Render unto Ceasar

I have stepped off the fence

I am a true convert. I have seen the light. I believe in a local GDS.

I wrote a few weeks ago a “one the one hand this, on the other hand that” type post. I was genuinely not sure. Since then I’ve been doing some reading and thinking and discussing and I’ve concluded that local government could better meet a lot of user needs with single platform approaches.

One CMS to rule them all

Let’s think about the most obvious one. One CMS for local government. Essentially what we might think of as a single website for local government. local.gov.uk with the way into your council being local.gov.uk/yourcouncil

When you want information about early years provision in your local authority area wouldn’t it make sense for that to be in the same place as the information about early years provision in a neighbouring authority?

I’m all for local decision making and local distinctiveness. But, really, what do we gain by having hundreds of different websites, different colours, lay-outs, responsiveness, speeds, structures?

What if we had a shared mapping engine so that when you looked up the gritting routes on the east of the county it showed the gritting routes for the next county across, and the next, and the next. Or showed your ACTUAL nearest parks, or schools, or made it really easy to report a pothole wherever you were.

We’d still have the discretion to decide which roads were going to be gritted. But let’s all use the same platform to show that information to the public.

It’s not just the content

We can develop single platforms for services while still having local service delivery.

Let’s take waste and recycling collection. Almost every local authority does this in a slightly different way to all the others. But everyone needs to be able to report a limited range of problems: my bin (or box or bag) wasn’t collected say or find out a limited range of details (when is my bin, box or bag due to be collected).

Wherever I look now I see the same issue. Let’s pick one at random: Local Offers, the detail varies locally but the user need is the same across England. 

OK. So it’s a good idea. How do we do it?

There seem to be 2 basic options. I’m going to call them Apple and open source.

Apple is top down. A crack team of digital experts roll through local government like a whirlwind leaving behind a trail of simpler, more efficient, more effective digital services.

A simple answer would be to widen the remit of the GDS. They already know what they are doing, they do it well. But we could create a new, specially local government outfit.

With the Apple approach you get results. You get a consistent approach, user needs addressed in a common way. Sure some people’s noses get pushed out of joint but you do the right thing and the thing right.

It will be hard to do without some form of carrot (money) or stick (legal requirements).  Local authorities don’t, usually, welcome a bunch of outsiders rocking up and telling them how to do things. Even if they bring a strong track record and wield slimline technology and post-its. It runs the risk of sucking more talent out of local communities and into wherever the local GDS is based (London? Manchester? Bristol). And it runs the risk of creating an infrastructure that once built will look for reasons to keep existing.

Ultimately parliament can tell local authorities to do what they are told. It would be better if we just did it because it’s the right thing to do.

The other approach is to carry on building our own things but to share our technology, our learning and our approaches.  The more we can agree common standards and share our experience, the more effective and efficient we can be. This is the approach LocalGovDigital seems to be developing.

This is messier, not all approaches will be consistent, some councils will fail to comply. It’s more flexible though, it will allow different authorities to proceed at different speeds. It will be quicker to get started (at least for the willing. It is lighter-weight and could, if done right, strengthen the skills in local communities. It is less likely to create a structure that will want to keep renewing itself (though let’s not rule that out).

Follow the leaders

If we can do it I like the messy open source approach. But I’ll buy into the Apple approach if it looks like it’s going to happen.

Either way we need leadership in this space in this sector. We need more digital professionals to join in but we need all professions to join in.

We need directors, chief executives and politicians to be involved in this debate, to see its importance, to understand the issues…

…and to have an opinion.

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