While local government falls outside GDS's remit, don't forget that councils need support too

The New Year has started off highlighting an old problem: Lack of central support for local government’s digital transformation.  
Mostly filled with delegates from local councils, the room at the first government IT event of the year, the Government ICT conference, was buzzing. the event saw several central government department heads speaking of re-design of services, Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) and other technology initiatives. 
One can hardly deny that the Government Digital Service (GDS) and departments such as the Home Office and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have come a long way in forward-thinking digital strategies with a clear focus on building systems and services that meet user needs. And (for the most part) they’re doing a good job. 
HMRC is working hard to respond to last year’s criticism of its poor customer service performance. IT director for development, test and operations Peter Schofield, told the conference by April this year, every individual tax payer will have access to their own digital tax account. 
 
Whether GDS is solely responsible for government departments’ move away from long, overpriced outsourcing deals, is hard to say, but at least they have a central body to support them. The same can’t be said for local government, arguably the part of public sector with the most to gain by making services digital, which has zero support from GDS. 
In early 2015, former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude promised local government a fair share of GDS support. In the 2015 Budget a few months later, the promise was made yet again, with the Budget Book saying that local government would be under GDS’s remit.  
Since then, the government has made no further attempt to follow up on this, and today, GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain confirmed what we had all concluded: that local government is still not part of GDS’s responsibility. 
While central government was given a £1.8bn boost for digital transformation, GDS was handed a significant budget of £450m for which it has to show £3.5bn in savings. During the conference, someone in the audience suggested that with a proper investment in local government, the savings ratio could be “significantly better” than GDS’s expected £3.5bn, which I am rather inclined to believe.  
As it is, local government is stretched to the limit, and although most councils realise they must, and are, working to embrace digital transformation, there is little doubt that with a bit more help they could be doing a lot more. If today’s conference was anything to go by, there is certainly will and desire among local government leaders to bring council services into the 21st century. 
So what’s the solution? Extending initiatives such as GaaP and Common Technology Services to cover local councils? Create a dedicated digital team for local government? It’s obvious that GDS in its current form is by no means big enough to cover all councils, but without proper support, skills and investment, it’ll be no easy feat for local authorities to keep up.

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