Whitehall meets digital leaders – but ignores local government

The UK has played host to its first D5 digital leaders summit, but local collaboration was off the agenda

The UK has played host to its first digital leaders summit, where the UK, South Korea, Estonia, New Zealand and Israel came together in London for the D5 event.

Ministers and senior officials from the five founding members have met across the capital to discuss designing digital services for citizens, as well as the options for sharing open-source offerings with other nations.

However, while central government works with other countries to develop digital platforms, it has yet to provide similar assistance to local authorities in the UK

It has chosen not to actively assist local authorities in its move to digital, instead encouraging them to look at the work made by the Government Digital Service (GDS), as well as using open-source platforms and frameworks such as G-Cloud.

By contrast, Labour’s recent Government Digital Review said it would extend the remit of GDS to include local government and help councils with their digital transformation.

Speaking at a the D5 press conference in London today, Liam Maxwell, government chief technology officer (CTO) said he was willing to help local authorities, but stressed that central government does not have a remit to do so.

"We see that we would love to help them, we provide patents, we provide structures, we provide the ability for them to do things, but I stress we don't have a remit for local government," he said. "And I think the 440 local councils are their own entities and their own organisations, and elected by their residents and responsible to their residents and we do central government."

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said there was nothing stopping local authorities from using the open-source platforms and code central has developed – a move backed by digital director Mike Bracken.

Bracken said platforms built by government and GDS are made for everyone. He and Maude pointed to the G-Cloud as a model designed for everyone to use, including local authorities and the NHS.

“I think what we should do is be as open as possible,” added Bracken.

D5

Being as open as possible is the ethos of the D5 summit.

“To foster greater innovation we will open up the application programming interfaces (APIs) of our public services,” said Maude. “We are accelerating our move into the cloud.”

The summit aims to promote economic growth through open markets, improved networking capabilities and collaboration on future projects.

D5 offers us the opportunity to work alongside partner nations to learn how did you resolve the same situation

Peter Francis Dunne, New Zealand government

At the press conference, Peter Francis Dunne, the minister of internal affairs for the New Zealand government, spoke about how founding D5 members have the advantage to look and face digital challenges together because they are in a similar stage of development.

Taking the Verify digital identity assurance system, Dunne said New Zealand had a version at a similar stage of development and the two countries can look at the same issues and liaise with each other.

“Instead of a situation that historically has been 'we’ve gone ahead and learnt from our mistake', D5 offers us the opportunity to work alongside partner nations to learn how did you resolve the same situation," said Dunne.

A local GDS

But, while D5 provides digital governments with a forum to discuss transformation and platforms, local government is left to work out the ins and outs of sharing and open source by themselves.

However, six months away from a general election, the idea of providing further assistance to local government is becoming an increasingly contentious issue.

Labour’s long-awaited review into digital government saw one of its 35 recommendations for the future of policy making to give GDS the remit to work with local government.

Do companies want to organise and coalesce around emerging platforms and standards?

Mike Bracken, Cabinet Office

“In short, the fantastic delivery machine was not focused on the best possible targets,” said the report. “It has barely touched on local government or the NHS.”

But in its current form, GDS wouldn’t have the people or resources to help the hundreds of local authorities up and down the country.

“The demand on us is huge,” Bracken later told Computer Weekly. “If you have to help in a fixed way to force functionality on 400 authorities, that's never going to happen - not until we've had a rest!”

But when asked what he would do if the policy changed after the general election, Bracken said he would have to come up with a plan in order to do so. “But at the moment, that isn’t in place.”

“But the question for those 400-plus organisations is: Do they want to organise and coalesce around emerging platforms and standards? I don't know whose job it is to do that, but it's not mine - I'm not doing it.”

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