Breaking the medieval software market in local government

The financial challenges facing local government have never been greater and we need innovation and new ways of delivering public services

The financial challenges facing local government have never been greater and we need innovation and new ways of delivering public services to meet them.

Digital strategy has a key role to play in enabling local authorities to integrate services through sharing information, delivering them differently through the internet of things and empowering customers though redesigned digital services that are responsive and usable. 

But here’s the rub. Nearly all government CIOs hit a wall when it comes to making the transformational step-change that our citizens and businesses deserve and expect through software. 

While consumers have fantastic choice and flexibility, we in local government are faced with a software and applications market that is more medieval than 21st century. 

Think about it:

  • The landscape is dominated by a relatively small number of baronial suppliers delivering one-size-fits-all “enterprise” solutions, often coupled with eye-watering taxes - that is, variable costs;
  • Many local government applications have their roots in mainframes as opposed to online stores, and have clunky workflow and poorly designed user experiences;
  • IT leaders do not have ready access to a ratings system for local government suppliers yet most of us take user reviews for granted when we log onto an online store to buy something to help us in our everyday lives;
  • Much of what we have to work with is proprietary and expensive to integrate. Many of us have struggled in recent years trying to make back-office and web systems talk to each other at an affordable cost. Think about how few suppliers today provide a software development kit (SDK) for their application.

You get the idea. To be fair, it’s not all bad. We have some exciting new entrants in markets such as social care and some suppliers can smell the coffee and are showing more flexibility and willingness to listen than before.

But we will never get the level of change we need, in an acceptable timetable, unless we disrupt the market and I’m passionate about achieving that in several ways:

  1. Let’s establish a national procurement framework for local government that has the size and critical mass to entice new entrants including SMEs. Let’s encourage as many local authorities to use that framework by default for applications and software solutions which could eventually be a market worth upwards of £400m per annum;
  2. Let’s change supplier behaviour by approaching the performance problem differently. Instead of focusing primarily on evaluating suppliers on their functional points for the software or achievement of service-level agreement targets, let’s test supplier commitment to provide useable application programming interfaces, their willingness and technical capacity to integrate with other systems outside their commercial ecosystem, and to have the courage to allow users to provide and publish ratings about their performance in the public domain;
  3. Let’s accelerate innovation in the public sector by making sure that developments at one local authority are surfaced at an early stage to other councils using the product, so development costs can be shared early and innovation accelerated.

These changes cannot be driven alone. This is why the strategy on IT Category Management is a national one being led by local authorities in partnership with the Government Procurement Service and Local Government Association.

I really hope we can change this medieval market because our citizens and businesses deserve it and it can only make our own suppliers more competitive in a global marketplace.

John Jackson (pictured) is CIO at London Borough of Camden.

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