A local authority version of Whitehall’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is a “very high priority”, according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Maude responded to a question from Labour’s shadow minister for digital government, Chi Onwurah. She highlighted comments by Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture and the digital economy, at a Computer Weekly event where both had been debating their technology policies.
At the event, Vaizey said the "ambition" is to have local authorities on one platform, and added that “GDS does have an ambition to work with local government”.
In a Commons debate on 11 February, Onwurah said: “The Government Digital Service is a very talented group within the Cabinet Office and is internationally recognised, so it is unfortunate that the minister has prevented the group from working with local government.
“On Monday, the minister for culture and the digital economy said that he agreed with me and Labour’s independent digital government review that this expertise should not be barred from working with local authorities. Will the [Cabinet Office] minister now concede that GDS should be allowed and encouraged to work more closely with councils, so that we have digital services that work for everyone - locally and nationally?”
Maude replied that Onwurah “is completely right to flag up the huge scope for improvement in online services in local government. GDS’s focus has had to be on central government, but in the document on efficiency and reform that we published at the time of the autumn statement, we flagged up that we expect this to be available across the wider public sector. The focus for the time being has to be on finishing the job in central government, but helping to build an equivalent to support local government is a very high priority for us.”
Read more about local GDS
The need for a local GDS has been discussed across the public sector frequently in the past year, following the success of the GDS team in pushing the digital agenda across Whitehall departments.
Labour’s digital government review, led by Onwurah, called for GDS’s remit to be extended to councils. The call was echoed last year by Socitm, the local government IT user group, which said a dedicated digital team for local government would be more effective at delivering digital transformation than existing voluntary programmes.
GDS has been criticised in some quarters for failing to engage with councils, but government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell said last December that it had never been part of GDS’s responsibilities.
“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.”
A report from think-tank Policy Exchange last month said that local councils were losing billions of pounds due to poor use of technology and data.