How to create a Local Government Digital Service

Why we need to create a 'Local Government Digital Service' to oversee the standardisation and improvement of all things digital in councils

Imagine if you will, a commercial business with hundreds of branches across the UK. All these branches deliver almost identical products – there are some regional variations in the products as dictated by local circumstances, but these variations are small.

This company has been around for many years, it was created well before the advent of the internet and computer technology. The company eventually realises that technology is a key enabler which will help deliver a better service at lower costs.

“We need a website,” think the company bosses, but rather than developing a single site for the entire organisation each branch office develops its own website. Now the organisation has hundreds of different websites – no two look the same and the quality of the sites varies enormously. To make things worse each branch has created its own web team to support the local website – it’s costing the company a fortune.

This sounds far-fetched – but it’s exactly the situation that local government finds itself in today.

There are 326 local authorities in England – that’s 326 organisations doing, pretty much, the same thing. In terms of IT this means 326 websites, 326 email systems, 326 social care systems, 326 planning systems, 326 education systems… the list goes on. 

An average-size council will be running around 75 different line of business applications – scaled up 326 times this represents an enormous amount of wasteful duplication. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Figure 1 (right): A typical council website architectureA typical council website architecture

Copying the GDS model

The Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up to extract central government from its own IT duplication imbroglio. GDS is making huge improvements using a model which is now being copied around the world.

Regrettably, GDS seems to have little appetite to attempt to tackle local government – they have too much on their plate already. They have offered to share code, standards, APIs, frameworks etc – this means that responsibility for implementing this stuff would be devolved to individual councils.

While it is pleasing that GDS has offered to share this knowledge, it’s not quite the right approach.

Rather than being handed a set of tools and the message, This is how we did it for central government – knock yourself out”, we need to create a “Local Government Digital Servicewhich oversees the standardisation and improvement of all things digital in councils.

For the purpose of this discussion, such a Local Government Digital Service is simultaneously a philosophy, an IT strategy and a central team of people capable of delivering it.

What would Local GDS look like and how might it be brought about?

Figure 2: The first step towards Local.Gov.UK

The first step towards Local.Gov.UK

Serving information from Local.Gov.UK

Councils don’t need to have a website each – we can replace them all with a central Local.Gov.UK site. Many visitors to council sites are looking for information rather than wanting to interact/transact with the authority. The same is true of Whitehall’s Gov.UK, which is largely about information dissemination – GDS went through the various departmental websites, binned a lot of dross and then re-presented the important information in an accessible way. This is relatively easy to replicate for a Local.Gov.UK:

  1. Identify those bits of information which are common across local government.
  2. Create a Local.Gov.UK site with the same look and feel as Gov.UK, and populate it with the important information.
  3. Cull the old council sites which are now obsolete.
  4. Save a fortune on content management systems and hosting costs.

Clearly we will need to have a site which recognises that not all parts of the country are exactly the same – so any transaction/search would begin by capturing the citizen’s post code and the resulting information can be tailored accordingly. 

Imagine how great it would be for the user of the service to not have to care about whether their area is covered by more than one local authority, each with different responsibilities. Indeed, it reflects poorly on us that we expect our customers to concern themselves with this kind of organisational detail.

Transactional services via Local.Gov.UK

A single national web presence for local services would be a huge achievement, yet it would still be just the first step on a much longer journey. Standardising the information we push out is the easy part – delivering transactional services online is where the big challenge is. But this is also where the big savings can be realised.

Most councils have now started their “channel shift” journey and are implementing online customer self-service. It’s no small task to make a back-end line of business system accessible to customers – it’s hard to do and costs a huge amount of money. There are integration tools to buy, APIs to buy, then you have to think about authentication (this is tricky) and finally the council will create a new website (branded to look like its main site) from which the customer gains access to the back-end data. We’re all building identical architecture to do the same thing.

We’re all trying to bring about channel shift in isolation – madness - but Local.Gov.UK gives us a way to end this folly. First, as already discussed, we remove the need for councils to host and maintain their own websites. We replace this layer with the elegant simplicity of Local.Gov.UK.

Figure 3: Integrating Local.Gov.UK

Integrating Local.Gov.UK

Next the Local GDS team uses GDS’s well-documented iterative development techniques to write integration with the council’s back-end systems. This would be done starting with those systems that are most common and/or have the highest volume of transactions.

Once we’ve got to this point it becomes clear that councils no longer need to procure 326 different instances of each system – why don’t we work together to get bigger, better, cheaper contracts from our suppliers?

All this would be delivered using software as a service (SaaS) of course – we don’t need any new tin in our datacentres; we don’t really need our own datacentres at all.

The Public Services Network (PSN) would be a key enabler of Local GDS – PSN is the secure network that joins us together and, potentially, could be the place where many of the SaaS systems are hosted – in effect PSN would be a secure cloud for Local GDS.

Figure 4: The simplicity of Local.Gov.UK

The simplicity of Local.Gov.UK

Where next?

A significant challenge to Local.Gov.UK/Local GDS will be convincing all authorities to get on board.

In a presentation at the 2013 Socitm conference, GDS chief Mike Bracken said, “It was the devil’s own job to get 24 Whitehall departments to agree to adopt”. Imagine that challenge scaled up to 326 councils? Ouch. Pity the shepherd who gets the job of herding those cats.

A second major challenge to the Local GDS model is that it threatens the profits of the major software suppliers. The big suppliers are very happy to sell the same software to 300 customers. Much less attractive is a joined-up Local Gov wanting to buy a small number of shared instances of these applications. The procurement and legal dimensions will be complex – but maybe G-Cloud and PSN can help us with this.

A further challenge will be in resourcing Local GDS – but logic tells us that there must be a way to do this by better using existing resources across local government. Let’s assume that each council has a web team of, say, four people – some are bigger, many are smaller, but four feels about right – that’s roughly 1,300 people currently involved in maintaining council websites.

Add the various IT departments to this and you’re looking at a standing army of over 20,000 people already employed in local digital services. If we could avail ourselves of just 0.1% of this resource - 20 people - then we’d be able to create a nascent Local GDS. Or, and this is probably more realistic, if each council contributed a small amount each year we would have ample funds to make Local GDS a reality.

Who could lead on Local GDS? Socitm is the natural owner for this - a ready-made team of experts in digital government who know what’s needed to transform local government. We should start small – create a website that delivers just the most important elements of any council site, and if we can get a small number of councils using it, it will be straightforward to develop a critical mass.

Which council chief executive will turn down the offer of having their digital headaches taken away for a fraction of their current spend on technology?

Socitm should form a national working group, working closely with PSN, the Local Government Association and GDS to begin shaping a Local Government Digital Service.

Richard Copley (pictured) is corporate ICT manager at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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