There is a conversation going on online about the concept of a Local Government Digital Service, modelled on the lines of central government’s GDS.
I can see the appeal of a single solution, a piece of beautiful design that brings together all of the different council services in a new way, and unlocks money from transforming services. Who wouldn’t love that?
I wonder, though, whether the success of GDS is more a siren song than a user manual.
A unitary central government, even if divided into semiautonomous departments, is much more coherent and biddable than 300+ different local government institutions, each with particularist political leadership.
Even if you can make the “sell” work, government has the benefit of being a natural monopoly – while local government is almost always multi-tier, and multi-service. Experiences of “local” include many services beyond the councils that cover an area. A true L-GDS would include NHS, Police, Fire, and the whole range of local services that people need to involve themselves with.
If we are to be true to the concept of small pieces loosely joined, we ought to be ready to bring pieces in from anywhere, rather than trying to create a single approach run by a single team. Lots of innovation supported by a set of principles, systems that are open and ideas that are well-supported, would go better with the grain of local government than one single plan.
There are already pieces of work underway on creating a common basic infrastructure. For example, the Citizens’ Foundation in Iceland (with NESTA in the lead in the UK) are undertaking a project funded by the European Commission to create a decentralised participation platform, on the basis of the successful better Reykjavik and Open Ministry code.
We are already thinking about routes into local services in the context of our work in Lewes, a classic three-tier council on the south coast with a high level of digital savvy and high voter turnout.
Whatever we do has to start from the citizen (and their understandable impatience with organisational dividing lines), rather than structures as they exist at the moment. Creating a L-GDS risks defocusing the “local” in favour of “local government”.