Mark SayManaging EditorThursday 29 January 2015

Policy Exchange offers building blocks for local digital

Report shows ambition but plans would struggle against practical challenges

PuzzleAs with most think tank documents, there is plenty that is familiar in the Policy Exchange's piece on technology in local government, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, but it is accompanied by a sprinkling of worthwhile observations and ideas. Whether they make much difference in the foreseeable future is an awkward question.

The familiar is in sections on the need for digital government and the big shortcomings in local government's fragmented approach to reform: independent procurement that leads to more expensive technology; too much bespoke IT; vendor lock-in; not enough shared services due to not enough sharing of data; and too many separate teams doing their own things. Commentators, and people inside government, have bemoaned much of this for at least 20 years.

Some of this is reiterated in the section on the existing shortcomings of digital government, especially in the refrain about the lack of wholesale organisational change. But there are pertinent points about how fragmentation affects the development of digital services. The report highlights the problems of scaling up best practice, the dangers of placing cost savings before better investment in IT, and insufficient attention to getting the most from the data held by councils.

It also makes it clear that some local authorities have implemented successful digital solutions, and are working effectively with their neighbours, and that positive steps are also being taken at the centre.

These include the Department for Communities and Local Government's Local Digital programme, in which UKAuthority is a campaign partner. It has shown that councils can save significant sums through access to Land Registry and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data to reduce fraud, and to standard application programme interfaces (API) tools to deliver requirements of the Care Act 2014.

The prescriptive side of the report is a series of recommendations, most requiring action by central government, but a few that could be followed locally. They tie in with the report's big solution: an emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, in which central government takes responsibility for what cannot be done at local level in providing the core building blocks for digital reform.

Some of these, if not fully under way, are at least on agenda of the Cabinet Office. The first recommendation is for the appointment of a government chief data officer who would define and update open standards for the public sector - a measure included in the Efficiency and Reform document published in December of last year.

The second is for the merger of the Public Services Network and the N3 broadband network for the NHS to create a secure mechanism for exchanging data with a single set of compliance standards. People have been talking about it for at least five years, and there has been at least one official statement of intent for a closer alignment of the two. But this is short of committing to a merger and there could be a lot of technical and cultural barriers in the way of making it possible.

A call for compatibility with personal data stores - in which people hold information on themselves and make the relevant features available when applying for a service - would require a big change. But the Cabinet Office has taken a previous interest and is dealing with one company in the field, Mydex, as an identity assurance provider in its Verify programme.

A recommendation that the next version of the Digital Marketplace for government should only include systems compatible with open standards and the Single Public Services Network is bound to have supporters, and the government has long been set on promoting open standards. It might be cautious about making the Marketplace a no-go for closed proprietary systems, but the evolution of the service is likely to make open standards a dominant feature.

There could be fears of creating new bureaucracies in the recommendations for an Office of Data Responsibility and a Local Government Digital Service. So far the former has not been on any prominent agendas, and the latter, might just be a source of competing priorities with the Whitehall equivalent.

Policy Exchange gets more ambitious with a call for each city in the UK to establish of Office of Data Analytics to work out where the local public sector should target its resources. The final recommendation says councils that do this should get money from the Whole Place Communities Budgets more quickly. This is an attractive idea that reflects the growing interest in big data, but public and private sectors are still trying to get to grips with how to use it, there is a shortage of relevant skills, and it would be difficult to make the business case when money is being cut from frontline services.

Overall it is an ambitious plan, and it is worth noting that it has received a thumbs up, with reservations, from public sector IT association Socitm. But as with as with many think tank reports, it would demand a lot of change from government in one go. Given the practical challenges and tensions in pushing through any change, it would be an achievement if half were in place in five years' time.

http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/small-pieces-loosely-joined-how-smarter-use-of-technology-and-data-can-deliver-real-reform-of-local-government

Pictured: Puzzle | B S K