Government as a local platform?

Two years ago I researched and wrote a business case to replace our content management system (CMS). This was shortly after BCCDIY and I argued that we should explore the opportunity to coopt partner with Hull’s excellent local talent to build something in the open that encouraged challenge and invited contribution. I lost (“we don’t want to be leaders”) and we picked a safer option. It was approved but something killed the project after I’d moved on in the graduate scheme rotation.

The need hasn’t gone away and on Tuesday I was invited to a meeting to identify tangible benefits for replacing the current CMS that would justify spending some money. Happily there’s talk of open standards and open source so that whilst buying something off a shelf wasn’t out of the question it might not be the automatic choice it once was.

And then that evening GOV.UK‘s beta launched and it brought me back to a piece I’d written last May about the local implications of At the time I wondered whether there could be a local government equivalent – a site built cooperatively to establish a common local platform and architecture for the standard information and transactions.

I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think local authorities need to cooperate to develop a bespoke CMS for local government. I’m not even sure how valid the discussions we had on Tuesday are, I don’t think we need to be procuring anything. I think we should nick GOV.UK.

This O’Reilly piece quotes GOV.UK’s designers as describing their approach as ‘government as a platform’ and it’s that mindset which underpins the ambitious dream of the much discussed and longed for ‘digital by default’. They’re doing that by putting together some incredible talent, giving them a mandate and offering the financial backing they need. GOV.UK is the product of 185 people with a budget of £1.7m. It is proof that Cabinet Office has bought into transforming the way in which we get information and transact with government.

And it’s all happening in the open. Since before the launch of AlphaGov there has been a steady flow of information covering the wider strategy for how the Government Digital Service imagines the future to look. The code is open source and therefore freely available, fixes are being contributed by the public and the beta is changing on a daily basis. They’re up front about what’s not there (yet) but they’re equally clear that gaps will be plugged as and when they get there.

If ever you were to believe hype, I’d say this would be the moment.

What about us?

The relationship between what’s happening in #thatLondon and the sticks hasn’t been addressed but there is a postcode lottery in council websites (discussed by WeLoveLocalGov this week), the excellent are patchy rather than commonplace so it’s unlikely that central government want this transformation to fall flat locally. There is no way that individual councils could ever emulate this kind of reimagining of the digital offer but do we need to?

On the table is a bespoke platform for government with an architecture that looks like it will cover whatever governmental context you need. And because it’s open source that means it’s possible for greater collaboration to build local plugins that can be the same for everybody. Do there need to be several different benefits calculators, event calendars, web mapping interfaces, form solutions, etc, etc? I’m not proposing a crusade against software vendors, corporate branding or local government developers but thinking about the services we exist to deliver it seems totally unnecessary to duplicate effort and play out these software merry-go-rounds.

GOV.UK is built from scratch to be a publication platform for Whitehall but it must have crossed somebody’s mind in talk of a ‘single government domain’ that it has local relevance too. Although I doubt anybody would ever force councils to adopt this platform over any other (coercion is hardly popular) is it not an attractive proposition? After all, this isn’t policy about local services, it’s software that we all use and we all need. What is the point in clusters of individuals in separate councils wrestling with the platform on which content is published?

Because isn’t it that content which is the most important thing? Isn’t what’s most important your content strategy rather than your CMS? Shouldn’t our resources be invested in figuring out local consultation and involvement options and not circular discussions about flavours of technology? And wouldn’t this save an absolute fortune in all sorts of directions?

I’ve made many assumptions and because I’m free from the practicalities and intricacies of more pragmatic considerations I can do that. But I think that if someone is building Government as a platform then it’s an attractive proposition to make that work locally. I’ve also leapt to a conclusion after a matter of days, maybe it’s too early to think like this. That might be one of the reasons why I don’t think anyone else has written about what GOV.UK means for local government websites but I would love to hear what other people think…

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...