Does local government need a local government digital service?

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NB: This post has also been posted on the Government Digital Service blog here. I am simply posting here to keep a record of my thinking on my blog.

The easy answer to the title question would be No…but I don’t like easy answers and I believe that No is fundamentally the wrong answer.

I’ve followed with great interest, admiration and actually envy the progress of gov.uk from within local government. I thought for some time, I want to do some of that here in Devon, it can’t be that difficult surely, we are a much smaller organisation than the whole of central government and therefore how hard could it be!

The web is an important channel, everyone knows this…blah blah blah and if done right, we’ll save money as people prefer to interact online. But for so many years most of local government has been accused of lacking innovation, creativity and useful online services. My situation in Devon is no different, we’ve done a variety of things which are relatively innovative, but web managers have lacked the credibility and influence to really take the web in a new direction…That is where the realisation of what has happened at GDS comes home – it is actually more profound than you realise until you actually try to do the same.

Sarah Lay from Derbyshire County Council blogged last friday about the #reallyusefulday that the GDS team put on alongside a bunch of local government people.

She sums up one of the biggest issues facing all web managers/digital champions and the like perfectly:

Your culture is not our culture – yet

The question baking my noodle throughout the day was ‘how is the GDS culture and direction going to get embedded in local government?’. The simple fact is that the Government Digital Service has been specifically created to do this (massive) task for central government and empowered to make it happen. They can’t force that on local government but they’re going to need to persuade them to follow suit if this is really going to work.

But at the moment Agile is alien, UX is theory more than practice and digital by default has yet to reach the provinces. Of course this is a generalisation. There is massive innovation in local government, bags of passion (also pockets of apathy and resistance to change).

My current thinking on the local government web domain is that over the past 10 years we have spent money (lots of it), redesigned and redesigned our sites, argued and debated what a consistent navigation structure should be and then all adopted a poor compromise but still useful structure and were measured against some national definition of our local areas, we’ve been guided by external forces on doing the wrong thing really well…often acting in blind faith that if we follow all this advice we will achieve the holy grail of the “perfect council website”…. A myth that for the last 10 years has failed to be realised…

There is nobody is to blame for this and we shouldn’t lay blame anywhere, instead we should take a long hard look at ourselves and decide how we wish to move forward…The GDS approach is a good model, it makes sense (for now anyway), it has shown us how things could work and how things could look if we follow a set of principles and processes – but that takes time and a level of commitment that simply doesn’t yet exist?

But the question Sarah raises still comes back – how do we get the same kind of culture embedded across over 400 individual organisations – because that is what local authorities are, individual organisations, accountable to their local people, not central government.

We are also fighting an online battle with external organisations who provide online services as well as though who we now commission to provide services to work toward the same “standards”.

So I ask again “Does local government need a local government digital service?”

YES of course it “needs” one.

It is how something like that could happen which is the more interesting question – the how is slightly more complicated and riddled with challenges and barriers.

But there is hope – GDS no doubt had many many barriers and challenges and most likely still does in key areas but yet manages to work through them, so i’m optimistic that collectively local government could do the same  - if it wanted to – yes we would “want” this to happen first.

But what would a LocalGDS actually look like, offer and provide that doesn’t already exist in many places?

I’ll provide a starting point on what i feel is needed – some may argue that this might exist in places, but the lack of co-ordination is impacting on the overall value to the sector.

Leadership and Vision
There is no strong visible leadership for the local government web estate and the value it creates for users. Many local government web folk provide leadership and certainly inspire me for what they are doing…but its sporadic and doesn’t have the level of influence require to affect a change on a wider scale.
There is a balance to be had between external people and “experts” and practitioner understanding that should be explored..It would be wrong in my opinion to create a completely separate organisation to provide this with no links into local government or central government.

Skills development (UI/UX/simplicity/agile)
There is clearly a huge skills gap in the local government web community that needs to be addressed…some councils may simply choose to “commission” the web from an external provider and rely on private sector skills.

Sarah’s post highlights the need for additional skills around UI/US and agile and without some body to push this forward – how is this going to become embedded?

Connecting
This is an obvious one and there are a range of options already in place here for example the recent UKGovCamp event in January.

Govcamp 2012

[ Photo by Paul Clarke http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/6738091789/ ]

But there is no continuation of the conversation through online networks other than twitter and on individual blogs. To have a bigger impact, something around co-ordinating this would need to be explored.
Whilst there are some groups facilitated by external organisations such as the Socitm Web Improvement community, which is in the Knowledge Hub, it simply doesn’t go far enough…a collective responsibility of course to contribute into these spaces…but it isn’t a local government space it is a socitm managed community.

Standards / toolkits / frameworks
I’ve recently read a blog post by Benjamin Welby about local government simply using the code base and technology that underpins the gov.uk platform…in theory this sounds like a very sensible thing to do and for some councils this might be a realistic option…but for me the real issue is not whether we share the same technology but what standards we set for technologies in order to facilitate a better web experience.

Forcing a technology approach and platform onto local government simply won’t work…it is the best practice standards that we need to share and any kind of local government digital services would have to have a sense of “ownership” by the sector. It is a shame that so many people have gone from Local Government Improvement and Development (LGID) as this would have made a logical co-ordination place.

Again a more community based approach to this would be beneficial, but i’m sure that there would be a number of heated debates in IT departments across the country as to which technology language should be adopted as the standard.

Central government needs to work with localgov directly on IT industry standards…most localgov have legacy systems which will simply never provide a fantastic user experience…we have our hands tied as single small orgs and we are not effectively represented when it comes to big IT players.

The transactional design processes and principles from gov.uk need to be shared and minimum standards need to be created based on achieving a fantastic user experience.

Extend the GDS global experience language into and across local government – this should provide a flexible framework to allow for “localised” branding whilst being clear about how content and services are presented and designed.

It really shouldn’t matter whether one council chooses wordpress to power their website and another chooses a large CMS platform, if the online experience and online services were consistent but also supported a localised feel.

Setting the bar high
I think GDS has already delivered on this, but hasn’t been explicit or forthcoming in broadening its influence into local government and maybe rightly so…
But we do need to maintain a high standard, why should we accept anything less than a really good online experience…the balance is in doing this in an affordable and sustainable way in small local authorities.

Greater engagement and collaboration between Local and Central.
Direct engagement with local government practitioners needs to go beyond the localdirectgov database and into skills, sharing and learning. Raising the profile within local government circles as to the value added and the efficiencies achieved of gov.uk – this might be an easy step to take and in some ways this already happens but is informal and sporadic at best…no fault of anyone here…just the way it is right now.

There is also a lot of learning and experience from us local government folk which can and should be shared back into GDS. After all, there are many levels of government and we all have a stake in making it a better place. Whilst GDS do have a strong mandate and have clearly attracted a huge amount of talent, there is in my humble opinion a huge amount of talent in local government which could do with some support , direction and engagement.

Things we should avoid doing.

  • measuring / monitoring from a central place
  • force it
  • focus on technology
  • create and acknowledge artificial barriers

I know there are more things we should stop doing but i’ll not focus too much on that now…

I hope this post sparks and triggers some interesting discussion about how local government and the GDS might have proactive conversations in moving forward.

I’ve disabled comments on this post only, as i’d like to keep all of the discussion in one place – If you wish to comment on this post please do so over at the Government Digital Service Blog

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