Is this the future for local government IT?

Pioneering councils are moving to the public cloud and aiming to deliver 'government as a platform' through componentised IT services

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The future of local government IT

How do you feel about the following as a vision for future public services?

You’re on your way home from a night out; you notice a streetlight isn’t working. You tweet to the local council what you’ve seen and the road you’re on, and the next day an engineer turns up to fix the light. Maybe your phone even transmits your GPS co-ordinates to the council to ensure they locate the faulty lamppost.

Or perhaps you’ve moved home and you need to change your council tax details. Instead of contacting your old local authority, and then your new one to tell them too, you use the council services app on your smartphone or tablet, select "Update your home location", and the device automatically informs both councils that you’ve moved house.

And then, as a result, your app automatically receives updates on everything you need to know about the public services in your area – when your bins are collected, for example. Perhaps it could even set an alert on your phone to remind you when to put the bins out and what to recycle this week.

Sounds appealing? That’s the sort of future that some of the more visionary IT leaders in local government are working towards.

Unfairly perhaps, local authorities have rarely been perceived as a hotbed of IT innovation. But faced with 30% cuts - sometimes more – in budgets in the age of austerity, forward-thinking councils chose not to waste a good recession and saw those cuts as a catalyst for fundamental change.

This is about true public cloud, multi-tenanted, non-proprietary, available over the internet – not some supplier’s datacentre with a cloud label on it

Anthony Kemp, London Borough of Hounslow

One of the pioneers is the London Borough of Hounslow, whose IT chief and director of corporate resources, Anthony Kemp, hosted an event for his local authority peers this week to showcase the work he is leading, and discuss the potential for “government as a platform” – a phrase first coined by US tech guru Tim O’Reilly, which has been adopted as a mantra by public sector IT reformers in the UK.

Hounslow is wholeheartedly embracing the cloud: “True public cloud, multi-tenanted, non-proprietary, available over the internet – not some supplier’s datacentre with a cloud label on it,” said Kemp.

By May next year, Kemp aims to have at least 30% of Hounslow’s key applications running on the new platform being developed in partnership with cloud suppliers, Box and Amazon Web Services.

After that, the council plans to spend the next two years building out cloud-based replacements for other software.

“In four years, we intend to be infrastructure free, with no on-premise IT, and no legacy systems,” said Kemp.

The principles behind Hounslow’s plan have been developed in conjunction with consultancy Methods, whose strategy director Mark Thompson has been one of the architects behind the reforms of Whitehall IT that are being driven through by Government Digital Service (GDS) director Mike Bracken and government CTO Liam Maxwell.

Thompson’s vision – explained in the video below – involves moving away from IT organised around the typical local government silos such as housing, environment and transport.

Instead, common services such as case management or payments are standardised as cloud-based components available as a service. Currently, many councils use several systems tasks as routine as payments, because each individual software supplier to each department has their own built-in payments functionality.

In the new world, only those functions that are unique to a particular public service would be developed for use by that service – and even then, such software could be made freely available to other councils as open source.

Ultimately, the government-as-a-platform model lends itself to customisation of services around the citizen – delivering the relevant services for each individual; in IT terms, packaged up as a series of components within a standardised enterprise architecture.

It’s a hugely appealing vision, and one that guests at the Hounslow event received with enthusiasm.

But of course, it’s never as easy as all that.

Moving commodity IT services such as email to the cloud is one thing, but functions such as revenues and benefits, housing and public transport are quite another. In many cases, councils can only choose from two or three suppliers who offer the specialist software for such services – and those suppliers have no incentive to overhaul their applications to create a market that opens them up to greater competition and commoditises their products.

It would require co-ordinated action by hundreds of the 433 local authorities in the UK to force such change on an unwilling market.

Thompson believes that the initiative needs to come from the centre, at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

“It needs leadership from DCLG to push change in suppliers to force the creation of a market of commodity components,” he said. “That leadership is currently not there.”

But it’s not just the suppliers that need to change – the culture and mindset of local government IT needs to adapt too.

One guest at the Hounslow event talked about how his council has developed its own software for a particular service, and is hoping to partner with a supplier to sell that software to other councils – a move that other local authorities have done with varying degrees of success in the past.

Computer Weekly asked why it could not publish that application as open source, and instead of finding one supplier to sell it, find several smaller firms willing to offer services to help councils implement the now freely available software or to host it in the cloud.

The response from some delegates suggested there is still a lack of understanding and confidence around the idea of making in-house software available as open source. Objections included a concern about who would update the applications to cater for new laws and government policies.

But under the government-as-a-platform vision, the reason for publishing as open source would be to develop a community that works together across many councils and suppliers to manage the software. That introduces a chicken-and-egg situation - without critical mass, such a community would struggle to come together.

Whitehall’s GDS is trying to set an example here – making the publishing platform developed for the Gov.UK website available as open source for any other government anywhere in the world to adopt if they so choose.

As one guest at the event put it, local government IT chiefs need to start focusing on what is the same about them, not what is different.

There is without doubt a new breed of local government IT leaders emerging. Some young, and willing to question the status quo; others with private sector experience that are less influenced by public sector convention. But also established council CIOs who realise that old ways are rapidly losing relevance.

Government as a platform offers huge opportunities for local authorities, but it still presents many challenges for which solutions have yet to be adequately explained. One way or another, significant change is coming to local government IT.

As one guest at the Hounslow event put it: “If not this, then what?”

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