Local councils unsure over GDS plan
Local IT leaders worry digital strategy is 'too transaction-focused'
Local government IT leaders have expressed some reservations over the Government Digital Service's strategy, despite GDS gaining plaudits for its 'digital by default' approach.
During a debate at Socitm's 2012 conference in Birmingham yesterday, local government representatives argued that the government digital strategy was "too focused on transactions", although Solihull council's Head of ICT Steve Halliday praised the fact that "its key aim is to improve the experience for the end user".
The strategy, which was published on 6 November 2012, 'sets out how government will redesign its digital services to make them so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them prefer to do so'.
In a panel debate titled 'Government Digital Strategy: what's in it for local public services?', both Glyn Evans (previously Corporate Director of Business Change at Birmingham City Council) and Kay Brown (South Lanarkshire Council's Head of ICT) said that the strategy has little to say about local government.
Indeed, that point prompted some in the audience to argue that the best solution might be for local authorities to draw up their own version of the government digital strategy.
Evans claimed that at the moment "the local government sector is in many ways ahead of central government" in the area of ICT. He said that "it [the strategy] does move us forward a modest amount...we can use digital technology to transform public services and cut costs".
However, he cautioned that the strategy is "too similar to strategies of the e-Government Unit [a unit of the Cabinet Office set up in 2004 and wound down in 2007]" and the "concept of digital leaders is too similar to the 'information age government champions' created by Blair in 1999".
All in all, Evans said that the strategy had been "a bit of a missed opportunity".
Brown agreed that "the digital leaders role is insufficient" and warned that "it's not just about transactions- we've got to also think in terms of people, conversations, relationships".
Halliday agreed that "relationships are key" but added that "the consumer focus is also vital". He praised the government's "digital by default" policy, adding that "we're at a building stage in government- we're improving our ability and that will eventually help join up lots of groups and organisations".
Evans said, "Their hearts in the right place in terms of achieving better services at a lower cost", but added, "We cannot update our old systems without investing a lot of money, and that's the problem. Where's the money for this? Cuts in local government are greater than for central government. It's a tough time and it's getting tougher."
He argued, "These things may incur costs before they achieve savings".
Generally, Halliday was positive about the strategy. He said "it isn't perfect but it isn't rubbish either. We're in a better place than we were a year ago. It's an evolutionary process, some ideas will fail and some will succeed."
"We need to start asking some fundamental questions, like what's the purpose of a local authority in the first place? And we have to make it easy for citizens to engage. We need to want to do this and move towards more digital solutions."
Evans added, "Those who get it need to drive the change...the benchmarks have changed but we're really moving a lot further ahead and making progress."
Although the strategy itself states that it "does not cover local government services", it acknowledges that "most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS".
The document also says the Cabinet Office will "share central government plans with local authorities and other public bodies" and "work with local councils and their representative and professional bodies to help them to make improvements".