Government Transformation Strategy needs a new Digital Settlement for local public services

Theo Blackwell
Feb 13, 2017 · 8 min read

In this post I consider the new Government Transformation Strategy (‘GTS’) and what it means for the local government sector. It follows from previous posts on digital transformation describing Camden’s journey, digital devolution, how to scale change in digital transformation and digital placemaking.

80% of public services citizen use are delivered at a local level so a transformative vision for digital public services can’t just be for Whitehall. However, until now there has been no unifying vision or vehicle for digital across public services and little strategic co-ordination with central government/national agency digital initiatives, such as GDS.

I argue here that the detail of GTS shows a recognition that this needs to change. Delving into the detail of the GTS reveals a far more promising environment for collaboration and action than at first glance and the start of a common understanding which emphasises how services are delivered over historic central-local discussions.

A broader vision

The new Cabinet Office Government Transformation Strategy to 2020 turns the dial on the relationship between central and local government. It’s an important and necessary start to 2017 with new Minister Ben Gummer setting out a broader vision which local government leadership should respond to positively:

“The imperative is to change…and to do so at pace and at scale. This is the meaning of transformation. It is in essence a change of working, of culture and of disposition — changes that are made possible by digital technology. That technology is not change itself; it enables the change that is so transformative.”

Why no ‘GDS Local’?

So far the local government sector has yet to speak with a consistent voice on digital transformation. But perhaps contrary to expectations, most in local government didn’t think desirable, effective or sustainable for a formal function to coordinate reforms for over 400 authorities in the U.K.

Developments here were always going to be more nuanced, shared and collaborative to work with Whitehall departments which had yet to develop cross-government thinking.

After channel shift

Between 2010 and 2015, the government strategy emphasised ‘digital by default’ public services. However, the long-awaited 2017 Strategy states a desire already expressed across much of local government to “look beyond channel shift” to enable business transformation. From expressing the centrality of transformation within corporate plans, through to the need for leadership and skills; open data; security; service design and the desire for more shared/common platforms — practically everything in the new vision and objectives can easily be said to apply to Town Halls as well as Whitehall.

In fact my analysis of new digital strategies in local government shows similar thinking among leading authorities.

Devolution and digital

As I’ve argued elsewhere, an over-zealous interpretation of localism from the centre so far has seen only very limited expression of digital transformation goals in devolution deals and Efficiency Plans struck with HM Treasury and the departments.

The Strategy (p.23) sets out a more promising note:

Devolved administrations and the wider public sector

This transformation strategy is focused on UK central government. Other parts of the public sector like local government, health, police, parliament and devolved administrations have their own governance, are responsible for shaping their own approaches and have their own digital action plans and priorities.

There remains, however, much we can do to collaborate across sectors to meet common needs in the interest of delivering better services to users — for example, ensuring seamless end-to-end citizen journeys, sharing data and using common platforms. This strategy indicates several potential areas of collaboration.

The increasing devolution of powers has created a different service delivery landscape for people living and working in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolved services are subject to separate governance arrangements from those described in this strategy. Nevertheless there is close cooperation between our citizen facing digital services Departments improve the digital citizen experience We will continue to deliver a steady stream of high-quality digital services, which must be both available to citizens and used wherever possible.

Successful public service digital transformation requires redesign and reengineering on every level — workforce, customer service, process, technology and governance — to make organisations faster at doing things, more adaptable to needs and able to share more information. The Strategy sets out its aversion (p.26) to the development of solutions by central and local government without first aligning policy development and service design, in other words: don’t act alone and go off procuring solutions to problems you think you’ve defined. More ambitiously, it states that (p.27) transformation covers the whole public sector”:

In a planned and properly sequenced way we need to continue to drive transformation of all of government, the Civil Service and the wider public sector

There is some exciting work going on in Scotland, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and the other combined authorities; a CDO will be appointed shortly in London to drive change in London. The sequencing and substance of this transformation will be immeasurably assisted through better digital governance discussions aligned with Whitehall.

Data

The Strategy (p.47) sets out common challenges readily understood in local government, for example that public data sharing is currently hampered by legal constraints, poor data collection and legacy systems across public services, making it: “[currently] too difficult to work across the public sector (including ministerial departments, the health system, local authorities and devolved administrations) to provide better services, deliver on our policy promises and to operate efficiently.”

Data priorities for 2020 (more data sharing; building better data analytic platforms and skills; open APIs) are ones that progressive councils could sign up to at the drop of a hat and there is a strong case for local government representation on the proposed Digital Advisory Board.

Extension of GDS platforms and programmes to local government

The GTS also recognises that digital leadership is about people and delivery: the GDS Digital Academy, currently aimed at Whitehall and public agencies, could also be used to meet need in local public services. Currently there is a generation of current and future Chief Executives and directors (not to mention Mayors, council leaders and cabinet members) who could benefit from a co-ordinated training offer focusing how effective policy development, approaches to service design, local and national spend controls and proactive adoption of common standards. This is a proposition which should be grasped by the LGA and SOLACE immediately.

GDS platforms like Verify (citizen identity) are being piloted with leading local authorities already. The Strategy (p.57) commits to “investigate how best to make these and future platforms available to the wider public sector.”

The foundations of a new ‘Digital Settlement’

If this is “the beginning” of the discussion, 2017 could see the start of a tremendous transformation of public services driven by councils already doing big work around data, identity, IoT and automation.

What is lacking is an understood and comprehensive Digital Settlement between Whitehall and Town Halls and I suggest that the GTS leaves the door open for this discussion to be starting and concluded in short order, kickstarted by elected mayors and combined authorities in May 2017, and building on the groundwork of the last two years.

There are big advocates of digital transformation in local councils - LGA, SOLACE (Chief Executives) and SOCITM — who have together developed common thinking (e.g. Local Digital Coalition principles and SOLACE). In Whitehall there are clear advocates of reform within most local-government facing Whitehall departments. They see transformation as the major vehicle to help local public services with future years of spending restraint — as well as new market opportunities for the tech sector.

So a new Digital Settlement needs to consider the following things, in addition to points I have made previously:

  1. Support the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ as well as improvement

Local government tends to look at digital transformation from two (equally legitimate) perspectives. This can cause confusion. Do we concentrate efforts on local councils who are just starting the transformation journey, are sceptical or feel they lack the capacity for change? Or do we further support those authorities who are already made the big steps in digital transformation and want to share and accelerate change regionally (the ‘Coalition of the Willing’).

Of course, the answer may be ‘both’ but these are two different groups (the latter made up of probably around 30–40 authorities) requiring different incentives and interventions.

2. Open platforms and a new market for start-ups

Enabling the next generation of Govtech requires a relentless emphasis on platforms and new generation of smaller firms, start-ups etc — procurements rules need to adapted to ensure smaller tech is not disadvantaged and new business models embraced. Councils are developing common standards and approaches — although adoption is not universal —which will help open the market up for smaller players.

Some progressive CIOs are plugging for a portfolio of risk and are looking at ways to identify, develop or adopt more innovation. Ripple’s Open Digital Platform Challenge proposes that a minimum 1% of the £4bn funds earmarked for NHS transformation be used for open platform applications to “open up the market to innovative commercial and social enterprises who presently have great difficulty breaching the significant barriers to entry.”

3. Shared Resource

As a major national challenge, funding for reform initiatives (discovery work to seed regional CDOs, pilots, building digital capacity etc.) must be conducted on the basis of joint investment and a shared approach from councils, between councils and from Whitehall.

Council resource will be required to drive regional collaboration through Chief Digital Officers and supporting teams. Government already runs a number of cross-cutting initiatives (e.g. in CLG Local Growth Fund, Smart Cities). NHS transformation is based around integration and promises to devote significant investment in IT-based reform. BEIS is in the middle of launching reviews of a number of industry sectors, with a view to surfacing terms for ‘sector deals’, which could be a route for Govtech innovation funding. £450m has been allocated to GDS to drive further reform.

A substantial amount of funding is current or planned to be spent — but needs to be invested more strategically and in an outcomes-based approach: the final product of a new settlement.

Conclusion

There is much in the GTS for councils and the local government sector. The principles outlined should be adopted in forthcoming digital strategies and thinking at a combined authority level — those which haven’t thought about digital governance in the form of a Chief Digital Officer function should do so now.

As with everything in U.K. transformation the time between now and when the Brexit deal drops in two years, should be a time where bold new fundamentals of transformation are secured across public services.

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Theo Blackwell is Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden. Theo was 2014 LGIU Digital Champion of the Year and winner of the Sandy-Bruce Lockhart scholarship in 2015. Camden’s Digital Strategy won the borough the MJ Digital City of the Year in 2015. He is sits on the Advisory Board of Digital Leaders and is a Policy Fellow for Public Group Ltd.

Digital Leaders

Thoughts on leadership, strategy and digital transformation across all sectors. Articles first published on the Digital Leaders blog at digileaders.com

Theo Blackwell

Written by

Technology & Growth in UK city and local government. As of September 2017, Chief Digital Officer for London.

Digital Leaders

Thoughts on leadership, strategy and digital transformation across all sectors. Articles first published on the Digital Leaders blog at digileaders.com

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