Local government digital service: build or buy?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Local government digital service

In this series of blogposts I’m unpacking my opinions about the local government digital service debate. In the first post I set out my opinion that a single entity with the mandate and resource to address the common needs of the public is overdue and in the second I wondered about what that might mean for democracy. In this post I think about where services come from and in the others I wonder about how it might work in practice and finish off the series by considering the relevance of the GDS design principles in the context of local government. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t claim to have all the answers and want to know where my assumptions are completely barmy!

In the debate about meeting localised user needs in a coherent fashion it can be forgotten that it’s something that actually happens every day. There is a precedent for local residents to administer very postcode specific activities through a single product that is managed and delivered centrally.

They are not perfect examples of services that would be given the Digital by Default Service Standard seal of approval but that’s even better – they give the local government digital service lessons to learn and opportunities to iterate.

A first example would be the Blue Badge service. It is a piece of policy owned by the Department for Transport but which is administered by local councils. The digital service gives a consistent experience to the person who wants to apply for, change or renew their blue badge. That is a veneer on top of a complicated process but the complexity is hidden from the public allowing the service to be administered according to the local characteristics of the relevant council. The service is showing its age and has certain usability issues but here is a common user need served by a common digital service to administer a central government policy in a very localised way.

A second example is actually something that GDS looks after. Because of a European Union directive we as a country must provide a central route to getting the necessary licences to start a business somewhere. Businesslink was the home for this and so in its migration to GOV.UK we built a new single licensing platform. And this common approach is visibly working across the variety of unitary, borough and county councils. The performance dashboard for last week shows that Westminster, Lambeth, Cheshire East, Cornwall and Bristol City had all enjoyed a similar number of submissions. By contrast, Hull have chosen to spend money on their own bespoke system which no longer joins up with GOV.UK. They are probably not the only ones.

So the idea of meeting common needs with common tools is not entirely impractical or untested. But when those common products exist local authorities are still free to spend money on services as they choose. That means there is a complicated legacy of different contracts and different suppliers and different approaches.

In a straw poll of those present at an event hosted by the Department for Communities and Local Government a minority were actively developing their own systems. And of those who had openly coded one tool or another they had not seen much usage by other councils.

I think these things are connected.

To take advantage of a common platform, or to build new services in the open you will be a council with a fairly progressive mindset. But we need these tools and these platforms to find traction in those places where change is desperately required. And that won’t happen because their procurement exercises may not know what’s possible.

When an authority contracts with a supplier for something they could have got for free you can’t blame the suppliers. Local government continues to be an attractive market because suppliers know that we’re all meeting the same needs and can identify them, build a product that meets it and sell it several times over without having to change the value proposition at all.

Collaboration relies on relationships between different people but implementing the fruits of a collaboration you weren’t party to needs an awareness of what you’re missing. An organisation that is either releasing its staff to collaborate or open to implementing something that has been born from collaboration is probably making good decisions. When most councils buy in services then it’s unlikely there’s an immediate hurdle to accessing this activity.

So you need to try and raise awareness and various organisations have been doing that over the last few years but I’m not convinced that the model being perpetuated is a good one: in 2012 44% of the websites in Better Connected were 3 or 4 stars, this year it was 46%. SOCITM’s methodology is imperfect but the trends in the quality of the local government digital experience are not encouraging – if this task remains the responsibility of individual organisations, whether that’s to build, or to buy then the pace of change will not improve any time soon.

And I think there is an increasing urgency.

In my penultimate post I think about how a local government digital service might be created and who would provide the mandate it needs.

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...