Should we have a Local GDS?

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 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.


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.

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9 thoughts on “Should we have a Local GDS?

  1. Sarah – it’s exciting to see this idea moving along; my thinking is about involving other sectors/individuals in the discussion/planning (not sure you/we are at the planning stages yet) of a system(s) which will affect all of us – if we think about the effect an LGDS would have on individual cities/communities, does it not make sense to involve other people who also use and understand digital solutions in other sectors like LASA ICT, the organisers/participants of other unconferences such as LibraryCamp and people in the #SmartCities ‘movement’ – I just think that by involving people from other sectors, some of whom might be more used to collaboration, you/we should end up with a better solution; some of us won’t have had access to the kind of budgets which the public sector has had and we have still managed to do good stuff – let’s put all our imaginations together on this 🙂

  2. Agree Pauline – and LocalGov Digital certainly looks to align with anyone (individual or group), in or around local government, that is passionate about effecting practical, positive change for the sector.
    The Digital Framework we started from two years ago was very much about public services for the whole person, whole place (to use some jargon as I’m feeling lazy!) and very definitely about public services rather than councils delivering to, rather than with, communities. It would be good to see this picked up by whatever a LocalGDS ends up being – whether it is a centralised, funded, staffed model or the grassroots movement of LocalGov Digital.

  3. Maybe – but my suggestion is that it is a building block and we shouldn’t stall the change which is already happening by focusing heavily on being provided to (in terms of funding and mandate) from central government or elsewhere. That’s not to say exclude them or to stop lobbying for it if that is what you think is needed – but you can take positive, practical action at the same time.

    It’s a cliche but every journey starts with a small step and for a small movement which started with just a few passionate people LocalGov Digital has effected change and delivered to the sector in the last two years. The more people that get involved the higher speed and scale it can achieve.

    So…get involved and be part of the change you want to see while waiting to see how the call for mandate works out?

  4. Great post. We can send letters, blog about it, write in the press asking for someone to do something, or just get on with it.

    There’s not going to be a mandated LocalGDS in the short term and when and if there is, if we’ve already tried and tested new approaches to stuff it can hit the ground running.

    At the Makers Meet last week I really got the sense that people were keen to try new approaches to digital and one participant even tweeted that “looks like we might really have the beginning of a #localGDS movement”. There surely must come a point that LocalGov Digital becomes LocalGDS, not by mandate but with a critical mass adopting LocalGov Digital principles.

  5. That was good Sarah,

    Can I address this question about Central vs Local from a user’s perspective. Hopefully it might help with the funding, and give both perspectives a point of common interest.

    Because .gov networks are beginning to follow the design of .edu/research networks, and their services, we are beginning to get focus on the citizen. e.g. You saw Richard talking about “PSN Roam.” That service is derived from this one. It’s unlikely that the idea of every citizen having a PSN roam account has even been considered by Central or Local bureaucrats. That’s like students being excluded from having an eduroam account. This one example will give you an idea of what happens when bureaucrats don’t consider network design from a common citizen’s (user’s) perspective.

    One basic fundamental of how modern (IP) network architecture is designed begins by asking this question. where individual institutions (e.g. councils) share attributes about their users, in order to enable them to share (National and International) services.

    From this inter-networking perspective, Local GDS already exists, and it’s not just limited to your advocates. The problem we do have is that no one will blow their service teams’ trumpet. Only a central team gets some credit. e.g. The other 387 Local teams, who share the foundation of this National service, only rate a passing mention.

    No one asks “what would this National IER service (and every other central service) look like if it was designed from a user’s Local perspective?”

    The one issue which is bringing this to a head is driven by this call for tender. The belief that a third party is going to stand between citizens and their governance is simply not going to happen (if I’m any judge of English culture). And local councils appear to be struck dumb. So perhaps we could use this event as a catalyst to asking Janet “what’s wrong with using my local council ID?” It IS, after all, where I come from.

    In the meantime, I’ll just keep advocating.

  6. Thanks Phil – I was really pleased that the Makers event went well and I’m excited to see / use the tools and services coming out of the collaborative groups. It feels like a move on from talking shop meetings with small sub-sets of councils. The Makers event shows that some councils are self-selecting to become part of a collaborative and practical group – they can show, rather than just tell, others why this works for them and their citizens to (as you say) reach that critical mass.

  7. Thanks Simon – as a non-technical person myself I think user advocate is pretty much my stance in the whole debate.

    I’ve asked several times over the years why services aren’t being designed from the local users’ perspective but not had a very satisfactory answer. Partly I guess because everyone is a ‘citizen’ whether they are transacting with central or local government and partly because GDS has meant central has had the momentum and spotlight for the last few years so have built from their viewpoint. The electoral registration seems like a good example where a Local Government Digital Service should have delivered or at the very least been more involved in working up the user journey as well as integrating the council systems in the back end (not to diminish the achievement which was made in getting this service digitised, but rather to show the gap between central and local at the moment).

  8. Thanks Sarah,

    I appreciate what you and Carl, and others, have advocated for over the years. Local, local, local. I do track things across a few countries. The problem, if my “outsider”.au perspective means anything, is that in the UK.GOV perspective, you’ve divided into Local vs, Central camps. Like every Anglo country, it’s the lower “us” against big “them”. You’ll never understand what a good position you’re in until you live in a place where local council can’t even be independent. e.g. A State Minister can wipe an entire with a proclamation.

    I’ve watched the central approach to GOV.UK up till now, and that (in my “network orientated” mind) has AND SHOULD HAVE held the spotlight until now. Mike B’s had to do the head/ego bashing of some very selfish bureaucrats to get where things are where they are today. One step at a time. So after 3 years, we’re coming to the end of the first step. The IDA procurement, one way or another, is going to bring things to a head.

    The IER service is a milestone. It works, and it works as is, better for the exceptions like me who are resident outside the UK. But for everyone else, it’s just looking at the IER service from the wrong end. The problem – of looking from a local end and and considering how central services can be incorporated – was never going to happen until we get to the IDA question. We’ve got every uni around europe, and world, working through how, with their local (uni) ID, their staff and students can share open network services. While in the govspace, the debate is still around sectors of .gov. I’ll say it again, “stuff the user/citizen”.

    I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am for Janet Hughes and her team. And I can’t figure how she found herself putting out a procurement for “identity providers”. My network security mates are taking bets on how soon before an ID provider goes bankrupt. That said, I still can’t work out what Janet and the team are doing, apart from acting like bureaucrats with no idea of network design. Did you guys ever read the comments that she’s ignored?

    One thing which just staggers me is how an org like Liberata wouldn’t see this, and become an “identity provider” by standing behind their 138 councils. I’m getting an insight into what there are no big UK digital companies.

    You know the stupid thing in all of this? Have you checked out how the IER works? Did you notice under “How data matching works”? “This is done using FTPS over the Government Secure Intranet (GSi). Currently there is no API to allow us to do this in real time. There are existing services however they were not deemed extensible enough for us to use them for this project within the timeframes we had”.

    So we’ve gotta keep the status quo simply because the central guys had to prove it can work one way, in the timeframe. That’s OK. Just turn it around, focus on the local EMS, and put an API in place. Now what other central services do you want to plug in? And local councils get paid to just do the plugging (and maybe design a few National services (like “report a road defect”)

    As to a central site for local gov. Don’t bother. You said it, “everyone is a citizen.” You heard “all politics is local”. It only becomes National when it becomes common to most locals. Besides one can’t change an institution.GOV.UK from the outside. Excuse me. I feel so much better for the rave.

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