A private GDS for local government?

Could local government be revolutionised by a private Government Digital Service (GDS) – type organisation who could swoop in (at a cost) and make local government more digital savvy?

That’s what Dominic Campbell, founder of FutureGov believes, he wants local government to become more digital. And so he should because that is the model of his business.

Campbell, who was one of Computer Weekly’s top Rising Stars of 2013, said one of the big issues preventing local government from becoming more innovative with IT is the lack of people in senior positions who are tech-savvy.

“We find the problem is there isn’t a senior person who understands technology, let alone digital in councils,” Campbell told me over a coffee this week.

He said that he often sees the head of IT reporting to the director of resources, who then reports to the chief executive.

“These are the people who look after the servers – they’re often not part of the organisational vision.”

Campbell believes that technology and digital is still an afterthought among local government, compared to central government who with the backing of Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude is now half way through its ‘digital by default’ transformation programme. The programme has seen GDS help central government to digitise 25 of its most used public services, with registering to vote becoming the latest transaction to go live.

“But only a third of council websites are mobile ready,” Campbell said. “That’s how councils view digital, is through their website, and they’re not even doing that properly.”

He also said that while his opinion of local government using G-Cloud is improving, the majority don’t understand how to use it and won’t use it.

“It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s a huge frustration.”

Additionally, as a supplier on the framework, FutureGov has challenges with G-Cloud over its lack of flexibility and no easy control over cataloguing. “But generally it’s great the way it’s moving because people are starting to use it.”

But some councils across the UK are innovating at a high pace, Surrey in particular has its own innovation space called Shift Surrey which has been running for 18 months. Surrey have also invested in FutureGov along with Nesta in January, and the Surrey director now sits on the FutureGov board.

Surrey is now able to use its Shift Surrey centre as a testbed for new technologies which could benefit the council. “They wanted Surrey to be the home of innovation for local government,” explained Campbell.

FutureGov has created a health and social care solution called Patchwork, which Surrey, along with Staffordshire, Brighton, Wigan and even half of Victoria in Australia are rolling out.

Campbell said the idea for Patchwork came four years ago after the Baby P tragedy. He understood the challenges health and social care had for joining up information and wanted to solve it.

“I knew more about what my mate in Australia had for dinner via Facebook than a policeman knew about the life of a child they were working with. How do you join up the services and overcome the classic information sharing problem?”

“Practioners on the front line only wanted to know who else was involved and their contact details, so they could get in touch with the people working with the child,” he added.

Instead of a multi-million pound NHS project, Campbell and his team created a way to share the simplest forms of data that the health workers needed.