Should there be a GDS for local government?
I’m instinctively resistant to the discourse around a GDS for local government.
Of course my instant reactions to such things have much to do with what’s going on inside my head and little to do with a balanced assessment of the arguments.
I don’t much like being told what to do. I resent the narrative that I perceive within parts of Whitehall which says local government would be much better if it would just do what it was told by the civil service.
On the other hand sensible people I respect who understand and love local government are arguing for a local GDS of some sort.
The arguments in favour
The GDS is achieving impressive things in central government. Gov.uk is to be admired, the cloudstore is genuinely exciting. A relentless focus on user needs and iterative, agile ways of working is invigorating and depressingly innovative.
And as I recently heard from DCLG
What GDS has managed to do is de-risk technological innovation and save departments lots of money
We really some more of that need that across the public sector.
And having a single government digital service has delivered a lot of benefits for central government. They have REALLY good people working there, they back each other up, they drive each other on, they have a swagger, a confidence that they really know what they are doing. They get people’s backs up but that’s OK because they have a mandate and, crucially, they really are doing the right thing.
Who would not want this in local government?
For a much more detailed (and very interesting) argument in favour do read Ben Welby’s five (that’s right five!) posts on this.
The arguments against
Local government is not the local branch of central government.
It isn’t even, really, a thing at all. It’s 468 different things (according to the LGIU) though they have some similar responsibilities and a surprisingly consistent culture. Crucially we are controlled by politicians with their own mandates derived independently of the politicians the GDS works for.
We can (and in my case, do with gusto) copy and adapt tools published by the GDS. To go further and mandate the way local government designs and delivers services is to take another step away from local decision making. Mike Bracken is a top chap but should he really be able to over-rule the (elected) leader of a local authority?
Well up to a point Lord Copper
Actually central government tells local government how to do things quite a lot. There are inspection regimes, codes of practice, actual legislation, funding streams and bidding rounds which constrain, influence and mandate approaches across all sorts of areas of public service.
Seen against that backdrop it’s actually a bit weird that this area of work, which is so important and so codified at national level, is left to the (widely varying) discretion of local administrations.
What has the GDS ever done for you?
Let’s imagine that a GDS for local government has been created. What sort of model would really help the people who live in my county (Herefordshire). What could a local GDS do that would really add value:
1. Mandate things that need mandating.
There are some things that it might be really helpful if they were required: domain naming conventions, CMS selections, open standards. If these were required of local government we wouldn’t have to re-invent them and we could drive efficiencies.
Specifying a small menu of open source CMS platforms that local government must select from could be really transformative. It would disrupt the business model of some suppliers but we could really develop effective communities around these platforms.
2. Provide APIs for local government to hook into.
For example local authorities administer council tax and housing benefits locally and though there is some local discretion round the edges it’s really a national framework. A GDS for local government could usefully provide a service that local authorities could consume locally. There may be real benefits to be derived in social care (care passport anyone?). It wouldn’t work for all local services. A national platform for leisure services would have little value for example.
3. Properly drive improvement.
How about an inspection regime for local digital service provision? I think there could be real value here. If not that then, at least, a local GDS could work with other inspection bodies to make sure they really understand how digital can and should be transforming the services they inspect. And in either case setting frameworks which could be used for rigorous peer reviews would have value (for the councils that take this stuff seriously)
4. System leadership.
Already I find we can make progress just by saying that
this is the way the civil service does it.
How much more progress if we say
this is the way the local GDS says to do it.
We need more though.
The leaders of our organisations (political and nonpolitical) need to understand what good looks like, they need to aspire to transform services through focusing on user needs, they need to understand how much this should be costing them. They need to be able to ask for help from some people who really know what they are talking about.
And people working across local government need the skills and the tools necessary to really get hold of these new ways of thinking, not just but certainly, in digital and ICT teams.
It’s politics innit?
There is a political judgement to be made here. Ultimately local councils are accountable to councillors and if local people don’t like what the councillors have been doing they can sack them. Local government has got itself into a position where it probably does need some central intervention as a result of decisions for which those councillors are accountable. To decide that those decisions are wrong and to impose something else is, clearly, profoundly political.
And some might argue (with validity I would say) that the solution isn’t to tell local government what to do around (digital) service design. It’s to give local government more to do. We (in England certainly) live in an extremely centralised state. It is the centralised system (directly or indirectly) that brought us to this point.
Is the solution really more centralisation?