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(Yet more) on a ‘Local GDS’



There is a growing and timely public conversation about the potential for a ‘Local GDS’ to help local authorities tackle their digital service challenges and deliver much needed savings, process improvements and better quality outcomes to their residents. Phil Rumens is keeping a list (and has also added to the discussion), and it includes excellent contributions from James Plunkett, Mark Thompson, Rachel Coldicutt/Sarah Gold/Dr Natalie Byrom, Theo Blackwell, and Jos Creese among others.

I’ve been tempted to comment because when I was Chief Digital Officer at DLUHC I established and ran the local digital team and programme, although I’ve since left government and I am no longer involved. I’ve also worked for a local authority and I’m acutely aware of how different things look from each end of this telescope. In the absence of any senior appetite for anything like a ‘local GDS’ our team in DLUHC attempted to do the best in collaboration with the determined (and growing) group of digital service reformers we knew were already making progress in the sector — often doing so against the odds — and with other supportive colleagues in Whitehall, including GDS.

It can be quite problematic discussing digital services in an organisation as if they were separate from the day to day service teams that operate the system and the wider government policy and regulatory environment. But it can be useful too, especially as I think its uncontroversial to note that in general councils in the UK have struggled to keep pace even with the progress in digital, technology and data of the wider economy, and also of (parts of) central government. There’s a wider story about the future of councils, including their services, funding and their wider relationships with their local areas and central government. But this isn’t that note, please forgive me.

Recent experience

Its easy to start with the negatives, but I hope any discussion about a ‘Local GDS’ starts with a proper recognition that the sector has made progress in digital services, especially for new and niche services. It has a much stronger digital workforce and leadership across the sector than it had a decade ago, and it is improving all the time. There are happily far too many places to list by way of example, but there is great digital and data work stretching across very different local authorities including Hackney, Camden, Newcastle, Adur and Worthing, Norfolk, and at a regional level via Loti and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. (Making lists like this is so unfair — there are many, many more that could and should be listed in any local authority digital hall of fame).

The approach when we started the DLUHC local digital team was to a) bring the sector together around a sensible, modern vision for reform via the Local Digital Declaration; b) find and back the reformers (like those in LocalGovDigital) in the sector, with plenty of meet-ups in person and online to share ideas and give strength in realising we weren’t battling alone; and c) establish a programme of work that concentrated on doing what ‘only’ central government could do to help move things forward.

The focus in the early days of that central activity was to use a Local Digital Fund to support groups of local authorities to develop re-usable services in more new/niche categories of activity, rather than take on the behemoths of the big domain services like social care. As things developed we leaned in to support better cyber protection in the sector (to prevent more ransomeware attacks as seen in Redcar and Hackney), invested in digital training for officers, and we picked off one of the big set piece domains where DLUHC itself had Whitehall policy responsibility — planning.

To my ears this experience of the last few years in both local authorities and Whitehall feels too absent from some of the recent discourse about a new ‘Local GDS’, but there is much to learn from it, not least as the programme is undergoing a well-scoped formal evaluation. There is hard-won expertise in the DLUHC local digital team about how to curate technology, relationships and (critically) the trust that will be vital if we are collectively to have more impact. There’s a long way still to go of course, but there valuable momentum has been built and any new ‘Local GDS’ would be wise to work in a way that harnessed this knowledge and energy at both local and central levels.

The big challenges and opportunities

From my experience there are two big challenges that any reform programme needs to seriously grapple with:

  • First, the main domain services and software in local government (social care, revs/benefits, waste, highways, housing etc) have been largely impervious to reform, and there is an imperative to act given this is where most of council budgets go. Now is the time to invite competition into these big domains and bring an end the closed, full-stack oligopolies/monopolies that are endemic in the sector and which frustrate the current and future delivery of efficient services. This was done at scale in central government after 2012 as a result of the GDS revolution and the benefits are considerable.

  • The second big challenge is that, as with other parts of the public sector, there remains a deep lack of digital/data understanding in leadership teams, both among officers and councillors. Any progress in ‘digital’ can only come about as part of a broader transformation of services, processes and culture in the wider organisation — especially given that in reality technology choices in the big domain services are still driven by Service Directors, not the CDIO/CTO.

On the upside, there are some great examples to draw from now in how to reform those big monopoly service domains, although these are not known by many outside the sector: local digital planning and local drupal (powering council websites) are two good examples. In both of these examples there was genuine and healthy collaboration between council reformers on the ground and the DLUHC digital team in central government who played a role as funder, backer and guide through the resulting market disruption.

The next stage of reform in local government needs to continue this mission but broaden the scope beyond planning and websites. It needs to do the hard work to tackle those other main domains, especially those where there is significant potential to unlock resource and reform at a system level — not least in adult and children’s social care.

What would a next phase of reform look like?

To do this requires a practical partnership formed of (multiple) councils, the Whitehall departments responsible for overseeing the domains in question (plus the associated regulators), and a central digital driving force — whether we call it ‘Local GDS’ or not. Central support currently comes via the local digital team at DLUHC, but if it meant extra political support and funding this leadership could come from elsewhere, so long as those running this entity fundamentally understood the nature of local government variation and sovereignty and wanted to work in a collaborative way with the sector.

The specific plan for the type of reform might need to flex in each domain, and that’s probably fine. For me, I think the critical elements would need to be:

  • A collaboratively written vision along the lines of the Local Digital Declaration, driven by user-need and efficiency across each whole end-to-end service, solving user problems first time, making the most of data and AI to improve service optimisation and efficiency.

  • Working on the assumption that while a handful of councils may genuinely need to configure an individual services in a genuinely novel way most councils will be pleased to (re)use good services that are available in a few patterns of variation (e.g district/unitary/county; rural/urban). Local drupal offers an intersting glimpse of the possibilities here.

  • That the services are built in an interoperable, modular way using modern platform technologies, including the use of AI to drive operational efficiencies. As Mark Thompson says in his post there’s no reason to bespoke much of these services each time in each area, whether by internal digital teams or external providers. The ‘Local GDS’ central team would ensure that there was sufficient componentisation as each digital service for these main domains develops, which should be taken from an existing thriving digital market, especially lower in the stack. We shouldn’t see any internal public service digital teams making components that already, or could, exist commercially — let’s all remember the power of Wardley Mapping to work through where we should be using commodities and products and what should be custom built.

  • This central ‘Local GDS’ team should be thinking commercially about both individual components and the service as a whole. Components need to be thought about as being extended and re-used across different services within an organisation: so e.g. security features or casework modules should be designed for one service (e.g. adult social care) but then be expected to be re-used in other domains (e.g. charitable services grants funding) that have similar basic functions. But it is a local matter for CDIOs/CTOs to organise their architecture and platform strategies — a remote central team will be a disaster if it tries to plan all this out in each council from an ivory tower. However, a central team should be working hard to both ensure there are the standards to enforce a fundamental tech interoperability and also the commercial pricing and marketplace for new competitors for those individual components — at least during an early phase of reform where stronger intervention is necessary to address the current market failures.

  • But the big prize for this central ‘Local GDS’ team and its stakeholders is to craft a more functional digital service market at the whole service level — and there is a real risk we replace one set of near-monopoly providers with a second generation ‘modern’ monopolies that are on a fast-track to becoming legacy. It is tricky to work through whether and how competition and flexibility works at both the component and whole-service model, and how to organise this within both councils and at a whole-system national level. My experience in DLUHC surfaced sometimes conflicting incentives and trade-offs between an approach at a component level and an approach at a whole-service level, and there was little useful wisdom on how to craft these imperfect digital markets within the existing commercial functions in government.

A plan to tackle the big service domains in local government

At a more detailed level how might such a ‘local GDS’ function work in relation to these big domain services? There are clearly many variations possible, but to get the collective conversation into more of the particulars here is a hopefully useful straw model:

  • Phase 1: For each of the significant domain services, user-centred design processes would be used in the normal way to create a ‘competitor service’, drawing on mostly pre-existing commercial components, with the agile development funded by central government and a small group (e.g. x6) early adopter councils. The resultant open source service would be organised as a collaborative legal entity, owned by councils, central gov (and maybe civil society organisations where appropriate — e.g. LocalDrupal is owned by a cooperative). The services would be built with the assistance of in house teams and digital service agencies, who would hired with an expectation they would play a role in phase 2

  • Phase 2: Central government would then bring together a wider group of local authorities to procure a ‘live’ version of the service from a commercial provider, presumably with at least one part of the provider coming from the agency that helped build the service. This ‘live’ version would consist of a service package around the fundemantal open source product which would be offered to councils, incorporating bug fixes, security patches and other incremental improvements back to the open source service, plus other elements like first-line support and training (a model akin to Mapbox vs OpenStreetMap).

  • Phase 3: After a period of time, set out in advance (e.g. three years), central government would help orchestrate a second round of commercial bidding, whereby at least two and possible more large groups of councils would come together to buy the commercial service package from different providers. The original open source commercial entity (comprising central and original local government members) would decide what elements of the service would need to remain as common (open source) standards, potentially mandated through legislation or guidance as with Digital Planning, this would include e.g. the API standards for accessing different parts of the stack to retain a competitive market and public service utility, the data standards (including open data publishing), perhaps the regulatory requirements for interfacing with the service’s government regulators. At this point the old-world previous incumbent provider must be required to meet these standards if it is to remain available in the local government marketplace. The expectation is that at this point the new service companies would each fork the original open source model and make their version proprietary (although they could choose to keep their version open source if they wanted). This would be designed to create the commercial incentives to invest commercially in the development and iteration of the original service, to keep a momentum for ongoing reform and end or reduce the amount of additional public subsidy.

These reforms should tackle head-on that there needs to be genuine jeopardy for incumbent (near) monopolists: rival services will be built and technical standards will be enforced with the accompanying threat of legislative/regulated entry to a market, as alreadydescribed in clause 87 of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023

In addition to creating genuine alternatives in the market there are some other cucial blockers/enablers that need to be tackled collectively/centrally and which need to be in a remit of any ‘local GDS’, including updating digital procurement practice, API and data standards, cyber protocols and assessments, and attracting digital talent. The good quality recent work of the DLUHC local digital team on cyber and local standards are useful reference points for what this could look like.

Things to avoid

There are, however, also some things to be avoided:

  • We should all be on our guard against creating a daft centralising force that assumes that councils are rubbish and that they all just do the same thing without any fundamental local difference — ‘just do it once for them from the centre, and they can add their logos if they want’. Jos Creese flags this in his post, and I’ve seen folks in central government misjudge this issue, horribly, time and time again.

  • We all love open source, it should go without saying. But I’ve seen too much commercial naivity in the local digital sector about the business models behind local government software, and the large amount of time and ongoing investment required to keep software safe and up to date. There are nasty market failures in the local government software sector, and some of these are likely structural in nature. But there are plenty of commercial organisations that do and would add serious value to the sector and we collectively need to do better than wishing away market complexity with a type of hippy open source magic wand.

  • The public sector need to avoid having endless meek discussions with embedded (near) monopoly software providers about opening up their services and predicating the whole mission for local digital reform on an (ignored) set of data standards — the NHS has wasted years doing this and remains riddled with terrible software. Monopolists are going to monopolise and extract rents, its how it works. Yes of course the public sector needs engage all suppliers at all stages, and it should reach for the the incentives and routes for existing providers to pivot and the make the most of their domain and technical talents in a new world. But commercial naivity in this space will not be rewarded.

Eyes on the prize

There are big opportunities if digital/AI reform in councils is done well, and there is a helpful momentum towards doing better in this area than we have done collectively in recent years. Local authorities are a £2bn+ technology market afterall, and play a critical role in the delivery chain of many national-level public service priorities — not least the NHS.

Yet there is a significant risk any ‘local GDS’ or equivalent will get horribly distracted. There are thousands of individual services in operation across local government, hundreds of individual councils, and strong and necessarily divergent political agendas across the sector. People who work in councils have views about their future and are often battling against unhelpful structures and processes. Councils are not simply transactional delivery agencies, they are both curators of and participants in their local community, democracy and economy. There will be fancy new technologies that come and go (blockchain! virtual reality!) that bedazzle but hold out very little opportunity for scaled efficiency reform. All of these and more will provide a mix of distractions, worthy ideas, and side-quests that will be difficult to refuse.

But the overriding issue is how to deliver mainstream operatinal council services at the highest quality and lowest cost possible, using the digital/data approaches that all other sectors, globally, are already employing to drive similar change. In councils this means having a lazer-like focus on that handful of big end-to-end services that drive much of their activity and costs, and on the software, processes and use of data that sits behind them.

We might create a ‘Local GDS’, and personally I’m rather keen for something with more clout (and money) in this space regardless of what it is called and where it sits. But the bigger issue is what should (and shouldn’t) those interested in local digital service reform focus on. My answer is creating user-led, end-to-end, geunuinely digital/AI ‘challenger’ rivals to the embedded software and its acommpanying service processes in those main domain areas. Without this, we’ll all be collectively playing on the margins and those vital local services and the people that depend on them will continue to struggle.


Author: Paul Maltby, Director of Government AI Transformation at Faculty.ai

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