Local government digital service: how might it work?

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; in the second I wondered about what that might mean from a democratic point of view and in the third I gave some thought to where services come from already, and could come from in future. In this post I ask 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 so please comment and tell me where my assumptions are completely barmy!

I don’t think I know the answer to this piece of the puzzle but but from my standing start I think there are a few possibilities for how you might create a local government digital service.

Fundamentally this must start with someone having enough mandate to formally recognise the activity that already exists and do a proper Discovery about what 21st century local government digital services could, or should, look like if they were being created from scratch. The Discovery phase of a project is the place to get all the hopes and concerns expressed and understood. It neither prescribes, nor proscribes, a particular approach but gives the space to test some ideas and come up with an idea of what your prototype might look like.

It was interesting that DCLG hosted the event that they did and that the department’s digital leader commented on the resistance to the idea of GOV.UK. So perhaps central government is beginning to think about funding something centrally from the top down to create something akin to GDS. Such an approach would need to work alongside the experience and expertise within councils and make sure it isn’t felt to be an imposition on local authorities whilst still maintain its ability to achieve the disruption it needs to. A centralised approach may be effective in delivering services free from the legacy overheads but it may prove difficult to build the relationships between local authorities that will actually result in consistently world class service design.

In the current context the best hope for local government is LocalGovDigital. They’re providing the leadership around coordinating, building and implementing good practice across the sector. I am very excited by what they’re are doing. It’s a grass roots network  of brilliant people who are passionate about delivering world class public services. Without mandate or resource the only way that local government will crack digital service design is through individual relationships and pockets of good practice spilling from one place to another.

But that relies on personal connections and it requires councils to be in the mood to build and implement something themselves. Where both those elements are missing then how can a voluntary group make an impact? You need to have the time, resource and mandate to properly understand and challenge what’s going on in a local authority and the decisions that are being made.

Phil Rumens wrote about a really interesting idea of a central co-ordinating body with the power to centrally contract a selection of officers for the purpose of project delivery (mimicking the way in which the England cricket team functions). He flags several good questions about practicalities but there is a very important, and compelling, delivery link between the local government digital service and the host councils that would give it credibility with organisations who aren’t in a position to contribute. This would still require central funding, coherent leadership and enough external challenge to maintain its disruptive ambitions.

And maybe that resource model could come from DCLG? If it doesn’t then could a bottom up movement be owned and extended by councils themselves? Could a handful of local authorities take up the challenge and sacrifice some funding to build it? It would need to be places where the leader of the council and the chief executives recognise that there are exciting possibilities. This would require an entrepreneurial risk taking mentality from a small proportion of local governments (5? 10? 20?) to give the LocalGovDigital makers the space and funding to be cloistered somewhere to build things and a mandate to implement the fruits of their collaboration. Having something to show, and a story to tell is, very compelling.

So that’s some thoughts about how the local government digital service might manifest itself. Is it something that remains entirely voluntary? Can it be an on demand selection of people brought together to meet particular challenges? Should it be centrally created, controlled and imposed? Or could several local authorities spin something up and give it enough autonomy that it would retain its disruptive edge?

I would find it most philosophically satisfying if the local government digital service came out of local government rather than from the centre but it would have to be able to challenge bad practice and it would have to retain its capacity to disrupt.

So although philosophically satisfying I’m not sure it would be able to deliver on the ambition I think is needed. Perhaps unsurprisingly I think that the local government digital service has to look more like GDS in its mandate and resource with a full-time focus on turning the pockets of brilliant good practice into a sector-wide approach to doing the right thing.

Your position on this matter will have a large amount to do with whether you think Baroness Lane-Fox’s cry of “revolution not evolution” is as appropriate in the local context as it was centrally. I believe it is. And so, to finish up the rationale behind my opinions that we need a local government digital service my final post offers some concluding thoughts via the medium of the GDS design principles.

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...