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Does local government need a local government digital service?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team

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.

My name is Carl Haggerty, I’m the Digital Communications Manager at Devon County Council. I've followed with great interest, admiration and actually envy the progress of 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 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 effect 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?

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 ]

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 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 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 organisations and we are not effectively represented when it comes to big IT players.

The transactional design processes and principles from 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 - this might be an easy step to take and in some ways this already happens but is informal and sporadic at 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.

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  1. Comment by The Local GDS question – again… « Carl's Notepad posted on

    [...] I previously wrote about over on the GDS blog back in March this year I started the post with this statement: Does local government need a local [...]

  2. Comment by Stillwaters posted on

    I certainly agree that the development of some agreed basic standards/guidelines would be useful. Rightly or wrongly, people are already looking at what GDS are doing and second guessing how that could/would impact on local authorities - and it's either being used as an excuse not to do things or to try and be overly innovative (when simple would probably be better) I think it stems from the fact, as I said on Twitter the other day, people just assumed GDS would eventually be addressing the 'local authority issue' at some point anyway!

    And from a personal point of view, I think a lot of people would find it a lot easier to get things done, prevent the multiple site proliferation, steer their web estate into a certain direction etc if there was that 'support/guidance' available. We know what we're doing, but it's amazing how many people won't listen unless you throw in 'x recommend it'

    At the moment, the 'big stick' people use tends to be 'Soctim say, so you have to do...' I'd much prefer it to be the carrot of 'GDS has shown this way works'

    • Replies to Stillwaters>

      Comment by Louise Kidney@govuk posted on

      Hi Stillwaters,

      I'll send your comment on to someone within DCLG who is currently thinking a lot around this as I think it will help. Hopefully we've laid the rumours to rest a little in the comments here, but that doesn't mean that information sharing is not an option within the resource that we do have.

  3. Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed comments so far...this is a really good discussion, which we need to continue as there are many issues which need to be teased out if we are to move forward.

    Firstly I think there maybe a slight misunderstanding in that people are assuming i am suggesting that GDS itself create a local GDS for us - i'm not saying that, although if GDS wanted to help "kickstart" something then i'd certainly not say no 🙂

    The issue for me is that local gov web professionals as a community are very talented and committed people but we (i include myself in that community too) are all misguided, we follow star ratings when we should be focusing on local peoples needs and creating a "local" site for "local" people 🙂

    These kinds of things are often undone when a "maverick" councils creates something different and changes the game and raises the bar...but not always in the right direction...but the bar needs to be raised and discussions need to be had around new innovative approaches, the merits, the pitfalls, and benefits etc.

    Other organisations do bits of this and they are also valuable players in the discussion, but it all feels like stuff is being done to us...I would like the local government web community to actually come together and be more proactive about how the local government web estate should look like...maybe i'm too optimistic and this is so unlikely to happen in the current climate that all this blog post serves to do is allow a space for people to articulate there frustrations with the current way of doing things. That in itself is a valuable outcome of course.

    My suggestion is that GDS as a body of people can help and advise local government web professionals on some aspects of building better websites and that requires engagement, which doesn't appear to be happening yet - this isn't a problem right now, but we'd need to work this out in order to learn from each other - also GDS as a body could perhaps advise on how local government might be able to create something which served a similar purpose without it being seen as GDS "taking over" local government. I'm not sure the GDS folk would want the "hassle" 🙂

    If we as a local gov web community wanted to create an equivalent to GDS what do people think it should actually do and more importantly how could we do it?

    • Replies to Carl Haggerty>

      Comment by Louise Kidney@govuk posted on

      Hi Carl,

      Do you want to coral a group who'd be interested in visiting GDS for an information sharing visit and then we can co-ordinate availability at this end?

      It's really not a case of not wanting the hassle, it's simply a situation of resourcing and prioritising combined with task focused approaches.

      • Replies to Louise Kidney@govuk>

        Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

        Yep, i'll try and co-ordinate this...a simply question perhaps...are people expected to pay there own way to get to you...that will of course influence peoples decisions in some way 🙂

  4. Comment by Shane O'Neill posted on

    Interesting thread - are you guys aware that is a Local Authority roadworks portal which is completely free to view and has a free API?
    What we have learnt from our experience is that central Government directives can often disable local efforts - herding cats was the frustrated metaphor used above: but it s got to be done with local authority sense of ownership. / has 2 million local roadworks updated every 30 minutes : the largest database of works in the UK and entirely the result of Local Authority efforts - an exercise in VFM cloud computing before it became fashionable-speak.
    I m responsible for its governance - and on behalf of the plus 50 members of ELGIN who are local authorities, I am not hugely impressed with GDS s centralised approach and discouragement to our efforts.

    • Replies to Shane O'Neill>

      Comment by Ben posted on

      Whilst it's lovely that there is a service out there that does this it does make me wonder.

      I don't know if we're special here, but we have a GIS system and use it to record + manage a variety of of data which we are starting to publish out. I understand work is in progress to upgrade to a newer version that will make it easier to publishing either as the raw data and/or a map. If we were to publish this information in a standard format why would we even need to get involved with ELGIN?

      These services certainly respond to a need in most cases I don't agree that they are always the answer. I think in some scenarios there is a desire to use or purchase a product or service without looking at the features or potential developments of existing systems. If the data is published in a standard way then it can be left to the market to do what it wants such as aggregate nationally.

  5. Comment by Louise Kidney@govuk posted on

    Hi Carl,

    Firstly, thank you for the this excellent post – the quality and thoughtfulness of the comments indicate the research and effort evidently used to create this.

    GDS is in its infancy as a unit and as an ethos. The ethos is evolving as a result of a number of drivers, digital by default being the most obvious one. When Martha Lane Fox wrote her report, she focused predominantly on central government digital offerings because this was where she saw the sprawl of digital real estate.

    GDS's remit currently does not extend to local government. Those conversations are, and will continue to be had, within this blog and across various digital networks. There is an acknowledgement from within DCLG that interaction between GDS and local government needs to continue, and much discussion is being had on how that can best be enabled. As other commenters have raised, the Communities of Practice (now the Knowledge Hub) may need to play a role, as may more unofficial networks that currently exist on Twitter and Yammer for example.

    Finally, if anyone would be interested in coming to visit GDS, please let us know – we're open to arranging 'tours'.

    • Replies to Louise Kidney@govuk>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      Thanks Lou,

      I don't think i'm saying GDS actually provide a local GDS itself...the main point of the discussion is that as an approach, the methods, processes and broad impact of GDS - in my opinion - needs to be replicated across Local Gov but in a way that works for the sector.

      There are certainly areas where GDS can support , encourage and nudge professionals and those supporting local gov digital development and vice versa and yes the KHub could certainly provide a space for conversation and learning exchange.

      The key thing for me is that the business model of GDS "appears" to be making progress, albeit it is continuing to push up against existing cultures and barriers and only time will resolve some of those and GDS won't win every battle.

      In terms of learning and engaging with each other there is much that can be done...but i don't think local gov needs the GDS team to actually create and resource a local GDS team ( financial contributions always welcome of course 🙂 )...more that if one were to happen, you (GDS) could provide valuable experience in helping it develop and get off the ground.

      It would be useful to know more about how GDS "practically got set up" and how GDS thinks local gov could move forward in this area?

      • Replies to Carl Haggerty>

        Comment by Louise Kidney posted on

        Hi Carl,

        As per my comment below, we'd be happy to pass on learning. If you'd like to email me when you've gathered a group of interested local govvies, we'll sort out a day when you can all come and ask these questions.

  6. Comment by Adam Retter posted on


    Some of this somehow reminds me of what we tried to do with Shared Systems and Services through the Devon Portal project back in 2004. The problem we had at that time was both political and technical, if I recall correctly! Technical because there was almost a 50/50 split in the technology platforms in use across the authorities in Devon, thus doubling the cost and resources required of a shared service. Political because support for shared services seemed to ebb and flow, with authorities fearing loss of budget and resources from themselves to a joint project.

    I want to discuss your assertion - "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."

    Of course I do not disagree with the assertion about standards, however...

    From a selfish technologist point of view - I feel that if you could enforce the technology choice from in here-on-in to a single web development language/platform across local authorities, you could make massive savings. Not only that, but you could naturally develop a local government community around a technology choice that could feed and support itself.

    Where all web developers in local government are experts in X, they could build reusable tools, code and products that could be easily shared and understood with any other local authority. I realise you cant change the past, but you could easily choose something modern and Agile, and perhaps say from now on all web work in local-authority must be undertaken in Node.js (or any other 1 thing). The community which would form around the chosen technology across all local authorities would be the most valuable outcome I believe.

    • Replies to Adam Retter>

      Comment by Ben posted on

      I think the problem with defining the technology is it can become too restrictive. If you define the standard then organisations can do as they please behind the scenes. Organisations will probably naturally gravitate to a particular set of technologies because they will be attracted by the other stuff like community and potential cost savings as you say. If the standard is adhered to though the flexibility remains for other products, suppliers and technologies to be used incrementally.

    • Replies to Adam Retter>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      I agree with Ben, I don't think local government could go this far as it is too fragmented.

      It all feels like history is repeating itself in terms of some of the outputs but we made so many mistakes back in 2003-4. The main issue for me was that the Devon portal project was technology driven and not content or user was also driven by IT professionals (customer service folk didn't really exist then).

      Local government is different to central government and we'd need to adopt a different approach to how GDS has moved forward but the "idea" of a local GDS is appealing to me

  7. Comment by Precious Snowflakes « Microformats & the semanantic web posted on

    [...] It feels like some kind of Orwellian nightmare: the relentless focus on user needs leading to a future of identikit pages, with no individuality, no character, no clue that behind these pages — which, remember, under the Single Government Domain policy becomes the single authoritative view, the site that represents the department on the web — is a living and breathing institution that manages hugely important parts of our lives. A future in which what each department says and the way that it says it is governed through the Government Digital Service (GDS), in Cabinet Office, the hand of the prime minister. And now we’re talking about local government too? [...]

  8. Comment by peterjordan posted on

    Surely there is room for at least some best practice guidelines around, for example, stopping website proliferation, URL best practice/standard APIs, RESTful APIs etc. And aren't there already vehicles that could help with this such as SOCITIM or ESD?

    I wasn't impressed to see the Hampshire PFI Lighting Portal,; "
    I have pleasure in welcoming you to this website developed especially for you, the residents of Hampshire, and I hope you find it helpful." It might be PFI, but why does it need to be on a separate website?

    • Replies to peterjordan>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      I completely agree that we could start with some very basic standards, it seems bonkers to me, that local government hasn't actually created something itself over the last 10 years...instead we have been judged externally and have waited for others to tell us what we need to do.

  9. Comment by Stephen Cross posted on

    Glad to see this idea being aired. I've been working on turning a localgov digital supertanker for a long time now. Recently, by advocating a GOVUK-esque approach to the product, and currently, by advocating a GDS approach to delivery. Evidence, consistency and persistence, plus piggy-backing on business transformation ('channel shift', etc), have got things to a point where I think this might actually be possible and practicable.

    This is only one local experience (with new challenges every day), and there are hundreds of local authority 'cats' still to herd. I'm certain that the GDS model applied locally could bring success. I won't hold my breath for a sector-wide solution, but with a bit of a push and some incentive from the centre (egov style), technical and advisory resources (Local Directgov style), and against the background of hard times, just maybe...

    • Replies to Stephen Cross>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      Thanks for the comment Stephen,

      My thinking is not that GDS provide anything for local government but that Local Government as a collective group come together and try and make some sense of this space instead of relying on external people telling us what we need to do.

      Whether this happens, will actually be down to all of us

  10. Comment by Ben posted on

    Speaking from experience in on of the local councils there is still a huge challenge around getting people on board. Departments know they have to improve service, save money and they know they need to embrace technology to help achieve that, but they want to do it all without really changing the way they work or the number of staff they employ.

    The feeling I have is that *some* managers try to protect their "empire" including budgets and staff. In fact it's nearing the end of the financial year and if there's money left in the pot departments are looking to spend it [on anything] for fear they will loose and never be able to get it back.

    As in other comments, there are a number of incumbent systems that have a really poor user experience and were developed a number of years ago that don't have the integration features that we now require to achieve things like end-user self-service and web integration. We don't necessarily have the resources, skills or money to replace these systems on our own and in some cases I'm not sure the solutions are out there without the need for serious development on top. One answer is to look at sharing services and products between departments or other local councils, but that can mean that the project becomes unwieldy because there are too many involved and each partner is looking to replicate the way they currently work with the new system. It can then become a bun fight as to whose process is the "best" or you end up with the supplier's process defining it, which again may not be the best.

    In my world I don't believe we have sufficient management buy-in - we have a [small] team that I think is starting to understand the problem and where we need to go, but our recommendations and suggestions can be [and are] vetoed at will. The organisation still doesn't always see the bigger picture of what benefits it can bring, and concentrate too much on what would make life easier for them and mean they don't have to change. There are signs of this changing but it is very slow.

    I like the idea of some IT standards and it is something I have spoken about internally, but we got stuck around the how and who. The fact that we use system X for function Y should be irrelevant - a decent standard that then allows us to build an SoA would help that and mean organisations can change systems without fear of a whole bunch of stuff breaking.

    Open311 ( is something I have been looking at but is quite narrow in its remit.

    The Local DirectGov database is good from an integration perspective, but it requires pro-active work to keep up-to-date. I think a reasonable alternative would be to have a standard set of clean URLs (using terms the public would use) that local gov sites should implement. It then becomes the responsibility of the local web manager to determine where that page goes and ensure it matches the term.

    A SoA could mean that you could then feasibly have a single transactional website. Is branding an issue? Perhaps. But people just want to find something out or get something done. Who fulfils that is irrelevant to them. We already have the police and county staff co-located at our site, which means it becomes less about organisation and more about location. You need to go to this building to sort this. I believe it should be the same on-line.

    I agree there needs to be more communication. Not just with central gov but also locally. We seems to duplicate content and functionality that means there is a lack of consistency. There are also nuances that mean you might also get slightly different information. We should be looking to be more consistent.

    An lGDS might help to set some of this stuff and then provide the forum for consistency and ensure efforts aren't being duplicated or even pool them.

    • Replies to Ben>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      Thanks for your response Ben,

      I agree that there is a long way to go and we are only at the beginning of any journey in this direction.

      If we move this type of idea forward we need to ensure that we can be agile enough to support those councils who can move quickly whilst also providing support to those who need more convincing.

      I think there is new thinking to be done around how local council websites use domains and how those domains can be opened up to include the wider partner ecosystem of content, after all we should be focused on the users.

      Along with this we also need to exploit new ways to get content to people and not concern ourselves with getting people to websites...this is the type of thinking that emerges when considering content strategy over web strategy.

      The more this discussion evolves the more i'm convinced that local government "needs" a Local GDS even though some councils may not realise that they want this type of service yet.

      Would be good to get some GDS viewpoints into this discussion, although i can appreciate they probably don't want to come in all big brother style and been seen to take over...however they are in a position to help nudge this forward, provide some weight and influence to it and hopefully raise the profile further into local government circles.

      • Replies to Carl Haggerty>

        Comment by Ben posted on

        The proliferation of domains is something I very much agree on. There are too many besides the organisation domain there are the secondary domains that are used to deep link or provide secondary sites.

        I believe the "website" should become the primary content repository. How/where that is actually viewed is another matter, but it should be easily accessible and repurposable (did I make that word up?) and locally managed where necessary. I think a standard URL structure would aid that because it becomes easy for us all to access and in much the same way works, you should be able to access the content in a variety of formats. You could also extend that in a RESTful way to make it transactional and you could also do things like redirect responses to shift requests around. For example, our council actually runs the parking services for a neighbouring borough. A request for content on how to challenge a ticket could be redirected to the content on our site either to be embedded or viewed.

        I've seen requests for digital TV and mobile apps, but they all mean setting up a separate content management system to support them which instantly makes the system useless, because it becomes something else that needs to be updated. They also have their own specific return paths that mean setting up separate integrations to the back office.

  11. Comment by Fraser posted on

    Some would argue that leadership in this area should stem from the likes of LGiD, the LGA or SOCITM and in some respects it does. However, in my experience the bottlenecks are often at a far more practical level which requires 1-2-1 or dedicated intervention at the local level.

    Of course, we did have a ‘local’ GDS of sorts in terms of the International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy back in the day. The local eGovernment National Projects were also a huge injection of enthusiasm for all things digital. While few of the remnants exist today, these initiatives got the ball rolling and funds were used to compliment the growth of UK enterprise in this sector including the likes of mySociety, Delib and Public-i. Not to forget getting local ePetitioning up and running a long time before No.10.

    It looks like what’s needed now is some sort of ‘hit squad’ coupled with a local government interface for GDS – to take responsibility for the local government knowledge deficit and translate/transform some of the enterprise class products they’ve made into tools for councils and councillors. Dig deep, Mike 😉

    Most significantly, in my humble opinion, local government is and can be at the forefront of innovation. In this sense, GDS can actually learn something from local government pioneers like Carl. For now, the private sector fills this gap – but that’s not all bad either.

    • Replies to Fraser>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      Thank you for your kind words Fraser,

      I think your point about how this kind of thing has operated before provides an opportunity for us to learn from any mistakes and successes.

      Your comment
      "It looks like what’s needed now is some sort of ‘hit squad’ coupled with a local government interface for GDS – to take responsibility for the local government knowledge deficit and translate/transform some of the enterprise class products they’ve made into tools for councils and councillors."
      hits the nail on the head in terms of some of the technology, however we also need to look at how we can ensure that any existing investment a council has made in technology can also be maximised to achieve the same kind of outcome.

  12. Comment by Paul Nash (@penval) posted on

    Great post Carl and it has attracted some excellent comments. Sarah provides some useful insight into the issues across government and I can concur with aimafidon about the potential for CoPs; I heard an excellent presentation from Helen Reynolds in Liverpool recently about the use of Yammer.

    I think that there are a couple of fundamental challenges that ought to be highlighted here over and above the difficulties of changing organisations that were never designed to be changed; quite the reverse, local government was designed to be stable and auditable and now we are telling it that it has to respond to disruptive policies and disruptive technology. While I don’t have to endure it I do share your pain.

    So let us imagine that instead of changing them we are establishing them anew. What questions should we be asking?

    Who are the users? Sounds obvious but most service recipients outside of planning and environmental health (simplistic but it makes the point) are not those who necessarily respond to consultations and participate in localism or are activists on Social Media. What do they need?

    If it’s Digital by Default how far is Assisted Digital going to help? How prepared are client support organisations such as CAB, Advice and Advocacy, Debt Counseling, Drug and Alcoho abuse, domestic violence councilors, repeat offender projects and Housing Associations in a position to work in a digital environment? These are the services that many of the big service users will want to access. What are you doing to engage with them? What happens when the call centre is no longer the principle point of contact, where are the new touch points?

    What do you as an organisation actually deliver? How much do you commission? How much of the solution do you need to own? If you are, like an increasing number of local government organisations, mainly a commissioner of services how will you signpost to service delivery?
    Related to that are Personal Budgets and co-production of services; I have come across a number of local government organisations that have simply packaged up their existing service offer and then routed the money via the client. “Plus ca change….”, ticks the box and changes nothing. How will your web site cope with concepts like personal wealth, managing a budget, choosing services, measuring outcomes, collaboration and feedback?

    My view is that it is against a backdrop of change that organisations need to change. If we were starting again, as the old joke goes, we wouldn’t start from here, would we? However, we are here and I think your blog post sets the scene very well.

    • Replies to Paul Nash (@penval)>

      Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

      Hi Paul,

      very good comments and i'm afraid i don't have the answers to most of those questions.

      In terms of the future of local government, you maybe interested in reading a post by Martin Howitt on localgov as a platform - your input into that discussion would be valuable.

      In relation to digital by default and the wider ecosystem of providers and support organisations. My personal view is that collectively local government and central government need to "enable" and push forward the digital agenda in the UK to a point where it becomes second nature to work in a digital environment. However i'm also very well aware that we should perhaps cut our teeth on some low hanging fruit and demonstrate some value first...there are many supporting initiatives that will need to come together in order for a digital future to be realised, but i'm sure you already know that - hence your question.

      But what i will say is that in terms of how local government responds in the short term in relation to online provison of content where we are mainly a commissioner is why I have started work on a content strategy for my council.

      In my opinion Content strategy is a game changer – changing the thinking built up over the last 10 years since the start of the egovernment agenda – this triggered the anti-user approach in developing websites in my humble opinion - it essentially turned sites that were aimed at users into mediocre corporately assimilated content waste lands - lacking in any meaning as to how to build and manager a community and help move aspects of communications and service interaction into more efficient channels. But that is the past - we can learn from it, but we must first recognise the mistakes we made - not everyone made them but most did - this is all just my opinion of course but localgov as a community needs to think about how it develops its online and digital offering better – perhaps in a similar reboot approach taken by the GDS - it does not matter what you call it - the key thing for me is the change in thinking. That thinking needs to answer the questions you raise above and then decide how to respond.

  13. Comment by Carl Haggerty posted on

    Wow, thanks for all the comments.

    @baskers - I agree there is a long way to go and my point really is that we "need" one and if we want one we have to make it happen as it won't happen for us.

    @Tom - agree localgov by its nature is hard to co-ordinate and the only way we can do this is to work together, collaborate and share ideas more...this is one of the ideas that a localGDS could facilitate

    @Steve - I'm not directly involved in public health, but happy to chat if you want.

    @aimafidon - i agree that the CoP's or the new Knowledge Hub is certainly a platform for collaboration but my point is that we need to foster the collaboration first around specific issues which move us forward...being part of a few communities myself, they are inconsistent in there ability to challenge and move people forward - where they do they are well managed and facilitated, which is something a localGDS could help with perhaps?

    @peter - I like the mini secondment idea, it could help with the skills development, the benefit would only come when people returned to there host council and were able to put into practice the learning...there are some issues and challenges to unpick here but certainly worth exploring on my view.

    @Sarah - fleet of supertankers, i like that, however my view is that like the navy, good leadership and purpose can mobile a large number of ships into a single direction...we have to accept that each one has its own path, speed and capacity to move forward...some will need help...again another reason why a localGDS would be good

    @kevin - the just do it mantra did spring to my mind, but there are so many players involved and this is why i am grateful to GovUK for allowing me to share this post here and spark the discussion.

    For those people who haven't seen some discussion on twitter - this link is also worth reading - - i'm curious about the model being proposed but aspects of it sound interesting

    • Replies to Carl Haggerty>

      Comment by sarahlay posted on

      Yes - that's where my supertanker metaphor was going! Co-ordination, leadership, supporting the differences etc. The little guy on his own in a canoe at the back of the flotilla needs to be as much a part of this as the crew in the supertanker at the front 🙂

  14. Comment by Kevin McLean (@kevinamclean) posted on

    Excellent post, Carl. Just on the issue of raising the profile:

    I meet lots of (non-digital) senior people from local government, and the most common question I get asked is 'where do we start?' They know this digital stuff will save them money, but they don't quite know how. They know that big IT projects aren't the answer. They might know theoretically that the knack is to make great digital services AND get people to use them at scale and quickly, but they can think of more problems than solutions (eg we can't disadvantage people who aren't online).

    So I think the focus has to be about building momentum with some practical actions, using stuff people like Carl have already built or can put together quickly/cheaply and finding some local authorities willing to try it out for real. Once local leaders see the results, they will want more, and 'local GDS' will have the support it needs to make a difference.

    So, should we just do it?

  15. Comment by sarahlay posted on

    I'm glad to see this posted here Carl (not just because you quote from my post - thanks!) as I think this is a broad issue and there's no point pretending that these principles have been easy to instill so far or will become easier the further through central and local government they go.

    I think I read a quote a while back that creating GovUK was a bit like getting a supertanker to do a u-turn. It was going to take a lot of effort, thought and probably a bit of time. By trying to get local gov to do the same you're trying not to just turn one supertanker but a fleet of more than 400 in formation! Each 'tanker' is going to need a pretty special crew, empowered to use their skills in the best possible way, in order to get even close to the desired result.

    I think it's really important to start the conversation and I really hope this blog post is a jumping off point for that - between GDS and local government but also generally across the sector about the principles of UX, Agile, content strategy and what we're trying to deliver digitally. Some great ideas coming out in the comments already - well done Carl for starting us off!

  16. Comment by peterjordan posted on

    There's something about critical mass. GDS is fortunate in that there is now a strong group of people focused on digital government - there are common sets of all sorts of things (culture, focus, tools, assumed value) that just make things easier. Whereas in local government, I guess digital colleagues are small groups of people, perhaps in comms or IT directorates, where they may struggle for a voice and resources.

    We definitely need more two way communication between local and central government. Events like Barcamps and the recent Really Useful Day are good, but we need to see more consistent fora - resurrecting communities of practice or arranging for site visits or mini-secondments.

  17. Comment by aimafidon posted on

    As a non-GDS employee looking in on what seems to be a great post and great initiative, can I suggest you look at Communities of Practice for your 'sharing and learning' requirement? They may be the best vehicle for all the local web heads to voluntarily contribute to. You'll find best practices surface and get adopted as a matter of course if CoPs are implemented well.

  18. Comment by S Law posted on

    Get ths man on board now!!!

  19. Comment by Steve Lewis posted on

    Liked your blog Carl - a very challenging issue, well stated. Our business centres around helping pharma companies to communicate with healthcare practitioners online with the ultimate aim of improving the well being of patients. Are you involved in any public health initiatives?

  20. Comment by tomsprints posted on

    Good post by Carl. Can someone find a good cartoon about herding cats?

    I had the idea once to move in this direction in a small way, by trying to link together several different local authority Yammer networks. It didn't work for a number of reasons, including a few put forward that made my blood boil, but the potential is still there to do it, albeit that it wouldn't be a public-facing initiative. I've moved on and lost the access to pursue that. The idea died with my departure.

    The stuttering fortunes of communities of practice and their use by local authority staff suggest that there is no lack of desire to share experience and information, but no one could say this has ever reached levels that make it part of any authority's culture. Partly, that is because of a pretty common "not invented here" culture, in which it can be really hard to get support or enthusiasm going for a good idea from elsewhere. Cue repeated reinventing of wheels.

    Maybe, at the end of the day, there is just something in the DNA of central govt that makes it easier (I use that word cautiously) to get everyone facing, if not moving, in the same direction? All the time local authorities (particularly the big ones) see and present themselves virtually as island states, what Carl and Sarah have described will remain well out of reach. Ironic that it's the French, not the Brits, who coined the phrase "Vive la difference!"

  21. Comment by Baskers posted on

    Brill post Carl, one thing I'd like to point out is that GDS (from my own personal point of view, which is in no way an official departmental opinion) is the odd one out in Central Gov Departments.

    Whilst you rightly catch on that Local Gov needs to head in this direction, so does the rest of Central Gov. There's been a lot of talk around the need Civil Service reform, but nothing really on *how* we get there and truly start delivering a joined up, lean service across the whole galaxy of "Government".

    I think that how GDS was built and operates is a good "model" that shows us a possible path do doing this. How much this model is adopted within Central Gov though, is beyond the likes of you and I to control, we can only be passionate advocates given our rank and relative "authority". No matter what people say our organisations are very hierarchical and driven by grade and your position within that grade structure.

    Theres no arguement in agreeing that the relationship between Central Gov and Local Gov needs to improve, and I think we both agree that perhaps GDS is maybe a way of doing that, but we shouldnt lose sight of the fact that GDS (as I see it) is still very much the odd one out when compared to the rest of Central Gov.

    What also needs to change to get Central Gov to shift towards the GDS model, thus realising far more potential benefits to an improved Central/Local Gov relationship?