On a local government digital service

I think local government would benefit hugely from a disruptive approach to providing digital services and meeting user needs. I’ve thought this for some time. This is the first of a series of blogposts where I unpack why I think what I think; the second talks about the threat such ideas have to local democracy ; the third about the provenance of services themselves; the fourth about how such an organisation might work and the final post considers 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!

There is a conversation about digital government that does not go away. It is all the fault of alphagov.co.uk and the birth of the Government Digital Service. Does local government need a digital service for itself?

It’s an opinion polarising conversation.

While I was working for Hull City Council I wrote a couple of things that led to my joining GDS. GDS has a very specific focus on central government, and central government only. And there is plenty to keep us busy. I’ve worked on different projects and learnt huge amounts but there is an obvious gulf between the mandate we have to support digital service design across our sector and the inconsistent patchwork of innovative practice in local government.

Although I’ve stepped through the looking glass I haven’t stopped loving local government. Unfortunately I’m missing LocalGovCamp 2014 but happily I was able to go along to an event hosted by the Department for Communities and Local Government to bring together local government practitioners and some of my colleagues to identify the assets that have been created by GDS which could be re-used by local authorities“. It was also I think the first time that DCLG had created a formal space to invite discussion about a local GDS or GOV.UK.

It was a good day, spent with the sort of brilliant minds that a local government digital should make of point of empowering, encouraging and employing. The leader of Brighton & Hove council, Jason Kitcat, spoke at the event and expressed his frustration at how various councils were developing the same ‘My Account’  functionality and others had procured a budget simulator that Brighton had built and published to Github (although that repo doesn’t actually contain any reusable code). And there was plenty of enthusiasm for sharing assets and best practice between councils and between GDS and councils but there was little appetite for building a common platform or a local government digital service. But it was also the case that the discussions were framed in the context of organisational, rather than user needs.

I think that’s a shame.

I believe that from a user need point of view local governments are pretty similar. From my experience of transitioning organisations to GOV.UK I would argue there is greater variety and between the activities of agencies and arms-length bodies than there is between councils. We don’t need finite resources to be used in building 300+ services that do the same thing: common tools using a common platform can better serve common user needs.

So, LOCAL.GOV.UK then?

The starting point for GDS was to replace a very prominent website and see how that might unpick the tangle of Content Management Systems, information architecture and infrastructure arrangements across government. Several local authorities on Friday were in the throes of rebuilding, or had recently rebuilt, their websites using the GDS design principles. It’s great that a common conceptual approach is being explored, it will improve the quality of what gets built, but how much duplication does all that work represent?

At GDS we started small and specific but in building a publishing platform for central government we have gradually developed something that not only deals with the common stuff but increasingly reflects the nuance and variety of government agencies and arms-length bodies (where content fits the GOV.UK content proposition). The site isn’t finished (it won’t be) but when we come across an as-yet unmet need we’ll find a minimum viable approach, build it and see where we need to go from there. And when we do that you start to see the power of the economies of scale we now have.

I strongly believe that a single publishing platform for local government is a logical and achievable conclusion but to start with we should tackle the inconsistent ways in which needs are met and services designed.

GDS operates more than a website, and a local government digital service would need to have a wider remit than to simply fix publishing. GDS does a whole host of things to support the users of central government and its organisations: the getting people online, making sure people who aren’t online can still access digital services, building capability, transforming transactions, controlling spendingmaking user research central to service design and transparently reporting performance.

The day at DCLG threw up examples of the duplication that exists between organisations and the confusion that causes for the public. I can’t shake the belief that it is overdue for there to be a single coordinated entity with the resource and mandate to understand and then meet the common user needs that people have of their local authorities.

I know that’s an easy thing to say and much harder to implement and so, rather than write an opinion piece that whines about the state of things I want to unpack why I think like I do and discuss some of the implications for those ideas. The first thing I’d like to talk about is the little matter of democracy.

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...