Local Digital

How a Local Digital Service Would Work

Tariq Rashid
Jul 21, 2015 · 7 min read

What’s The Problem?

There are two things we need to fix urgently:

  • User Experience of public services can be poor — well below what users today expect from other sectors.
  • Cost of public services is too high, and is increasingly unaffordable.

GDS is Succeeding — How?

The Government Digital Service is succeeding where many others have failed. It’s doing this through:

  • Culture. A new culture is about approaching problems in a different way - an emphatically optimistic, practical, open culture, relishing ambitious transformation, zealously focussed on users, embracing the new, and not settling for anything less than excellent. Culture is critical —merely adopting new tools and techniques is not enough.
  • Skills & Experience. You can’t deliver excellent services without excellent skills. Skills to really empathise with users. Skills to design and develop elegant, accessible user experiences. Skills to organise happy productive teams. And there’s no substitute for first hand experience of success (and failure) gained in different sectors.
  • Incentive. Taking control of technology and digital spend, and being unrepentantly transparent, has catalysed the adoption of digital culture and the achievement of high standards for digital services. Before this, implementing strategy and meeting common standards was more or less optional.
  • Engagement. The best way for people to find out what you’re doing is to talk about it — on the web — the best place to connect with all kinds of people. Really engaging, not just monologuing, builds networks, communities, and ultimately a movement. And being open about the good and bad bits is the best way to build trust, credibility and further adoption.

And these are the things a Local Digital Service needs to get right too.

But Local Government Is Different!

Yes — there are important constitutional differences between central and local government.

The Cabinet Office sets strategy and standards for government departments. In the last parliament it took further powers to control spend related to technology and digital services, giving it even stronger teeth to enforce strategy. Attempts to do the wrong thing were simply denied the money to spend. It worked very well.

But there is no Cabinet Office for local government. Local authorities get their mandate from local elections. And the outlook is for increasingly devolved powers and local decisions.

This does mean we need a different way to encourage local authorities to set themselves high ambitions for digital services. That way is citizens seeing pleasant and cost-effective digital services, and demanding the same of their own authorities.

Some local authorities have been reticent to receive shared building blocks because they feel their business and circumstances are unique.

Digital culture doesn’t seek to stubbornly impose the same technology building blocks or entire solutions on different kinds of users. It encourages differences to be respected, celebrated, and services to be crafted to best match those users’ needs and context.

And sharing experience, skills, building blocks, platforms doesn’t preclude crafting unique services. This is a common and mistaken conflation of two different things — user experience and building blocks. You can have your cake and eat it.

How to Grow a Local Digital Service

An aversion to creating yet another organisation is right.

There are already many organisations trying to support local government build better services. But they’ve had varying degrees of success — and let’s be honest, a fair bit of failure. That’s ok — it all informs how a Local Digital Service should be grown:

  • Start Small and Grow. A big bang, cliff egde, large scope effort will fail. It’s a law of nature — big things fail. Starting small and iterating means learning as we do things with real users and partners — and not stopping this learning. It also means making manageable mistakes we can learn from — not catastrophic ones which kill the whole idea. And this is important — starting small is the only way to establish and maintain the right culture. You can’t do this if you start big.
  • Prove It by Doing It. The best way by by far to convince people of a new idea is to prove it by doing it. Once a thing is real, working cost-effectively, with happy users, it’s almost impossible for naysayers to defend inertia.
  • Users Demanding Better. A Local Digital Service can’t incentivise local authorities to build services in a particular way by controlling spend, like the GDS can in central government. A more positive way is for users — citizens and business — to see great examples of local digital services and demand the same quality from their own local authorities. To work, this needs lots of transparency, working in the open, publishing and engagement to raise awareness and interest.

What Would a Local Digital Service Do?

A Local Digital Service could probably do lots of things — but it shouldn’t.

It should do the minimum to support the adoption of digital working across local government, and encourage public services that meet the high Digital Service Standards. It should never grow to become an example of the very organisations digital people shudder at.

Three core things it should do in descending order of priority:

  • Connect People. If it did only one thing, a Local Digital Service would connect people who are passionate about building better public services — be they coders, user researchers, graphic and content designers, agile scum masters, open policy makers … Connected people can create their own movement.
  • Set Ambition (Standards). The Digital Service Standard is the most visible and, right now, instrumental in uplifting the quality of public services. A Local Digital Service would encourage and support authorities to meet these standards, and be publicly transparent about progress towards them. Well chosen open technical and data standards help to build better services, and they work even better as more authorities adopt them. A Local Digital Service would coordinate this, making use of the existing Standards Hub.
  • Coordinate Activity. Some things do work better when coordinated across local authorities. A good example is the research that would decide which platforms needed building, or which APIs would be most transformative — you just can’t do this in isolation. Developing standards for opening up access to data wouldn’t make sense if only a small group were involved. Sharing skills and expertise works better, too, when the network it comes from is larger. Right now, local authorities are rightly too busy to do this kind of coordinating — so there is a genuine need for someone else to it.

Local Digital Service Working with GDS

The diagram shows how a Local Digital Services works with GDS on things that are mutually beneficial — such as proposing open technical standards, sharing data to good effect, refining the digital service standards, using and feeding back to platforms like Verify, and connecting even more passionate professionals.

Digital services and data shouldn’t be constrained to never cross the border between central and local government domains. And that’s why GDS and a Local Digital Service must work together.

And a Local Digital Service shouldn’t be shy and wait for GDS to fix broken things first, it can take the lead. It could forge ahead demonstrating a more sophisticated engagement with the market — uplifiting a habit of procedural procurement to a pervasive culture of savvy commercial design.

The Journey

There is a natural sequence of milestones along the journey from a founding startup group, through growth and learning-by-doing, onto maturity and benefits.

  1. Form a small core of willing local authorities who annouce they will develop services that meet the high Digital Service Standards. The core founders will have the determination to develop a new culture — working through the initial discomfort of greater transparency and working in the open, for example.
  2. You can’t do everything, so find out who can lead on the several strands — content design, user research, usable security, and so on. This is a good way of dispersing seeds of change.
  3. Establish a set of local government Digital Exemplars. Firstly, as a way of using “doing” to develop skills and capability. Secondly, as a showcase for the digital way of working. Because this is new for many local authorities, they’ll need light-touch support from GDS to get bootsrapped.
  4. Important to start early is breaking down organisational boundaries to people working in digital — encouraging networking and enabling connections, developing communities — taking advantage of existing spaces where digital professionals meet, especially online.
  5. Start publishing how well authorities are doing in meeting the Digital Service Standards. Also start publishing the costs of common “commodity” like networking, end user devices, and hosting, to enable both citizens and authorities to make judgements of good value for money.
  6. Once digital working is beginning to bed in, do research to determine which cross-authority Platforms and APIs would best save duplication costs, and liberate data to enable further digitisation, and all of this to encourage as yet unthought of innovative services.
  7. As digital culture matures across local government, success will be self-perpetuating as the network effect benefits of sharing platforms, code, APIs, data, expertise, … attract even more participants.
  8. Ultimately, citizens will be demanding their own local authority provides digital services as good as, and as cost effective as, those provided by the best.

Making Things, Better

It’s all about making things, better. For users. Anything else is probably unnecessary.

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

Tariq Rashid

Written by

Reforming Enterprise (Technology) Strategy for the 21st Century

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

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