We Need a Local GDS with Muscle and Teeth

SOCITM have come out in favour of a Local GDS. Or at least I think they have.LocalGDS

Briefing number 68 is a tentative affair – the 8 page document includes a lengthy discussion (pages 1 through 6) of things that have failed to work in the past. It is not until the end of the briefing that we see some cautious exploration of what might work in the future.

I’m a big fan of SOCITM (and I’m a SMSITM too, a Senior Member of the Society of IT Managers) but I think they are in an impossible position. It is not reasonable to expect a group of IT managers to give an objective opinion on a proposal that means IT managers should lose control and power to a new Local GDS.

What we’re lacking here is some enthusiasm, some tub thumping – come on people, let’s make things better! We do not need the optional, toothless advisory service proposed by SOCITM, here’s why…

Central GDS works because:

  1. It is supported at the highest level of government.
  2. It has authority to tell departments what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

Central GDS succeeds at the macro level for the same reason that successful internal Council ‘digital’ programmes succeed at the micro level. When a Council ‘gets’ digital and does it well it is because:

  1. It is supported at the highest level of the organisation.
  2. It has authority to tell departments what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

SOCITM’s version of a Local GDS will not work because it fails to incorporate any of these 4 success factors. Rather there is a strange deference/respect for localism and an odd assumption that individual authorities must be allowed to say ‘no thanks’ should they wish to.

Let’s not forget why the idea of a Local GDS was proposed in the first place – it’s certainly not because everything is hunky dory in Council IT departments. We need a Local GDS to tell (not ask) Councils how to steer a way out of the highly inefficient, complex, fractured and duplicated IT landscape that we find ourselves in. We are desperate for a Local GDS, but only if…

  1. It is supported at the highest level of Government (both Central and Local).
  2. It has authority to tell Councils what to do.
  3. It is adequately resourced.
  4. It does not respect the status quo.

Given that ‘big’ GDS are doing so well I propose that they form a Local Government team within GDS and crack on with sorting out the tangled mess that is Local Government ICT.

We know from experience that centralisation (outside of Local Gov) works. The much maligned eGovernment programme of the early 2000’s was hugely successful in odpm_logochanging Local Government’s attitude towards ICT. In the space of a few years many Local Gov services were dragged (kicking and screaming) in to the digital age. We didn’t like it, but we did it because we had no choice and, when the dust had settled, we could see that real improvement had been delivered. It wasn’t perfect, but it brought about real changes.

But I’m not just talking about a Local GDS that offers guidance and sets rules and targets (although that’s clearly part of it). We need to go beyond the eGovernment model and create a Local GDS that makes things.

termsLet’s take a real world example to demonstrate what this might look like. Take a moment, if you will, to visit this page: https://www.gov.uk/school-term-holiday-dates

Enter your postcode and you’ll be directed to the school term dates on your Council’s website. This shows that GDS are already aggregating some Local Gov data and representing it to the citizen – albeit it’s presumably just a database with a list of URLs at the moment.

Pretty small stuff? Yes, but it poses some interesting questions.

Why don’t Councils simply routinely post their term dates, in an agreed open standard, to a central location so that all and sundry (including Gov.uk) can mash it up/use it as they see fit? Then once that’s been done, why do we need a term dates page on our local Council site? Why doesn’t Gov.uk just act as an aggregator for this data?

This train of thought leads me to question whether local.gov.uk is really what’s needed. Why create a new layer? Why not go further and leave it all to Gov.uk? Clearly term dates are easy – but I’m willing to bet that most of the pages on a Local Authority (LA) site contain information which could easily be output direct from back-office as a CSV.

This is a key thing that I would want from my new Local GDS – a set of open standards and cloud1associated policies which compel Local Authorities to submit certain datasets to Gov.uk. In this way we can gradually build up a central repository of data and scale back our own websites. Who knows, when the time comes to renew the CMS contract perhaps we won’t need to bother.

But let’s not get fixated on this ‘one website to rule them all‘ idea because that’s just the tip of the iceberg. GDS used gov.uk as a Trojan horse to smuggle in a shed load of platform and process reengineering behind the scenes. My proposal is similar – that a Local GDS (within ‘big’ GDS) could aggregate data at the centre and that this would be a vehicle to engineer a wholesale re-imagining of the way back end systems are managed. More on that in a moment, but before I leave the ‘one website’ topic I want to dispel a persistent myth.

“If you have a central website then whither accountability, whither democracy and whither independence!?“

This is the most oft-repeated argument but also the most specious. The URL of the website via which citizens consume a Council service has no relation to or impact on the accountability of the service. To claim that a Council without a website is democratically unaccountable is to claim that democratic accountability did not materialise until the dawn of the Internet in the 90s.

The proposed aggregation of data and systems in no way diminishes a Council’s accountability or contactability, indeed most LAs already have a web presence using at least some elements of which will be geographically distant from the LA.

I think what SOCITM et al are arguing is that if you use a central website how do you know which LA you’re dealing with? Who is providing the data? I personally can’t see how this matters but there is a simple way around it. The first step in any transaction would be to capture a postcode – from then on the website look and feel can be ‘skinned’ to brand it with LA colours, logos, contact numbers etc – this is child’s play.

FlexingKey Activities for Our New, Muscular, Local GDS

It’s not just about creating open standards, aggregating data and re-presenting data through Gov.uk. We need a Local GDS that treats Councils in the same way that Big GDS dealt with the 25 Central Govt. Departments that they are currently fixing. Here are some more things I want to see from a muscular Local GDS, starting with the open data/open standards mentioned above:

  • Local GDS to create a set of open standards to cover all Local Gov data and to mandate that LAs must produce data extracts and upload them to an online location provided by LGDS.
  • A new policy that all planned Local Gov ICT procurement activity valued at over £10k must be published in an online register (hosted by LGDS). This register must be consulted before any new procurement with a view to fostering joint procurement and reducing the dispiriting duplication across UK Local Gov.
  • A new policy that a reasonable percentage of Local Gov ICT spend must be with SME suppliers.
  • The introduction of a policy whereby any new Local Gov ICT project valued over £250k must be first justified to and approved by Local GDS.
  • A policy that all Local Gov ICT procurement activity must give a preferential weighting towards cloud/SaaS. This will help suppliers to become cloud ready (more on why this matters here) and, more importantly, it will help Councils to begin emptying their data centres.
  • The cataloguing and categorisation of UK public sector data centres to identify a small number of locations that could act as sites for aggregation of Local Gov data centre activity. These locations will be made PSN ready (if they are not already) and rack space to be offered at low cost to Councils. This, along with SaaS, will allow Councils to work towards being unencumbered by infrastructure.
  • The creation of a handful of regional ICT ‘seed hubs’ – groups of people around which strategic activity can accrete. These hubs can offer advice to Councils at the region/city region level. Membership being mandatory with a view to aggregating ICT activity/strategy and thereby dragging ICT activity out of Councils and standardising it at a higher level.
  • Mandate the use of PSN circuits. When PSN Roam goes live mandate the use of that too. This will mean that any public sector employee can go in to any PSN connected building and use PSN Roam wifi to get back to their own network.

All of these proposals are aimed at blurring the lines between Councils and fostering closer working across the public sector generally.

Clearly LGDS is going to need some investment – upfront and ongoing. But this will be peanuts in comparison to the year on year savings. This is the same ‘invest to save model’ that has worked well for Big GDS.

I call on someone, anyone and everyone to lobby Cabinet Office/GDS to create a Local GDS under the wider GDS umbrella. I call on the LGA and SOLACE to support this proposal and to pledge their individual Local Authorities to engaging fully with Local GDS in an effort to end the shocking duplication caused by 400 LAs doing the same thing in the same way without talking to each other.

9 thoughts on “We Need a Local GDS with Muscle and Teeth

  1. Dave Briggs

    The problem for SOCITM is that they are five years too late on this agenda. They really should have seen the shift from traditional IT to digital coming, and could have put themselves in a very strong position, leading from the front. Instead, it feels like they have been caught hopping and their ability to lead on this issue is limited. It feels to me like too little to late.

    1. simonfj

      Thanks David, As to-the-point as ever.

      We DO seem to be peas in a pod (so far as our thinking here is concerned), although I’m just watching the evolution of a new network architecture, and services, out of the Global.edu/.ac space, and into the old world of National.gov.
      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_research_and_education_network ) e.g. eduroam has finally entered the govspace as PSNroam. (Seems pretty typical that bureaucrats aren’t including “the students” in the service.)

      So I can’t agree with you that any technical group is “too late”. Everything in its own time. They do have the primary problem that they can’t help but approach the gov.uk question from their own sector – in this case local, and national, networks (forget the international), even if they are sharing the same PSNetwork. We are just talking about two approaches to helping a poor user get orientated. With all the talk about gds, local vs. central, they’ve ignored the first principle of user-centric. Even that’s wrong. It should be citizen-centric. Sometimes, even a citizen does get to contribute.

      So let’s, for a change, approach this from a single citizen’s perspective. What do WE want, so far as our IDA, our account, is concerned? We want just one log on which gives us access to both our local and central services. As Beverley says, “Residents should view electoral registration as one of a ‘suite’ of online services” – local and central. http://goo.gl/6Glb04

      We already have each council providing a user’s identity services for both local, and 1 central, services. We also know that “the government will pay the identity providers for each individual registration.” https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/01/23/what-is-identity-assurance/#comment-11179 So all we’re talking about here is a standard approach to how local councils approach a National IDA (if they want the money).

      Now, we know this lack of focus on the user is because “GDS central” have approached their designs from a “central gov services” perspective. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2013/09/03/identity-assurance-first-delivery-contracts-signed/#comment-11822 In much the same way “GDS local” limits bureaucratic thinking to another sector of .gov.uk. Stuff the user.

      So let’s not talk about teeth and muscles. In my decrepitude, those are almost gone. Empathy and collaboration are good enough to get the job done. Of course, if we must think from a local org’s perspective, how about “follow the money”? https://identityassurance.blog.gov.uk/2014/09/09/procurement-2-timeframes-and-market-briefing-event/

      1. Richard Copley Post author

        I think you’re half-right Steve – we need to all pull together, but in order to co-produce a solution to this we need the thought leadership to be top notch.

        How do SOCITM’s briefings get produced? Is there a single author or is it some kind of committee arrangement? I wonder if there shouldn’t be a wider peer review process to ensure that briefings are properly plugged in to developments/opinion/intelligence at the ‘coal face’?


  2. Phil

    It’s a shame you couldn’t have come to the LocalGov Digital Makers meet last week. There was certainly much enthusiasm and some tub thumping, in fact someone tweeted “looks like we might really have the beginning of a #localGDS movement”. You can read more about this here:


    We also discussed the standards that a Makers Project Team have been working on (called Localo).

    Makers on it’s own won’t become a LocalGDS, but add Carl Haggerty’s ideas for a Change Academy and some of the other things we have in the pipeline and watch this space, or even better, join in this space.

    After all, less than two years ago we were a bunch of individuals working in councils and LocalGov Digital didn’t exist. Now we’re getting tens of councils together to start to work collaborativly and who knows where we’ll be in a year’s time.

    Join us in what could be the beginning of a LocalGDS.

  3. Sander Kristel

    Great think-piece Richard and totally agree with Steve that we need to (and can) share so much more! The part that is still really missing for me is the Health and Police piece guidance nationally. Although there is some stuff now happening on single care records (Dylan in Leeds leading), the simple “who delivers what service in my local area” is still very poorly supported by tech/digital…. not to mention the huge untapped opportunity of digital for Early Intervention (e.g. self help, signposting etc)!!

    Unfortunately the Turkey-Christmas-voting-syndrome still a big problem and not enough citizen-centric CIOs in the industry.

    Let’s keep talking, there is already a lot of good stuff happening! Share it and build from there.


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