Let’s Replace Council Websites with Local.Gov.Uk – a GDS for Local Government

140 characters is not a lot of space, but sometimes a tweet can contain a very big idea. In December 2013 Dominic Campbell (@dominiccampbell) tweeted:

dctweet

“I reckon it would be possible to build a GDS platform for all #localgov for the price of the new Birmingham Library website” 

If you’re not sure what GDS is then click here.

GDS certainly seem to have no appetite to attempt to tackle local gov – they have too much on their plate already. They have offered to share code, standards, APIs, frameworks etc – the philosophy being that we create a service of ‘small pieces loosely joined’ (a phrase which was originally used as an analogy to describe the Internet) – this means that responsibility for implementing this stuff would be devolved to individual Councils. It’s nice of the GDS to offer to share this knowledge, but I don’t think it’s quite the right approach – we’re already a community of small pieces, loosely joined and we’re in a mess, we’re fragmented. FragmentsRather than being handed a set of tools and the message – “This is how we did it for Central Gov – knock yourself out!” – I would like to see the creation of a Local Government Digital Service which oversees the standardisation and improvement of all things digital in Councils. For the purpose of this discussion I’m defining a Local Government Digital Service as simultaneously being a philosophy, an IT strategy and a central team of people capable of delivering it.

So what problems would a Local Government Digital Service solve, what would the service look like and how hard would it be to create it?

477px-England_Adminstrative_2010

What problems would Local GDS solve?

This bit’s easy – there are 326 Local Authorities (LAs)/Councils in England (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Districts_of_England).

That’s 326 organisation doing, pretty much, the same thing. In terms of IT this means 326 websites, 326 email systems, 326 social care systems, 326 planning systems, 326 education systems etc etc.

This is not quite true as not all LAs have, for example, responsibility as a LEA – but you get the idea.

I estimate that an averaged sized Council will be running around 75 different ‘line of business’ applications – by which I mean the ‘serious’ software that’s used to underpin service delivery, I’m excluding client installs such as CAD or pseudo-systems like MS Access databases and spreadsheets.

326 x 75 = 24,250 software applications. 

So the first benefit of a Local GDS is obvious – increased efficiency through removal of expensive duplication.

Print

The second benefit is around the user experience. Council websites vary in quality enormously – by implementing a single site which features the beautiful design principles of Gov.uk we can standardise content and quality and thereby vastly improve the user experience. Local.Gov.Uk anyone? (The LGA own the local.gov.uk address at the moment – we’d need to shift them)

OK – so it’s a no-brainer, if we could make Local GDS happen then there are serious benefits to be had. But how do we make it happen?

What would Local GDS look like and how might it be brought about?

Part 1: Serving Out Information from Local.Gov.Uk

Councils don’t need to have a website each – we can replace them all with a central Local.Gov.Uk site. Many visitors to Council sites are looking for information rather than wanting to interact/transact with the Council. The same is true of Gov.Uk. Gov.uk is largely about information dissemination – GDS went through the various departmental websites, binned a lot of dross and then re-presented the important info in an accessible way. This bit is relatively easy to replicate for a Local.Gov.Uk:

  1. Identify those bits of information which are common across Local Gov.
  2. Create a Local.Gov.Uk site (same look and feel as Gov.uk) and populate it with the important information.
  3. Cull the old Council sites which are now obsolete.
  4. Save a fortune on Content Management Systems and hosting costs.

LocalGov

Clearly we will need to have a site which recognises that not all parts of the country are the same – some Councils have coastline, some have ports, others have zoos, some have motor racing circuits – the list goes on and all these things bring with them policy and service delivery implications which are not standard across all Councils. Furthermore, as already mentioned, not all tiers of Local Gov have the same statutory responsibilities – not all Councils act as the LEA, for example. These things shouldn’t be a barrier to Local.Gov.Uk though – any transaction/search would begin by capturing the citizen’s post code and the resulting information can be tailored accordingly. Imagine how great it would be for the user of the service to not have to care about whether their area is covered by more than one Local Authority, each with different responsibilities. It reflects poorly on us that we expect our customers to concern themselves with this kind of organisational detail.

Part 2: Transactional Services via Local.Gov.Uk 

A single national web presence for local services would be a huge achievement, yet it would still be just the first step on a much longer journey. Standardising the information we push out is the easy part – delivering transactional services online is where the big challenge is – but this is also where the big savings can be realised.

MyAccountMost Councils have already started implementing some variant of the ‘My Account‘ or ‘Your Account’ service. Often these have the Council’s name appended ‘My Sheffield’ or ‘My Manchester’ and these services will give the citizen some ability to interact with their Council in a way which directly replaces the need to make contact via other channels (telephone and face to face).

This is great news – Digital by Default, Channel Shift – excellent – it’s where we need to be and it’s self evidently the right thing to do. But it’s no small task to make a ‘back end line of business system’ accessible to customers – it’s hard to do and costs OldModela huge amount of money. There are integration tools to buy, APIs to buy, then you have to think about authentication (this is tricky) and finally the Council will create a new website (branded to look like its main site) from which the customer gains access to the back-end data.

Typically it might take a Council 2 years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to get to this point. That’s OK though because as we all know the cost of an online transaction is a fraction of that of its face-to-face counterpart – the investment pays for itself quickly and many times over.

Fine – but ALL the Councils are on this journey – we’re all building identical architecture to do the same thing. We’re all trying to bring about channel shift in isolation.

duplication

This is clearly bonkers – but Local.Gov.Uk gives us a way out. We can begin rationalising this model a layer at a time.

First, as already discussed, we remove the need for Councils to host and maintain their own websites. We replace this layer with the elegant simplicity of Local.Gov.Uk:

New1

Next the Local GDS team uses the GDS’ well documented iterative development techniques to write integration with the Council’s back-end systems. This would be done starting with those systems that are most common and/or have the highest volume of transactions. This is not as onerous a task as it might sound – the mission critical systems in Local Gov are shared between just 4 or 5 suppliers. In terms of authentication – we’d also jump on GDS’ ready made identity and authentication tools to crack that (thorny) problem – by the time Local.Gov.Uk goes live nearly all our customers will have registered with Gov.Uk for one service or another.

New2

Once we’ve got to this point it becomes clear that Councils no longer need to procure 326 different instances of each system – why don’t we work together to get bigger, better, cheaper contracts from our suppliers? Delivered as SaaS of course – we don’t need any tin in our data centres:

New3

I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned the Public Services Network (PSN) in this PSNdiscussion yet. PSN would be a key enabler of Local GDS – PSN is the secure network that joins it/us together and, potentially, could be the place where many of the SaaS systems are hosted – in effect PSN would be a secure cloud for Local GDS. 

Next Steps?

I’ve been ‘doing’ digital in Local Government for (too) many years – so I appreciate that all of the above will be hard to bring about. A significant challenge to Local.Gov.Uk/Local GDS will be catconvincing all authorities to get on board. In a presentation at the 2013 SOCITM conference (see video at the end of this post) GDS’ Mike Bracken (@MTBracken) said – “It was the devil’s own job to get 24 departments to agree to adopt Gov.uk”. Imagine that challenge scaled up to 326 Councils? Ouch. I pity the shepherd who gets the job of herding those cats.

A second major challenge to the Local GDS model is that it threatens the profits of the major software suppliers. The big suppliers – you know who they are – are very happy to sell the same software to 300 customers. Much less attractive is a joined up Local Gov wanting to to buy a small number of shared instances of these applications. The procurement and legal dimensions will be complex – but maybe G-Cloud can help us with this?

A further challenge will be in resourcing Local GDS – but logic tells us that there must be a way to do this by better using existing resources across Local Gov. Let’s assume that each Council has a web team of, say, 4 people – some are bigger many are smaller, but 4 feels about right – that’s roughly 1300 people currently involved in maintaining Council websites.

Add the various IT departments in to this and you’re looking at a standing army of over 20,000 people already employed in local digital services. If we could avail our selves of just 0.1% of this resource (20 people) then we’d be able to create a nascent Local GDS. Or, and this is probably more realistic, if each Council contributed a small amount each year we would have ample funds to make Local GDS a reality.

So, to return to where we started – could we build a GDS platform for all Local Gov for the price of Birmingham’s library website? Well that website cost £1.2m to create and £190k per year to run (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-25033651) – this feels like more than we’d need for Local GDS in year 1, but not enough in terms of ongoing costs.  If each Council agreed to subscribe to Local GDS and paid just £3,000 per year we’d be able deliver a Local.Gov.Uk platform which would:

  • Remove the need for individual Council websitesSave-Money.
  • Significantly reduce software support and maintenance costs for a range of systems.
  • Allow for headcount reductions in web/digital/IT teams.
  • Begin to move away from local data centres.

That’s what we used to call an ‘invest to save’ business case in the olden days.

Who could lead on Local GDS? It’s got to be SOCITM hasn’t it? A ready made team of experts in digital government who know what’s needed to transform Local Gov and who are champing at the bit to get cracking.

babyYou may say that I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one. If we start small, keep it simple and take baby steps we can do it. 

Here’s Mike Bracken’s presentation at SOCITM 2013, well worth a watch:

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34 thoughts on “Let’s Replace Council Websites with Local.Gov.Uk – a GDS for Local Government

  1. Kevin Jump

    OK but lets not base it in London : )

    it’s worth noting that gov.uk has documented costs of £17million (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/central-government-websites-reporting-on-progress-2012-2013) – i would venture to guess the cost of local.gov.uk would be at least the same, while some savings could be made from reusing elements, I suspect the additional costs of working with 300+ councils would make up for that. (but that’s £53k per council – still much cheaper for most)

    Reply
  2. Phil

    Every now and then the “one website to rule them all” debate starts up again, and in part it’s where LocalGov Digital (http://www.localgovdigital.info/), arguably the leading organisation for Local Government digital practitioners, originated from.

    People often refer to Local Government but in truth they should probably say local governments. This is because each local government has a unique political make-up, voted for by the residents of the respective Parish, District or County. Decisions about local public services and how they’re delivered are made by elected representatives, locally. This means that each have a different set of priorities and objectives. The 24 Whitehall departments are all sub-sections of the same Government; there are 326 different, separate local governments in England.

    As you suggest, the concept of “the council website” is also outdated. Councils now deliver digital services from many websites, some less than able add-ons to legacy systems. To display planning application data from a central location, you’d need one national planning system, or connectors from all 200 or so councils that deal with planning applications. Do-able, it wouldn’t be easy, and that’s just one service a council provides.

    Content is increasingly becoming, not a page of information but a re-usable object to be used by anyone who needs to and there are some content areas where a Local Government Website might work. One of the five principles of the LocalGov Digital Content Standards (bit.ly/1aUr59K) is “Is the content original?”, and content that relates to all or a large number of councils could be live in a central store and be linked to, or consumed using a web service. http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk has been doing this for years with TS Broadcast.

    In 2014 LocalGov Digital will be breaking down the boundaries between local government digital teams, so perhaps your dream, or aspects of it might start to become closer to a reality.

    Reply
  3. Matthew

    I’m afraid the whole basis of this article has completely missed the point. A website and a bunch of IT systems is not the product, it is a means to an end, an enabler. A means to provide local information and services in a locally accountable way. What is achievable for a single democratic Government cannot be replicated by a multitude of democratically accountable governments.

    Reply
  4. @jacattell

    DISCLAIMER: My employer, the Government Digital Service (GDS), has no remit over local government. Any and all views expressed in this reply are mine, and mine alone.

    That typed, I am a passionate advocate of local government (LocalGov). I want many of the steps outlined in your blog post to happen, yesterday.

    There are many groups in and around LocalGov pushing for this. Personally, I think it will start in a region where a group of LocalGov authorities work together. Similar to GDS, they will work transparently; openly sharing their learning and code. Overtime others will chip in, adopt and migrate to local.gov.uk

    If there is anything I can do to help, I will gladly do it.

    One last thing. On Friday 21st October 2011 whilst I was in a Hyperlocal GovCamp West Midlands session called “Radical Council Websites”, Dominic Campbell tweeted a question.

    If you can find it, its a cracker ;-)

    Reply
  5. Guy Giles

    Excellent article – agree. There is a model for this – and its existed for the last 10 years. http://www.lookinglocal.gov.uk/site – a co-operative of over 120 LA’s and HA’s across the UK with a shared technical platform for exploiting digital platforms beyond our respective websites. Subscription based. Entirely owned by the public sector and working for the benefit of all its members. Its not easy but it can be done. Extending this to incorporate the web is a natural step which we haven’t taken – but could consider. It has the advantage of an existing network and removes the need to shepherd all in one hit (ie it could be incrementally led by those with the vision to pursue something like this). We’re also working to integrate with the GDS ID Hub as I write so the fit goes further still.

    Reply
  6. Gavin Calthrop

    Great write up Richard. Count me and Swindon Council in, I’d subscribe to a Local.gov.uk platform and transer the money this afternoon if I could. Could we start with a dozen or so councils who feel the same way, prove the concept and then invite others to the party?

    Reply
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  8. Tim Blackwell

    I wish the GDS had left the departmental sites alone. I hope they leave local government alone.

    None that I work with has been improved by the transfer to the single government domain and much has been lost, both in material and in usability. Clearly structured and organized content has been replaced by poorly curated strings of .PDFs. Search is idiosyncratic, to put it at its kindest. I’m sure there’s considerable scope for local authorities to share services, but I would not see .GOV.UK as an exemplar.

    Reply
  9. Mike Thomas

    1. I don’t think it’s important where it’s based. The physical location is irrelevant as long as it’s in the UK and has great connectivity. The work force could be anywhere. They don’t have to be in the same room/building/town/city or county. As long as they are connected and understand what’s needed. Good management is crucial.

    2. It’s a sign of a good idea if multiple people are working on it. Let’s get them together.

    3. Agreed that this will be difficult as there are many agendas to deal with. It would be easier if it was imposed. There will be a million reasons to say no, and I’m sure that everyone will be used. However, I trust common sense will prevail, eventually.

    4. Agreed that technology is not the reason, it’s just an enabler. The Public Sector/Government has a lot of my money each month. I want it spent wisely.

    5. Agree that there a large number of authorities who see themselves as ‘Special’, and indeed some areas have unique issues to deal with. However, I don’t believe that all authorities are completely different 100%. Focus on the similarities, not the differences. Apathy should be ignored.

    6. Agree that the likely way this will work is for a small group of people who want to make a difference get on and do it. The rest will follow.

    Reply
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  12. Dr Mick Phythian (@greatemancipato)

    Been on about this for years (see http://greatemancipator.com)!

    Whilst there are challenges about democratic accountability and splitting the costs, this are not blockers. The cat-herding is and has been thus far, along with the contracts with external suppliers that localgov is tied into. There is also the reality that many are outsourced in one shape or another.

    Localgov needs to stop reinventing wheels and suppliers need to stop assisting them in this.

    I was a skeptic at the GDS launch, but it has done something remarkable despite the recently revealed DWP debate.

    A central model can only assist openness, transparency, savings etc in localgov

    Reply
  13. John Fox (@x333xxx)

    A laudable idea but not a terribly practical one in my view.

    If every council delivered their public services in a uniform way then it might stand a chance of getting off the ground, but with each authority having its own policies and procedures to follow, with different annual objectives set by each council, the bureaucracy would be a nightmare to administer, and the single website a devil to manage to the complete satisfaction of individual councils and their customers.

    I can’t remember its name now but there was at one time (c2001) a highly unpopular proposal that the forerunner to Directgov should evolve into a single website for all local government.

    Reply
  14. Phil Swan

    Great blog – really thought provoking.

    Good to see Giles’s post on LookingLocal – that was one of my first thoughts when I read this. It is possible.

    However, I must be getting cynical but I am afraid my second was that I’m not sure bigger is necessarily better. Whilst fragmentation increases costs it enables a level of local flexibility. From where I’m sitting the big challenge feels like the lack of alignment, coordination and integration between agencies locally.

    My point is that if you asked your communities if they’d rather have a single local government website or if they could have joined up route into all the key local services including GPs, mental and community health services, childrens and adults social care, housing, probation, education, revs and benefits, and waste collection – my sense is that they’d go for the latter.

    For example, at present, people with complex mental and phyical health needs largely struggle to create a patchwork of support where failure in one element increases demand on the others. With increasing fragmentation of services likely over the medium term this problem will grow, and so will costs whilst outcomes deteriorate.

    There is some good work in this space – better data standards, more flexible systems, personal data stores, and a pressure to innovate that is deconstructing silos (e.g. whole place programme).

    So with limited resource and energy for battles, my view would be this is where the greatest return can be achieved.

    That said, if you had a national system and single set of back office systems across councils, integration across the sector would be easier. Just dont do an NPfIT.

    Reply
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  17. Guy Giles

    As has already been alluded to, central government has the advantage of being able to use stick (along with carrot) to bring about a degree of change. At a local level that doesn’t work and never will. Some lament this, others don’t.

    In reality, I suspect there is real merit in pursuing an approach to our shared issues. I do believe that the 80% rule works here – the level of repetition across our various boundaries is enough to make you weep. Imagine if we put our resources into making the last local 20% better and all subscribed to the rest? More radical still, let’s park the IP for this capability in the public domain where we can all share it.

    This stuff isn’t easy and it challenges many things both in terms of the way we all deliver our services and the myriad of technologies and suppliers that make up that mix. However, we have certainly learned that if there is a will, then there is a way. What it needs is a handful of bold LA’s who are up for it, It probably needs some form of central funding (much like has underpinned GDS) to get this up & running. Doing this ‘right’ doesn’t come cheap but the business case for doing so should not be hard to prove. It certainly would not need funding to the tune of £17m! A well considered and thoughtful proposal is not beyond the wit of man and, I suspect, could unlock some additional seed funding to make it possible.

    Phil’s point above about drawing in the other providers of local public services is well made. The trick, I suspect, is to build something on a set of principles that positively encourage their broader participation when it suits them, rather than to make the challenge at the outset insurmountable.

    Various folk have said ‘Where do I sign up?’. Well, we’re based at Kirklees. Richard’s original post stems from a short trip down the M1 to Rotherham. How many would be interested in an exploratory workshop to map out an approach? I need to have a chat internally, but I’m sure we would be happy to host something if there’s appetite for it.

    Reply
    1. Phil

      Guy (and Richard), you might like to have a chat with Carl Whistlecraft and Steve Langrick, both at Kirklees Council and part of LocalGovDigital to see how you can both get involved.

      Reply
    2. Richard Copley Post author

      Thanks for the positive comments Guy! I love the 80/20 principle – this is pragmatic and it would work.Once we’ve created a critical mass of councils using a central site it’d be easy to convince the rest.

      Which council Chief Executive will turn down the offer of having their digital headaches taken away for a fraction of their current spend on technology?

      I’d be happy to host a session in Rotherham to discuss all this stuff.

      In the next few days I’ll attempt to contact everyone who has expressed an interest and I’ll look at setting something up.

      I’m also going to respond properly to all the comments ASAP.

      Thanks again.

      Reply
  18. Guy Giles

    Sorry – I should probably have been a little clearer. When I referred to the fact that we are based at Kirklees – I meant Kirklees Council who own and run Looking Local. I’ve been working closely with Steve Langrick for many years. Will pick up with them both.

    Reply
  19. 20years experience

    Simplistic, superficial, naive and misguided. Like a child asking for world peace. Local Government is exponentially more heterogeneous than Government and does not have one over arching authority. This is by design and for a good reason. The level of centralisation this constitutes is potentially dangerous. Larger authorities will inevitably have much greater influence over time. It threatens to establish a monstrous hegemony and a behemoth that will become increasingly bogged down in its own conservatism.

    Why SOCTIM, a private consultancy, to run it? Sounds suspiciously like a promo for them.

    Reply
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