I’ve resisted as long as I can but it feels like I should add my thoughts to the ‘Should we have a LocalGDS?’ debate that has been rumbling on for years but really gained traction in the last few months.

If you’re not aware of it all you can catch up by browsing the extensive debate catalogue here or read this summary article by Ben Proctor for the Guardian.

So, should we?

Way back in January 2012 when I blogged about UKGovCamp I was very definite on what I thought, writing:

“We need a local government version of GDS – and I’m sort of excited that one may already be self-organising even if it eventually gets consumed by the centre.”

So, more than two years on have I changed my views? Well, yes and no.

Why, yes of course we should

The situation remains that digital is not improving fast enough or widely enough across individual councils or the sector as a whole. It’s fairly simplistic but not an unfair assumption that what the Government Digital Service has done for central government, a local version could do for local government.

It gets more complicated when you think about how this would work across 400+ councils each with their own political will and local priorities but at this point the debate starts to stray toward the structure of local government rather than how to improve the digital version.

On a practical level there is duplication of systems and effort and one single body providing this could save money and increase the quality and efficiency to boot. I’m not going to go down the road of talking about whether we should have a single local.gov.uk because…well…it’s a different debate and we should probably just focus on talking about the same thing.

Sounds like a no brainer so far, right?

But, wait a minute, no…

Two years ago all those points came together and made me resolve to a solid yes to a LocalGDS. That’s exactly why I co-founded LocalGov Digital with Carl Haggerty and others – because I could see the need and I would rather do something to address that then get bogged down in go-nowhere debate.

For the last two years this grassroots, sector-led movement has been swelling. We’ve released collaborative tools back to the sector (such as the Content Standard and Usability Dashboard), we’ve held events (like LocalGovCamp and LGMakers meet ups) , we’re starting to tackle collaborative tools and services, capability and skill frameworks and toolkits to get good practice more widely adopted. We’ve tackled the things within our capability to do so and challenged those that are outside our direct control.

We’re not the only group working on stuff but to my mind we’re the one delivering the fastest – despite the term ‘volunteer’ being used somewhat disparagingly toward us (in my opinion, which may differ from the intention of those using the description). We’re from lots of different councils and those councils have signed up to actively work together for the benefit of all. That’s a powerful thing.

To me this means that the last two years have seen something change in terms of sector organisation: there *is* now a Local GDS – LocalGov Digital.

It may not be fully formed (as it’s not the only group working to common aims) nor may it be producing at the scale or speed that some would like. But as a proof of concept that digital experts can collaborate and deliver tools and standards for the sector it’s done pretty well so far.

I don’t doubt that this standpoint will have it’s objectors but if the debate is going to have a practical valuable outcome for the sector then for me it needs to move on from ‘should we’ because something is already established. We need to move on to the next stage…

Let’s ask a better question: how do we grow and develop the existing LocalGov Digital service?

So, we’ve got the basis of a Local Government Digital Service (is the name of it important, it seems to be an underlying issue to some?) but we want to…what? Deliver at scale and speed? Reduce costs of digital across the sector? Improve digital public services? Get funding from somewhere to be a formal organisation?

All of these things have been mentioned but there seems to be little agreement in the debate about what the objectives of a Local GDS would be. Would it be about a single platform? A set of standards? Centralised content? One website to rule them all? We don’t seem to be talking the same line on this stuff yet. We probably should.

We can probably assume that reduced spend in the sector (or reduced duplication of cost) and improved user experience would probably come out high up that list. Other people in the debate have put forward some good suggestions on detail in these areas – take a pick from the list linked at the top of the article or start with this one from Sarah Prag.

If the idea of leaving this in the hands of a grassroots movement (yes, with – shock – some power from people giving their time voluntarily) or with an existing group (or consortium of existing formal groups) isn’t an agreeable route – what is? Create something new in the style of GDS with employees? It’s not something I’m fully enthusiastic about but that’s because it feels like it’s being hailed as a magical problem-solving unicorn rather than thought through against the constraints of getting 400-odd councils to do pretty much the same thing. Still – this post from Steve Halliday raises some interesting questions (and demands!) about how it could or should be funded and I’m still fond of this proposal from Phil Rumens on calling up your best to a national squad.

One part of the question which seems to have an assumed answer is where a LGDS comes from – are we reliant on central government to create and mandate, do we rely on external forces to try and apply it to the sector, or do we focus on what we already have in the sector and how to sustain and grow that potential? A consistent answer to this may well lead to how we fund, how we staff and what we do with any such entity.

What am I going to do?

The debate has been going on a long time now – it’s been on my radar for more than two years – and I do eventually weary of talk. I am, as I’ve said before, all about the positive action and delivering the change I want to see. I might do it in a small way but do it I will.

While discussions continue (and I really hope participants in the debate become more diverse it’s dominated by a really niche group at the moment) I’ll be continuing to deliver digital improvements. Carl Haggerty said in his recent post on the LGDS subject that for him that means concentrating on the Change Academy. I’ve an associated project for LocalGov Digital but that’s another blog post, best saved for another day.

For me I’ll continue delivering directly for my council and taking opportunities to share and collaborate with other organisations through the LocalGov Digital and other networks. I’ll continue to encourage the groundswell from within the sector because whether or not a separate Local Government Digital Service is created or not there’s going to need to be enthusiasm and active participation from councils if the good practice it promotes is accepted and put toward achieving the shared objectives.

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If you’d like to take up this debate you can leave a comment or find me on Twitter.

If you’d rather read my words about music then you can find me on Louder Than War.