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Should councils have a Local Government Digital Service?


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Mark Thompson, professor in digital economy at the University of Exeter, takes a fresh look at a recurring issue

I’ve been reading with interest both James Plunkett’s and Theo Blackwell’s recent blogs advocating the creation of a new Local Government Digital Service (L-GDS) or Local Digital Alliance (LDA).

These are both great pieces, and as Theo says, the debate is timely. In particular, the vision of an empowered coalition of local government DDAT professionals catering to local needs, able to recombine/re-use interoperable capabilities, and periodically reinvigorated by a ‘tour of duty’ in a national L-GDS/LDA hub, is compelling. Indeed, I’ve been arguing for just such a ‘Lego’ approach for some time now.

And yet, as I have been arguing for even longer (10 years, in fact) the clear danger is that the focus on building/delivering local stuff, at local level, driven by localism, eclipses the growing reality that the entire model is utterly broken at collective level, and diverts attention from sorting it out. By continuing the broken, inefficient, business-as-usual model, the danger is that pretty soon there’ll be precious few resources to deliver very much locally at all.

I’ll offer two brief analogies to illustrate the current problem and point the way to a possible answer.

Google tells me that Tesco (another useful local service) operates 4,169 stores in UK/Republic of Ireland (I could take any number of retail chains here, but let’s pick this one).

Barmy Tesco

Now imagine a ‘Barmy Tesco’ model where each of these Tesco stores, often delivering for a hyper-local profile, ran its own individual corporate function on the floor above the shop. Each would support its very own layer of senior executives in finance, HR, procurement, marketing, IT, ops, estates, etc — and each of these would have its supporting network of suppliers, advisers, etc.

They would commission their own, bespoke back end functions and services, all with their own time consuming office politics.

It goes without saying that none of these bespoke back end services, and associated preoccupations, would be of the slightest interest, or value-add, to Barmy Tescos’ customers. (Do you really care if your local Tesco is running its own, special, ‘local’, CRM?).  Any supermarket daft enough to run itself on this principle of ‘wheel reinvention’ would quickly go to the wall as the ‘tail’ progressively ‘wagged the dog’ and customers accordingly voted with their feet.

Happily, like all modern digitally enabled organisations, the real Tesco recognises that local focus is best delivered via rigorous standardisation, and consumption, of a common back end.

Another example might be Heart FM, a network of 33 regional radio stations UK-wide. Tuning into any one of these, you’ll hear local weather, local traffic, local gossip, local advertising, local stuff for local people — but all underpinned with a standard music streaming platform, and common back end (if I tune into my local Heart FM Dorset, I don’t care if these local services are underpinned by a Heart FM Dorset finance system or not. If it was, I’d think they were bonkers.)

An inherited mess

Tragically of course, the Barmy Tesco example loosely describes the collective operating model of our local services. This isn’t anyone’s fault: we’ve inherited this mess from the pre-digital age, when all councils needed to build/run their people/processes/tech from the ground up.

However, it remains that only a digital incompetent would design councils like this today, when the internet now enables us to consume ‘best in class’, always-on capabilities that we would once have had to build/maintain ourselves — and indeed to use these capabilities to collect/share data, understand our customers better, and personalise our services around them.

Viewed this way, localism has sadly become a fig leaf for siloed duplication of stuff that we should be consuming, not (re)building — and that defunds local services.  Further, without a rigorous separation of local value-add (actual public services) from non-local value-add (everything else), we get adventurism, as councils start to lose sight of what they’re there for. (‘When is local government not local government? When it’s a property developer? Or a technology business?)

Overlaying an L-GDS/LDA onto the present Barmy Tesco model therefore risks compounding the existing mess and confusion.  To see what I mean, imagine a Barmy Tescos Digital Service — a BTDS — busily making interoperable digital components from which each of the 4,169 local Barmy Tesco IT departments could each (equally busily; think of all that duplicated cost!) craft their own local solutions. A BTDS like this would be collective madness that needs no explanation. 

In the case of local government, what are the value-add services, anyway?  How many of these services would an L-GDS/LDA build or commission? How could we ensure we only build anything once?

Questions to answer

Which services, in contrast, should be commodity? What role should the centre play in consolidating standards/data?  Where even is the centre?  For that matter, where’s the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in all of this?

So an L-GDS/LDA could be a great idea, but we absolutely must sort out the mess first.  Some legislation might be a good place to start: it could lay out requirements for collective consumption of cloud based services; state that building such services locally would not be an acceptable use of public funds; and state the Government will take responsibility for providing common administrative services.

So whilst sharing and interoperability are definitely the answer, and a LG-GDS/TDA is definitely part of the answer, I don’t think it would work in the absence of a fundamental reset of the way in which we deliver local services in the UK. It has to be around a (probably) department led platforming of the back end, with a set of best-in-class platform functions and associated technologies (including data/standards/connectors/service patterns and infrastructure).

I’m also not sure that we have much time left to do this before the whole model breaks, so this conversation needs to move out of ‘leisurely’ and into ‘urgent’ mode. Also, as the policy department ultimately responsible, DHLUC needs to lean into this before it’s too late.

Collective transformation

Remember, the reason that no council has ever transformed is that the very idea is literally nonsense: the operating model for local services remains the same as it has been for decades because the UK local government model can only be transformed collectively.

And yes, our truly transformed local services would also require an LG-GDS/TDA, focused on optimising councils’ ability to configure value-add local offerings on top of the commodity platform(s). This would be within a carefully revised definition of localism, and an associated understanding of what is valuable versus what is not.

Such a project — the much-needed real transformation of the sector — will undoubtedly be very painful and contentious (what transformation isn’t?), but my sense is that increasingly few people believe that 20th century local government has much runway left.

Image source: Motov

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