The resurrection of the effort to support local authorities’ digital efforts from the centre has been gathering steam over recent months.
The Local Digital Collaboration Unit, set up within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) earlier this year, has made a mark with the publication of the Local Digital Declaration – drawn up with a large group of local authorities and the Government Digital Service (GDS) – and the announcement of a plan for a wiki platform on which councils can build and iterate services.
The latter has inspired the name for the broad project, ‘Mission Wikifix’, to develop a new approach for authorities to build common digital solutions for common problems.
Its focus at the moment, however, is on the allocation of the £7.5 million Local Digital Fund, which has received 389 expressions of interest from councils looking for seed funding to develop ideas for using digital tech in their solutions.
Supporting and signposting
Head of the unit Linda O’Halloran says the intent reflects the ‘wiki’ in the name – to draw on what contributors have already learned and created from their own efforts.
“We’re not going to try to build a bunch of central platforms, but we want to harness all the great work being done out there already and all the networks, support them and signpost them,” she says.
“The Local Digital Declaration is an effort to articulate this; a common aspiration co-written by us and 44 other organisations.”
She says it reflects the fact that, compared with a few years ago, there are lot more internet based collaborative tools available that councils can use, and that the unit at MHCLG is not looking to take a prescriptive approach. Instead it is aiming to “nudge and push and highlight the good stuff” to support the creation of new tools, an attitude reflected in its approach to the allocation of the fund.
“We are testing our wiki principles to see if we can incentivise local authorities to collaborate around a common problem, and see if they have a solution developed according to user-centric design principles,” she says. “We are going to see if they can be tweaked by a little cohort of local authorities to create a common pattern.”
“In the beginning we knew we needed to ignite the flame of local digital transformation, but also needed to demonstrate it is possible to deliver some common things.”
The unit is placing the emphasis on collaboration within the funding round, to the extent that O’Halloran says any proposal for the next stage coming from an individual authority is highly unlikely to receive support. In doing this it has opted for a two-stage process.
The first has involved those initial expressions of interest, all of which have been published online, tagged under more than 60 themes of which over 20 have had multiple applications. The unit has now responded to the applicants, pointing out the others that are showing a similar intent and encouraging them to collaborate in joint proposals for support in discovery and alpha phases.
These will have to include benefits cases, taking in the current cost of the relevant problem for the councils involved, an estimate of how much it is costing the sector as a whole, how much it could save and what other benefits it could produce. There is no precise formula for weighting the factors but the process will involve an evidence based comparison.
O’Halloran says the team is looking to back projects under a broad range of themes.
“It could legitimately be a couple of very valuable projects related to something like planning or homelessness, so we’re not against doing these, but there have to be at least two authorities required per project for it to be valid.
“The more people who indicate they will be part of the project, the more we have reassurance it is likely to be re-used and they will have a much higher chance of getting funding.”
The applications have to be in by 15 November, following which they will be analysed, categorised then reviewed by an independent panel, with a plan to announce the outcomes in early December.
Going into next year there are plans for further rounds of funding – the amount of which is not yet decided – for subsequent phases in the projects showing the strongest potential.
In addition to supporting the strongest ideas, the unit is also planning to develop a couple of its own exemplars, although these are on the back burner until next year.
“It’s about how you document the guidance and outputs for consuming those common things, and I don’t think anyone has done that before,” O’Halloran says.
Another priority for the unit is to help build capacity for digital transformation in local government. She says that while the desire is there, councils are stretched so tight it is difficult for them to invest in the relevant training, so the unit is going to make at least 1,000 places available for courses in five areas – user research, service design, delivery management, product management and digital business analysis – in addition to agile for teams and the foundational courses.
These will be further reviewed in February based on the early indications of what people in the sector are looking for.
Creating a curriculum
There has also been a recognition that some decision makers are not comfortable with the iterative approach to transformation or working with companies that emphasise this rather than selling a complete solution. Subsequently, the unit is working with GDS on a new curriculum – with input from the Local Government Association, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and public sector IT association Socitm – to help councils’ senior officials understand the concepts and risks.
It is aimed at people who are aware of the transformation agenda without a deep knowledge and want to get up to speed in understanding how best to approach it. A first iteration of the curriculum has already been tested with some C-suite executives and councillors, and a review and workshop are expected to lead to some amendments.
“At the moment it feels riskier for some people to do things the way we want them to,” O’Halloran says. “We want people not to buy 15-year contracts but invest in more flexible technology with standards based components.
“We hope the course empowers them to make decisions differently.”
Other factors are coming into the thinking behind all this. There is a commitment within the Local Digital Declaration for councils to abide by the Government’s Technology Code of Practice and Digital Service Standard, supporting the move to develop standards in areas where they do not yet exist.
O’Halloran points to a couple of areas in which there is scope to do more.
“There is currently no standards development infrastructure that starts from a common problem, and no way to develop things we need to specify in contracts.
“We want to learn by doing; commission projects with output that includes common guidance for implementing the solution and work back from there. By seeing how a few of these projects work we can start to see the patterns and develop a national infrastructure.”
It reflects the fact that for common standards to stick they need a strong element of consensus in their development, and this can best be found by testing ideas with some of the organisations that need to use them. It comes back to the word ‘collaboration’ within the unit’s name and the wiki approach to creating solutions, a theme that O’Halloran reiterates.
“We feel that a lot of funds have invested in local digital innovation in the past and tested the idea that if you give funds to one authority to solve a problem lots of authorities have it’s not picked up. Local authorities are infrastructurally different and you can’t drag and drop; that’s why we’re funding for collaboration.
“It’s a test; we’ll see how it works.”