Socitm 2014: The digital challenges for local government IT leaders

A big thank you to Socitm, the society for local government IT leaders, for inviting me to chair their annual conference, which took place last week in Manchester.

As a Liverpool FC supporter, the awkward choice of Old Trafford as the venue did at least give me the opportunity to poke some fun at the local team in Salford – one presumes that in this age of austerity, Socitm got the stadium cheaply given it’s not being used in midweek this season…

But more importantly, it was a chance to chat with some of the most forward-thinking IT leaders in the sector – those grappling with the dual challenges of major budget cuts and the move to digital government. Thanks to the likes of Socitm president Nick Roberts, formerly at Surrey County Council; John Jackson, CIO at Camden council; Steve Halliday at Solihull; Warwickshire CIO Tonino Ciuffini; Staffordshire’s Sander Kristel; Martin Sadler at Walsall – and anybody else I’ve forgotten to mention.

There were a number of themes and issues, and I thought it best to round up as many of them as I can in one place.

Local digital – just do it

In the run up to Socitm 2014, there has been much debate about how best to approach digital across the sector, given that almost every council will have very similar needs, in similar timescales, as austerity continues to bite over the course of the next five-year parliamentary cycle.

There is a growing recognition that the old model for local government (LG) IT is broken – a similar realisation in Whitehall led to the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to stimulate reform in central government.

Some 70% of the LG software market is owned by three suppliers – Capita, Northgate and Civica. Just as Whitehall suffered for its dominance by the oligopoly of big system integrators, so LG IT is held back by a lack of competition with few incentives for suppliers to innovate and break their cosy status quo.  

There has been a lot of talk about creating a Local GDS to develop common platforms across the sector, but the politics around such an organisation – Who would fund it? Who would lead it? – mean it’s unlikely to work.

GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore addressed the Local GDS question in his keynote speech, urging delegates not to focus on that as the issue, but to think instead about what need they are seeking to meet and what problems have to be solved.

In its simplest terms, that need is change, according to the LG CIOs I talked to – change that in the past would have meant turning to an IT supplier to ask what they can do to help. But calls for a Local GDS are really highlighting the need for LG IT to do more digital among themselves, without relying on off-the-shelf software and inflexible outsourcing deals.

The old ways would be to define a series of digital platforms for LG and invite suppliers to develop them. The new way is to just get on and do it yourself – but to share that work around the sector. Open up data by wrapping APIs around legacy systems; encourage app developers to develop services around that data, and as one council develops a platform, share that as open source code with anyone else who wants it. Apparently there are now six or seven different apps for reporting potholes, ever since roads data was opened up, for example. And by the way, once you abstract those old legacy systems behind an API layer, they later become much easier to get rid of.

It’s not that different from the principles GDS promotes – but it’s a more ground-up way to develop local government as a platform, and more in keeping with the localism of the sector.

There is a lot of inertia still in LG, but a few forward thinkers are breaking that logjam. The overriding message I heard from those leaders is that everyone in the sector needs to just get out there and do it – develop services, try them out, see how they work, and share the lessons (and the code).

Next year’s conference would be perfect if it consisted entirely of council IT chiefs demonstrating all the new digital services they have created, for anybody else attending to also use.

Turkeys voting for Christmas

One of the most popular talks at Socitm 2014 came from Mark Thompson, an academic, consultant, digital advocate and author on digital government. He kick-started a debate on a critical issue for LG – and equally for Westminster – that ultimately the people who need to make the cash available to fund digital government within local councils are the very ones whose jobs are most threatened as a result of digital government.

Thompson has written on this question for Computer Weekly in the past – as public services are disintermediated in the same way as, for example, music and movies have been in the entertainment industry, much of the local bureaucracy that currently supports those services becomes redundant.

Why do you need people to co-ordinate pothole repairs, for example, if they are reported through an app that automatically passes details on to a council-approved repair contractor?

One IT chief told me his board instructed him to make 60% cost savings – and that’s after all the austerity cuts of the past few years. He benchmarked his cost against other councils in the same region and found he was already one of the most efficient. So he went to the board and said, if you want me to do this, you need to let all staff use their own devices; you need to get rid of our datacentre and use the cloud; and you need to let me redevelop any of our applications to make them digital. And on that realisation, the board baulked, realising the effect that would have on them, perhaps.

As Sander Kristel said in a Tweet, turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas – it’s the “elephant in the room” of digital government,

It’s a real question that LG digital leaders will have to address – but nobody has the answer yet.

Are IT suppliers gaming G-Cloud?

Local government has been criticised for not making enough use of G-Cloud, the central framework for buying commodity cloud software and services set up by GDS and the Cabinet Office. G-Cloud chief Tony Singleton came to Socitm 2014 to encourage delegates to buy more of their requirements that way. Lack of awareness and understanding of G-Cloud has been cited as the main reasons for the apparent reticence to use it.

But several people I talked to suggested a different reason – that they can buy identical services from the same suppliers more cheaply than they are offered on G-Cloud.

The aim of the G-Cloud online catalogue is to use price transparency to increase competition and drive down prices. But some LG CIOs believe that suppliers are artificially inflating prices on G-Cloud so as not to reveal their true charges to rivals. Furthermore, those same CIOs insist that LG has always negotiated lower prices than central government for IT – and therefore, G-Cloud seems cheap in Whitehall, but less so in councils.

Given the secrecy and commercial confidentiality that suppliers maintain around the fees they charge individual public sector bodies, it’s hard to prove that claim one way or the other. But many LG IT buyers are convinced that G-Cloud is simply not the best deal on the market.

Double silos – the extra layer of complexity for local digital

GDS is leading the way in Whitehall for moving away from the department-oriented IT silos in central government, to platform-focused shared delivery of services. It’s a huge task.

But in local government, that task is effectively doubled. Within each council there are similar departmental silos – transport, housing, social care and so on. And then there are the siloes between councils – neighbouring authorities who in the not-so-distant past worked on the basis that if next-door bought IBM, they would buy HP to be different. Nobody wants to admit that the bloke next door does things better.

So for an LG IT leader, they are trying to convince their own organisation to think differently, while also trying to encourage other councils to share their resources and efforts to build digital services with them across all their internal silos too.

Work that one out.

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