GDS for Local Government

The Government Digital Service (GDS) have been transforming Central Government over the last few years and by all accounts achieving great success. People are now talking about them turning their focus to Local Government but to do that they will have to overcome some obstacles.
The possibility of GDS tackling Local Government is described in a recent post by Austin Clark (Government urged to extend GDS support to councils). In it he describes how Phil Rumens the vice chair of digital networking group LocalGov Digital wants to extend the service to local government.

The GDS have been developing the website as well as updating and digitising services over the last few years. It’s a long process but a number of services are now available such as Register to Vote and Digital Self-Assessment.

Extending the GDS services into Local Government makes a lot of sense. There is a lot of commonality between Councils and the services they provide so there should be tremendous opportunities to share costs and develop things once. At the very minimum the fact that GDS is able to share their working practices and standards such as Government Service Design Manual should help everyone involved.

While Local Councils are not in direct competition there is a culture of constantly comparing their services to others. There are of course several awards for things like best websites to most improved services. This is generally a positive thing and helps to drive up quality throughout.  But in my experience many local councils would be wary about any solutions offered from Central Government. There are the obvious political issues of an opposition led authority taking services from central government. But, not even taking Political issues into account, Councils tend to be fiercely independent anyway.

There’s also been a less than successful history of top down solutions in the UK recently. Anyone who has been involved in NHS initiatives for patient records, for example, will be aware of just how hard it is to implement a one-size-fits-all approach across distinct and disparate organisations. See this as an example Abandoned NHS IT system has cost £10bn so far.

However, leaving the Councils and their politics to one side for a moment let’s consider the general public who effectively are the actual customers. For end users the use of GDS services by Councils is potentially beneficial. There is the likelihood of cost savings by moving on to a shared platform and the opportunity for Councils to make use of the GDS usability designs and expertise. It would also be possible to improve usability and through the familiarity of a common user interface for Central and Local Government services.

Local Council websites are in a state of transition at the moment. These days roughly 50% of council access is through mobile devices. As a result the focus of web sites has moved away from information rich, stylised, web sites to being more of a front end to services. Less focus on information and more focus on actions. This is where the GDS can start to be effective in Local Government, by providing some of these services and establishing a framework and best practices for authorities to create their own.

Essentially, there are three ways in which GDS can become widely used by Local Authorities. These are:

  1. They can encourage, cajole, incentivise and generally arm-twist authorities into using them.
  2. They can force local governments into using them either by legislation or funding threats.
  3. They can make it such a compelling proposition that Local Authorities will struggle to think of reasons and excuses not to use it.

Clearly option three is what they will go for if they can although I suspect there will be bit of option one involved as well. Option two is the nightmare scenario which no one would really want to follow.