GDS will not scale locally with continued bespoke approach

If the Government Digital Service (GDS) continues to develop bespoke digital services, the progress it has made to date will not scale at a local level, Eddie Copeland, head of technology at the Policy Exchange, has warned

If the Government Digital Service (GDS) continues to develop bespoke digital services the progress it has made to date will not scale at a local level, Eddie Copeland, head of technology at think-tank the Policy Exchange, has warned.

Speaking at an event by industry body TechUK, Copeland said GDS is creating in-house bespoke systems and local government may not have the skills, money or time to maintain them if they are developed using the same strategies.

He also pointed out that during the election campaign the left was proposing to inject more money into the public sector, while the right was looking to cutting for efficiency, but that neither saw tech as a solution.

“To make a service that is better as well as cheaper, you have to innovate, you have to evolve, you have to reform,” Copeland said.

“During this parliament there has to be a prime opportunity for the tech sector to get involved in that government transformation.”

The last government faced a lot of transformation around technology, and took a lot of steps towards making sure “the era of big IT is dead”, by ensuring shorter and cheaper IT contracts to avoid further excessive expense or huge IT failures.

But according to Copeland the only way the new government will be able to deliver reform is by allowing the industry as a whole to take part in the government as a platform initiative.

Read more about government as a platform

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“We saw the emphasis on bringing things in-house, the creation of the Government Digital Service to build rather than procure,” said Copeland.

And although this got the government thinking about the importance of technology and placed tech talent at government’s core, it is a platform that needs to be built on by further involving the tech sector.

“If you think of the GDS model we’ve had over the last five years, the idea is that you make things. That’s all well and good but the problem with that is if we make everything, then government is creating code that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the marketplace. For evermore and a day it will have to update, maintain and ensure the security of that code and innovate to make sure it’s at the cutting edge,” he pointed out.

But this isn’t the government’s core capability, and if it keeps all of its development in-house it would be like Google making Android closed rather than open source, said Copeland.

“When we want a new service or a new app for our phone, I’m guessing most of us don’t start with the assumption that we build it. In our organisations we tend not to start with the assumption that we need bespoke,” Copeland said.

But GDS does not have the scope to help all local councils create their own personalised solutions. Instead it should help government to be an intelligence customer and develop a government as a platform model that is development-agnostic and that local government can then use.

“We have to use the government as a platform model to switch some stuff off,” Copeland said.

“There is no one-size-fits-all model that’s going to be appropriate for everything. This is why I am firmly of the view that a local government digital service is not the answer for the local government sector.”

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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In other words GDS should concentrate on the inter-operability standards that are essential for an open market (alias platform). I agree, But there is also a case for GDS to use the in-house production of re-usable apps to help train the next generation of IT-literate public servants in the skills they will need in order to be intelligent customers. It is also probable that consortia of local authorities working in mutating partnerships with a variety of partners, public, voluntary and private, will develop the majority of future apps - as they did before the "outsourcing bubble" of the nineties and noughties. The "wild card" is how the public sector decides to handle copyright in that developed by its employees or for which it has paid.

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