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September 2, 2014

5 ways Socitm’s local GDS would help council IT

Could councils get a helping hand going digital?

By Joe Curtis

A proposed local Government Digital Service (GDS) would help councils digitally transform, according to a public sector IT body.

Socitm outlined recommendations for a local government version of Whitehall’s GDS yesterday, claiming it would be better placed to help public bodies share digital best practice and resources as they shift more of their functions online.

Socitm said a combination of a local GDS and in-house digital teams would help reduce waste and duplication of effort to deliver a better user experience for people using council services.

The proposals were contained in a briefing document, ‘Collaborating and sharing digital assets: towards a local government digital service?‘, and Socitm believes a "properly-funded" body would be better than grassroots efforts like the LocalGov Digital network, which seeks to share ideas between bodies.

It’s an interesting idea, and comes after G-Cloud was attacked by Socitm for being too Whitehall-centric, with particular problems cited including too-short contract lengths and a lack of range of cloud services.

Meanwhile, Socitm believes a local GDS would be a better alternative to the idea of a single council website, as suggested by Policy Exchange earlier this year.

But what exactly would a local GDS do and how would it benefit local government?

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Here’s five ways Socitm believes it will transform council IT.


Sharing technology and best practice

Socitm quotes GDS director Mike Bracken on Whitehall departments sharing code via online code repository GitHub, but says it’s harder to put such sharing into practice because of the steps involved to find those who already have the relevant code, and how much can be re-used on different systems.

Instead, "digital development would continue to take place in – or be commissioned by – digital teams in each local authority, drawing on sharable transaction code as appropriate" says Socitm.

Each council’s IT department would act as a ‘mini-GDS’ , providing support to staff making the jump to digital systems, while local GDS would help join up public services like health, housing and social care, and their providers.

In fact, TechMarketView analyst Georgina O’Toole believes the initiative would benefit from being local, rather than centrally-imposed.

"A local GDS has more chance of being effective if local authorities feel it is ‘owned’ and operated by local government rather than just being an offshoot of something that has already been put in place in central government/Whitehall," she says.

"It would avoid the ‘not invented here’ syndrome which is often apparent in local government. In fact, it would probably be better if it wasn’t called GDS in order to distance the initiative from central government."


Better websites

In Socitm’s own survey in 2014, just 32 out of 433 council websites achieved a four star ranking.

But it thinks a local GDS could help spread expertise and understanding from the best council IT departments to the worst.

"The best council websites, and the digital services accessible through them, are very good indeed, but many councils still struggle with maintaining and presenting local content that is integrated with line-of-business systems," the briefing says.

"Given that councils do not compete with one another, it should be possible to devise an effective and efficient means of sharing technology, innovation and know-how so that digital delivery by each council can be as good as the best."


Central-local digital projects would run smoother

Socitm contends that central government-funded IT projects don’t always reflect local priorities.

"There is no place for an organisation with a top-down view of local public services and this is one major reason why a centralised LOCALGOV.UK will not work, because it is unlikely to have the flexibility to accommodate different local needs," it says.

However, with Whitehall IT teams and local IT teams working together on projects, all aspects of the ‘customer journey’ would run more smoothly, the body believes.

"This would ensure that developments, such as the recent Individual Electoral Registration project, would work well throughout the customer journey, not just at the GOV.UK front end, but also through online and offline interactions with citizens at the local level."

O’Toole, and colleague Michael Larner, research director for local government and education, say it is crucial that councils feel involved with a local GDS.

"Local authorities need to ‘buy in’ to the idea, as they would need to invest in their own internal digital development resources and also change their modus operandi to embrace modern digital technologies and ways of working," they say.

Bring IT back in-house

While outsourcing your IT can help save costs, it can also deprive councils of expert IT teams.

"Where a council has contracted out its web development, it will be even less able to respond to changing customer requirements," states Socitm. But a local GDS, with its emphasis on internal IT teams acting as ‘mini-GDS’ bodies, could see such contracts expire and IT brought back internally.

"With digital capability now a core competence of public service organisations, perpetuating such a dependency with an external party is a risk that should not be taken; there is a clear business case for building these core competencies in-house," says Socitm.


Cutting out third-party legacy software

A local GDS could also help address the problem of third-party legacy, according to Socitm. The problem in question is how easy to use much software is nowadays, when IT had bought the products without the public in mind.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that could continue for some time. The body says: "Slow adoption of user testing by councils has ensured that this legacy is only starting to be addressed. It will take time to work through, even if moves are made now to improve procurement and commissioning practice."

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