It was wonderful to be part of Digital Leaders week and I particularly enjoyed discussing the potential for digital transformation across London’s government at our salon event at City Hall. Theo Blackwell, Labour Councillor Camden, Andrew Collinge, Assistant Director Intelligence, Greater London Authority, and I led the discussion, with a packed Chamber of attendees, expertly chaired by Charlotte Holloway, Head of Public Sector Innovation, Public.
We talked about various initiatives we are working on, such as the London Office of Technology and Innovation, the Local Government Digital Service Standard and building digital capability in leadership. It was a lively discussion and we had no problems filling the two hours, addressing questions and challenges from the audience on everything from the role of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to standards for open data.
Having come to local government relatively recently, what struck me from the conversations at this event and others I’ve been having lately, is the overwhelming need for collaboration and coordination when it comes to digital. Don’t get me wrong, there are councils in London and around the country doing some exceptional digital work and also some great examples of shared services, but it definitely isn’t the norm.
One of the greatest achievements of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been to help citizens transact quickly and easily with central government, by removing the barriers between departments and presenting everything on GOV.UK. Building platforms which can be shared across government saves money, makes processes run more efficiently and improves people’s lives. But how much can we honestly say that local government has learnt from this?
Local government has no GDS equivalent, no centralised service standard which must be applied in order for digital services to go live, no centralised spend controls, no Francis Maude at the helm championing the efficiency savings which are achievable through digital transformation.
Local government is different to central government. It delivers more transactional and complex services at a local level, so it probably needs something different to a GDS, but what? And who is thinking about this? Who are the leaders setting the strategy for local government digital transformation across the piece? Yes there are some Chief Executives, Chief Digital Officers and Chief Technology Officers doing great work, but its piecemeal.
In a time of austerity, it seems like we are missing a trick here. The private sector leads, as you’d expect, then comes central government trying to learn from best practise and change at pace, with local government and charities at the end of the line. And in the meantime, we are still suffering from a terrible hangover of legacy technology, unhealthy supplier contracts and relationships and a major lack of digital capability.
The whole point of using digital is to break down boundaries, open government up and make things better. I believe that helping councils to adopt the Local Government Digital Service Standard, building a London Office of Technology and Innovation and appointing a Chief Digital Officer for London are all steps in the right direction, but they alone are not enough. We need GDS, DCLG and local government leaders to start working together to see where the opportunities to collaborate are and what can be learnt from the exemplary work already being done in the UK and further afield. If we continue to let things happen organically, progress will be too slow, but I’m hopeful that with our new Chief Digital Officer in post very soon, London can help to lead the way.