to ‘London’. The reality is that there’s not one single customer to sell to. Getting traction across the whole city entails convincing staff across all the local authorities. The different internal structures and stakeholders within each organisation often means it’s not clear from the outside who the ultimate decision maker is, but it’s likely to include at least the Chief Information Officer (CIO), Service Lead and procurement team.  

Reason 3: The tech-data-process triangle

A significant, but often overlooked, barrier is you can’t make decisions about what technology to use without considering the knock-on consequences for an organisation. Specifically, changing a technology nearly always entails changing the data you collect and the processes you use. Software tends to require information to be collected and inputted – and functions to be performed – in a certain manner and order. Ideally, that software should map onto the service models that councils want. More commonly (given the dominance of certain suppliers in the sector), processes are shaped by the tech being used. Either way, the challenge is that if we wanted to harmonise on one tech solution across London, it’s not as simple as asking if all boroughs can agree to use the same piece of technology. They would also need to align on the same or very similar processes and ways of collecting data. And that’s a lot more complicated!

Reason 4: Pressures on services limit appetite for process change

The fact that changing a technology entails changing processes means that the choice of which technology a council should use is rarely solely in the gift of a CIO. Service Leads must be involved, too. Given the huge pressures facing councils, LOTI frequently hears that many Service Leads feel they can ill afford the time, risk and upheaval that would be entailed in changing a major technology that would also require them to adopt new ways of working. (This is why talk of ‘IT’ transformation is a misnomer; it nearly always has to be organisational transformation, too.) 

Reason 5: Data dependencies

In order to deliver the types of seamless and connected digital services their residents expect, councils have to connect and share data from their major systems into a wider network of applications via APIs, middleware and other, more manual means. The reliance on using data from one system to meet the needs of another makes it hard to change any one part of a councils’ technology ecosystem without changing many more at the same time. When the average city authority delivers ~500 different services, that network of connections and interdependencies can get very complicated.

Reason 6: Different contract end dates

Since councils have procured their systems at different times in the past, their contract end dates are variable, too. So, as a LOTI community, if we wanted to encourage boroughs to work on the same procurement for, say, a housing management system, we are limited by the fact that only a minority of councils are likely to be approaching a contract end date in the same period. Sometimes even getting data on contract end dates can be hard when that information is held by different teams, such as IT, Services, Procurement and Legal.

Reason 7: Old procurement habits die hard

Some councils struggle to break away from using their current supplier due to outdated approaches to procurement. One specific aspect of this reported by LOTI members is the tendency to issue very long and detailed tender documents in which the functionality of their desired system is outlined in detail. Those tenders can end up just being a description of the system they currently use, with the inevitable result that only their incumbent – or the most dominant – suppliers can respond. 

Reason 8: Lack of time and resource

Today, London local government’s budget is 18% less than in 2010. As a result, everyone working in the sector seems to be doing what would have been at least two people’s jobs 10 years ago. The resource constraint on boroughs makes it incredibly difficult to carve out the time for the sort of early market engagement and service design activities needed to prepare a more outcome-focused tender, and to think through and positively embrace new technologies. 

So what can we do about it?

I share the above list – which is certainly not exhaustive – not as an excuse, but rather to explain why it’s not as straightforward as simply saying we’ll all adopt the same tech. 

So what can be done differently? Here’s what we’re doing and thinking about at LOTI:

  • We’re pulling together the list of systems used by all boroughs. In an initiative led by Waltham Forest, we’re aiming to collect the details of boroughs’ major IT systems so we can have more informed LOTI-wide conversations about where we can work together.

  • We partner with techUK. LOTI works with techUK to organise early market engagement sessions where LOTI members can meet with suppliers to discuss their needs and future ambitions, and learn about the latest market innovations. Our most recent session explored changes in social care.

  • We’re connecting conversations on procurement with service design. For the reasons outlined above, it makes little sense to discuss which systems councils should use separately from conversations about the service models they want to enable. LOTI is therefore hosting thematic discussions – most recently on social care and housing services – where our members can talk about how their organisation wants to work so we can then explore what technologies can enable them. We’re also funding two pilots to test more radical, digitally-enabled service models for adult social care. To make all this possible, several members of the LOTI team are trained in service design and we’ve recently hired our first full-time Service Designer.

  • We focus on data and interoperability. While there are advantages to boroughs using the same technologies, the most important thing is that all systems allow for interoperability and free access to system data. These things help deliver better functionality and also help avoid vendor lock-in. On this front, we have suggested Tender Wording for Data Access and API Requirements. In recent LOTI meetings, we’ve been exploring ideas proposed by colleagues at Barking and Dagenham about how we could formalise these data access requirements into the procurement process.

  • We’re working to get it right with smart cities. Adopting common technologies and standards is much easier when you’re not trying to replace councils’ existing systems. LOTI sees an opportunity to encourage greater harmonisation with new areas of technology, for example councils’ growing interest in smart city and Interent of Things (IoT) applications. LOTI is working with councils active in this space to see how we can ensure systems join up and work across the whole city. 

  • We’re sharing examples of open source and low-code solutions. This blog has focused on procuring tech solutions, but other paths are offered by open source, community-created, solutions like LocalGov Drupal, and low-code approaches. LOTI works to raise awareness of these solutions.

  • LOTI Technical Architects’ Forum. We have a dedicated forum for technical architects working across LOTI boroughs so they can discuss technology choices and their impact across the whole of a borough’s IT ecosystem.

Author: Eddie Copeland

Originally published on LOTI - 22 November 2023

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