Further thoughts on a new Local Government Digital Service

From my perspective as Chief Digital Officer for London where we’ve focused on building collaboration, James Plunkett’s pitch for a new Local Government Digital Service is timely. It expands on the growing body thinking recently set out in Public Digital/Nesta’s Radical How and is sympathetic to the recommendations in Rachel Coldicutt, Sarah Gold and Dr Natalie Byrom’s People First, Always.

Here’s why the next government needs to examine the case for a new Local Government Digital Service to enhance collaboration — and the considerations we should reflect on.

How we use data is a civic issue, not just an IT one

Data is shaping our country every day: from how we work, communicate and buy goods, to insights which inform important decisions, design useful new services and deploy emerging technologies like generative AI. Today, local government spends at least £1.8 billion annually on technology systems. While this is somewhat low (1.6%) compared to benchmarks in other industry sectors, it is still significant and supports almost 600 lines-of-business. Across all government how data residing in these systems is managed, used and designed with is fundamentally a civic, not just a technology, matter because it’s critical for delivery,

Despite most citizens interacting primarily with local government services, there exists a gap in digital quality between central and local government offerings. While commendable digital services are available at the central government level, thanks to the Government Digital Service (GDS), the quality at the local government level remains inconsistent and fragmented across the complex council landscape.

This inconsistency not only affects citizens’ overall government experience but, crucially, for a new government: hampers policy design, development, implementation and delivery because citizens’ data isn’t as easily accessible as it should be.

Big IT lock-in holds us back

Nationally, there is a glaring lack of transparency regarding the technology stack underpinning local services. If Whitehall was asked the question: “What IT supports local services, and what is your view on how effectively that supports delivery?” I believe we’d struggle for a coherent answer.

Our work in London showed that the bulk of local services are entangled in inflexible ‘Big IT’ contracts, with systems designed to fulfil individual (and often historic) departmental processes, rather than meet user needs.

Compounding the issue is the deficit in collective procurement by local councils, stemming from an asymmetry of information regarding contract renewals. This lack of coordination prevents local councils from leveraging market opportunities for better terms, flexibility and also perpetuates onerous contract terms and dominant industry practices. In particular, resistance from Big IT companies to facilitate easy data-sharing from the systems (APIs) they run further exacerbates the problem, hindering collaboration, innovation, and comprehensive insights into citizen experiences.

As a result, citizens often encounter fragmented and unsatisfactory experiences when engaging with local government services that span multiple departments. It also means that efforts to join-up on outcomes — and missions — are hampered right from the start because the data held in these systems is hard or costly to access.

Addressing these challenges requires a radical shift towards integrating smaller, independent technology components or modules in a flexible manner to meet changing needs. This needs a coordinated national focus on governance, architecture, technology and leadership across the sector. Without a cohesive vision guiding the development, sharing, and procurement of technology infrastructure, local governments will continue to struggle to deliver user-centric services tailored to specific council or citizen needs.

To achieve more responsive, efficient, and cost-effective public services, there must be a concerted national effort to understand and optimise data-enabled transformation at the local level.

We need to change things

The longer the status quo goes unchallenged, the bigger the technical and organisational debt grows. The bigger this debt grows the longer government lessens the impact of itself. The next UK government should therefore consider expanding the remit of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Cabinet Office Central Digital and Data Office by establishing a ‘Government Digital Service-Local’ (GDS-L) initiative — or Local Government Digital Service, if you like. (The current GDS, absurdly, has an international arm but not a local government one).

This initiative would have several key objectives:

  • Enabling Radical Transformation: GDS-Local would work closely with local government authorities to facilitate digital transformation initiatives and promote effective data sharing practices. By providing guidance, resources, and technical assistance, GDS-local can help local councils modernise their services, significantly improve citizen experiences by enabling data sharing between different systems and departments.
  • Innovation: A GDS-Local would support new spaces to experiment on entirely new service models or delivery methods through a sandbox like the one proposed by the London Office of Technology and Innovation in London, for example for the use of Generative AI in services.
  • Market Making: GDS-Local would undertake a thorough investigation into restrictive industry practices, particularly those related to Big IT contracts and the reluctance to introduce free/low cost APIs for local government services. By identifying and addressing these barriers, we can foster a more open and competitive marketplace that benefits both local government authorities, service providers and entirely new markets for innovators.
  • Capability Building: GDS-Local would collaborate with local government to develop a new common reference architecture for local councils. This architecture, derived from best practices and lessons learned from successful transformation initiatives across all sectors, would serve as a blueprint for designing and implementing modern, scalable, and interoperable systems across different local authorities.

In addition, a GDS-local could explore other initiatives aimed at improving experiences, reducing cost and improving productivity using technology and and data at the local level. This might include developing and promoting standards and best practices for cybersecurity, privacy and accessibility, as well as extending existing training and capacity-building support available for central government staff, to local government staff.

These initiatives would have numerous benefits for citizens, local councils, and the government:

  • Better services for citizens: By supporting digital transformation and data sharing initiatives, GDS-L would help local councils deliver more responsive, efficient, and user-friendly services to citizens. Improved access to data and streamlined processes would enhance the overall experience of interacting with local government authorities.
  • Savings, agility, and delivery for local councils: GDS-L would enable local councils to achieve cost savings through more efficient procurement practices and reduced reliance on proprietary technologies. The adoption of common approaches and best practices would also increase responsiveness and delivery, allowing local councils to respond more effectively to evolving needs and priorities.
  • Design funnel for central government initiatives: at the moment various government departments seek to transform aspects of local government delivery in disjointed ways — for example, unifying parking payment solutions (DfT, started in 2019), digitising the planning process or better social care data. Worthy GDS services like Notify are ostensibly available for local government to adopt, but weren’t designed with local government.
  • Better services and delivery of outcomes for Government: By promoting better data use and interoperability across local government authorities, GDS-L would enable government as a whole to make more informed decisions and deliver better outcomes for citizens. Enhanced data sharing would also facilitate pan-government collaboration, enable more joined-up approaches to addressing complex societal challenges and enhance the potential for innovation by maximising existing government investments via Innovate UK and other bodies.

Collaboration not centralisation

Any such service would need to bring overall coherence to existing initiatives (Local Digital at DHLUC) and be designed with local government and the Local Government Association, incorporate Local Digital and other relevant government teams. Close alignment (or perhaps even a review of some of the functions of the Catapults) may also be required. Collaboration, not centralisation, would be the guiding principle backed up by a refreshed Local Digital Declaration.

In conclusion, a ‘GDS-L’ initiative would be a strong strategic move for the next UK government. By focusing on digital transformation, data sharing, and industry reform at the local level, GDS-L can drive tangible improvements in service delivery, efficiency, and outcomes for citizens, local councils and the government as a whole.

It is a missing piece in missions or outcomes-based policy-making— in fact, without this kind of change it may not fulfil its promise.

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Chief Digital Officer for London

@LDN_CDO & Data for London Board @MayorofLondon using data to support a fairer, safer and greener city for everyone​