How can local government get good at digital?

Over the past 18 months we’ve been asked several times whether we would help create what could best be described as a Local Government Digital Service: something that could help local authorities be better at using digital technology.

The argument for a Local GDS seemed well articulated.

Local authorities had received poor value for money from ICT, for reasons including: insufficient in-house expertise, procurement that has given big margins to suppliers with disappointing results, not enough collaboration and the frequent introduction of technologies without changing underlying organisational patterns - digitising the status quo.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) had made great progress at tackling some of these issues in central government. Something similar was needed to help local government. 

Could the sector lead itself?

Some voices within the sector had been asking for central government to act. But given the success of grassroots networks like LocalGovDigital, we felt a better approach would be to help facilitate a local government led response to the problem. 

Whilst it’s true that there are plenty of ICT disaster stories in local government, there are also some councils that are on a really exciting trajectory. These councils are putting their own twist on the idea of Government as a Platform - a horrible phrase with multiple interpretations.

The best councils are trying to:

  • Develop their own digital platforms that are constructed from different bits of reusable, mostly cloud-based interoperable software.
  • Fundamentally change the way their organisation operates, so that it is as focused on helping others (businesses, third sector, citizens) to deliver innovative local services as it is on delivering services itself. 

These councils - of which there are only a handful - are naturally emerging as leaders within their sector. If they could self-organise they could become a powerful movement that inspires others to adopt ambitious approaches to digital. 

Beyond that they could send a strong signal to the software market that the sector can no longer be taken as fools. By procuring software together they could nurture suppliers that create interoperable software (i.e. it can communicate and exchange data with software supplied by other companies). And if they were going to develop their own software, they could coordinate it with other authorities to reduce duplication and open source it for wider benefit. 

This focal point could be the mechanism through which central government and local government could work together on digital transformation.

The incentives for collaboration are weak

All good ideas with one fatal problem: the incentives for self-organising and collaborating are too weak. These councils are going through significant change. They have ambitious plans and are putting in the hard yards to make it happen.

Collaboration takes time and involves compromises. It might result in some cost savings on things like software procurement, but the time it takes pull it off could derail the whole change process that they are so invested in. 

Whilst the idea of helping the sector as a whole appeals, in itself it is not a strong enough motive to justify this risk. There needs to be a stronger incentive.

We might need central government after all

Our original view - that central government support would be nice but not necessary - has changed. This involvement does not need to come in the form of diktat. Instead, central government could use its convening power - backed by some financial power - to bring together the best digital councils to lead the wider sector. 

What would this leadership entail? Here are three suggestions:

  • Build a movement of Platform Councils that helps the approach spread to other councils. The best councils are ploughing new ground. Support them to help others - perhaps neighbouring councils - with the development and implementation of their own digital strategies. 
  • Identify gaps in software provision and stimulate the market to respond. For areas where the software market does not meet the modern day needs of local government, (i.e. interoperable, cloud based software) councils should work together to stimulate the market to respond. 
  • Test whether digital platforms can encourage innovation. Whilst the best councils are engaged in the day-to-day difficulties of transformation, they need to retain an eye on their grand vision. They should be helped to push the boundaries of practice and develop services that have fundamentally new business models that are enabled , but not driven, by technology.

Our national government has rightly developed an outstanding global reputation for its use of digital. Something interesting is happening in local government too. It needs amplifying and everyone is going to have to work together to make it happen.

What next

As for us, we’ll be narrowing our focus. Instead of looking at the sector as a whole, we’ll be looking at specific areas of service delivery where digital technology might enable a radically different way of working.

We're still in the early days of our thinking, so if you think this might be the area of public service that you work in, please do contact me on [email protected]


Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Senior Programme Manager, Innovation Lab

Manny worked on the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. His focus was on scaling digital ventures that get people involved in social action. He also led our work on Digital Publi…

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