Analysis: Extending Government as a Platform to local services could help councils deal with the financial pressures and risks in the digital revolution
Attending this year’s Socitm Annual Conference left a familiar impression: admiration at the efforts made by some local authorities to use digital tech in providing a new breed of services, tempered by a feeling that it is all incremental. Most local services make use of IT but are still designed around the old paper-based processes.
We heard from speakers of some impressive work – the licensing scheme for private sector landlords in Newham, the weather station data project in Milton Keynes, Leeds’ provision of technology for old people to alert neighbours and family of problems – and audience questions often conveyed a wish for radical change with digital.
But conversations during the breaks were more about coping with the increasingly tight financial squeeze. IT leaders in local authorities might in theory have a remit that involves leading change, but in practice they have to devote most of their time and almost all the resources to keeping the lights on.
No room for failure
It is also a frustration to hear stories of companies that revolutionise their markets by creating digital models for business. It can be inspiring to hear of how Uber or Airbnb quickly grew from a start-up to a mighty global force; but for every one success story there have been hundreds of failures.
On a societal scale it doesn’t matter. A small business has no social obligations, and if it fails there will be others to experiment and run their own risks. But local authorities have a duty to local communities, and cannot justify devoting a big chunk of their resource to new designs that may or may not work. There are good reasons why they stick with the tried and trusted, even when they are struggling to keep it all afloat.
Their only chance is in the centre taking on at least some element of the experimentation and risk. If it provides a few digital building blocks, with guidance on what does and doesn’t work at a technical level, it can give local authorities a degree of assurance, and remove some of the financial strain, in creating their own solutions.
So it was encouraging to hear Felicity Singleton from the Government Digital Service talk about an intention to work more closely with local government, and the health service, as it builds a number of platforms for common use. Until now the GDS has focused on central government – the most visible outcome being the mass migration of websites to GOV.UK – but Singelton spoke of early conversations with local government as it develops the Government as a Platform strategy.
No doubt this will raise a few anxieties in town halls. There’s a strong attitude that local is different to central and earlier suggestions of a Local GDS have not raised many cheers. But if GDS refrains from laying down any stringent laws and acts as an enabler, providing the platforms that councils can use as they see fit, it could make a difference.
Some might argue that a body set up specifically for local government should take the lead; but there’s none in sight with the resources and/or will to do so. It’s quite valid for GDS to pick up the reins. It can ensure the digital foundations are sound and remove some of the risk that councils face in developing their solutions. With those foundations available the councils would have more certainty in developing business cases for their solutions; and that would make the reallocation of resources more viable.
This would all take time – probably five years before many new services emerge – but we hope that the GDS dialogue with local government finds the right balance between in identifying the common requirements while giving councils the space to do their own thing.