Local government digital service: democracy

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 here I wonder about what that means for democracy. In the other posts I thought about the distinction between building and buying services, asked 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 fanfare and celebration of what has been done in the last two years it can be forgotten that central government had brilliant pockets of service design being delivered by exceptional civil servants. UKGovCamp had been instrumental in joining the dots between those people and created the conditions where GDS could thrive. It is absolutely not the case that everything was rubbish and suddenly GDS made all things new.

And one of the brilliant things about an event the Department for Communities and Local Government recently hosted to stimulate the debate about collaboration between councils was getting to spend the day with a room full of people committed to public service delivery. Whatever might happen in transforming the approach of local government it must acknowledge that the commitment and self-organisation of those brought together by UKGovCamp for central government is exemplified by LocalGovDigital who are dragging their sector forward in the margins of their day jobs.

But for all the brilliance and the pockets of good some things require a mandate and a resource and mandate to properly tackle.

When the Minister for Cabinet Office Francis Maude asked Baroness Lane-Fox to complete her report he acted decisively on its findings. In GDS he created a home for the disruptive and the innovative to ask questions and find answers across central government. He was able to do that in part because the Cabinet Office can corral government departments without legislation.

But could the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, ask someone to report on the state of the local government digital experience in the same way? The nature of local democracy would make it a different challenge – each local government is its own independent entity and there is a careful balance to be found between local autonomy and centralised policy.

So how on earth could I possibly believe in removing the service delivery responsibility from local governments and creating a separate entity far removed from any local accountability instead? It’s worse even than that, I believe a common platform, or a single team, could do more to support local democracy than it would undermine it.

Yes, councils are democratically elected by local citizens. Yes, councils make decisions about budgets and where money is spent. Yes, councils have local priorities and focus on local needs. Yes, councils are held responsible and accountable for service failure.

But my needs of local government as a resident in Lambeth are the same as my needs were as a resident in York. The numbers involved, the processes, the locations and the dates are different but paying council tax, finding out when my bins need to be collected or getting permission to host a street party aren’t so different as to require entirely different design patterns, user experiences and underlying technology. So, whilst my elected members will set the policy and alter the way in which certain things are implemented a consistently applied service design subject to the rigours of the Digital by Default Service Standard would reduce the risk of poor quality services without undermining any decision making process.

And there’s also an inconvenient truth about funding. While all the money that a council spends is the council’s it also isn’t, not really. Although council tax, housing rents and other commercial activities are set, raised and kept locally this is a small part of a council budget. Business rates might be administered locally but the amount charged is set nationally and the money it raises flows from councils to the Treasury where the current funding model redistributes it. That money, the local government settlement, constitutes the bulk of a council’s budget.

So is that money being spent on IT coming from locally raised funds or is it a portion of the big (but diminishing) cheque from the Treasury? And if it’s the former was that what the local elections were campaigned on? And if it’s the latter then I think there’s room to have a debate about how money shouldn’t be spent in 300+ ways on truly common things? It is quite right that we don’t think about council budgets in this way – once they’ve got the money from Treasury that’s it they’re free to spend it how they see fit – but I’m afraid the public sector makes too many bad decisions about IT to continue spending with impunity.

For me this is about the underlying infrastructure of our access to, and ownership of, local public goods and services. I see a parallel with the National Grid – different energy suppliers can be responsible for the service but when I plug in my television I know I can rely on a standardised and agreed electrical current that won’t blow up in my face.  You can’t pick your council and switch supplier but local services are as ubiquitous as electricity.

I don’t think we’re passionate about websites or digital services in their own right. I think we’re passionate about them because they support wider efforts to transform local lives. So I reckon we’d all agree that local authorities should be set up to focus on tackling the most important needs of their communities.

But because different councils make different decisions about spending their money on the same technology I fear that IT (in all its guises) gets in the way of doing that. I’d argue that creates a genuine postcode lottery where the IT strategy of a particular council has a direct consequence on the available funds left to tackle those needs:

Happy Valley Council and Sunny Fields Council are statistical neighbours – they’re broadly the same size and they face the same challenges. Last year Happy Valley spent £3m on its IT and Sunny Fields spent £5m. Immediately Sunny Fields has £2m less than Happy Valley to tackle the same problems. And if their common needs could be met by common digital tooling that cost £3m in total then that’s £5m that hasn’t been spent unnecessarily.

Of course that’s made up but the example is illustrative of what’s going on.

I believe that the quality of democracy is gauged not so much on the proximity between officers and councillors but in terms of measuring access to public goods and services. As a result, I believe that a single empowered and resourced team tackling these systemic issues is more positive than negative: creating a local government digital service will fundamentally challenge the postcode lottery that sees an inequality in how the benefits of digital solutions are realised.

So, assuming that a local government digital service does not damage the quality of local democracy and recognising the importance of having some sort of mandate and resource my next blogpost gives some thought to the trend I saw at the DCLG event about the distinction between councils that build, and councils that buy.

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...