Collaboration: an opportunity for councils to cut the waste

Rotherham’s ICT manager Richard Copley wants a local-style GDS, but does he think the new Local Digital Coalition is the answer? Gill Hitchcock reports.

For years, local councils have been doing their own digital thing, and along the way wasting money through duplication and lack of purchasing power. So can the Local Digital Coalition, with its raison d’etre of digital collaboration, breathe life into a joined-up future for English councils?

It is very early days for this group of five councils plus national organisations, including Socitm, Solace, LocalGov Digital, iStandUK and iNetwork. But its action plan, published on 31 March, is ambitious and identifies five key projects which it wants to implement within a year.

The coalition admits it faces a huge challenge because there are currently no mechanisms for local authorities to plan and deliver digital collaboration initiatives that, once in place, could realise collective benefits.

Even a long-standing advocate of a local-style Government Digital Service is unsure. Richard Copley, the corporate ICT manager at Rotherham council, says: “The coalition is really quite a broad church, and as far as I can tell everybody is doing this in addition to their day job. So it will be interesting to see if they have the bandwidth to dedicate the hours needed to make their exemplar projects a success.”

Copley is hopeful that the five exemplars will be the tip of the digital iceberg that could see an end to the wasteful duplication of local IT systems. He is cautious, however: “I’ve previously advocated that local government has a single website, instead of 400 or so, because our processes are very similar.

“But it’s difficult because local authority people can get tremendously upset if you say anything about their council’s website. It’s an expression of local character. So you have to be careful when you talk about standardising these things.”

Among the five projects is extending GOV.UK Verify to local authorities, which Copley sees as an example of a step towards sharing online transactions at the centre, rather than replicating them in each organisation. “This is potentially exciting because customers will be able to use services, such as Verify, from the council’s website without knowing that ‘under the bonnet’ the transactions are being done centrally,” he says.

Copley now feels he was too radical in to thinking it would be possible for local council websites to be abandoned in favour of some kind of site. “We can have simple websites that push out the local news and information and thereby preserve local flavour and individuality, while behind the scenes we will have standardised, centralised, shared transactional services.”

The coalition’s Blue Badge project, to standardise eligibility checking processes that all councils provide, and another to adopt Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency APIs, are the right kind of areas to be working in, he says. “The use of open APIs is one of the ‘what good looks like’ principles that the coalition could help councils with. All councils should have a default position where they stipulate open APIs when they procure systems.”

Its local waste standards project will produce a lexicon of terminology to refer to the waste handling processes, with the aim of making it easier to share services. “While it’s a process that every local authority does, the terminology that we use to refer to the way waste is collected, the vessel used or the routes, is different,” says Copley.

“In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a creature called the Babel Fish, and if you insert it in your ear, you can understand any language that is spoken. And that is kind of what this standard is for, to translate and unify language so that when we refer to a blue bin, a green bin or a plastic recycling vessel, we know that we’re talking about the same thing.”

But it is the coalition’s integrated care records standards project that Copley sees as the most strategically significant. “The boundary between health and social care is being blurred. The services are being pushed together. Citizens can zigzag between the health and social care services without understanding where the boundary lies. And why should they?

“One thing that this project should do is help us move towards a single view of the citizens’ information that can be seen by practitioners from health and social care. So it’s about joining up and closer working.

“At the end of the day, that’s where the big savings could be made – because in any local authority a huge proportion of its budget will go towards social care – so this is a sensible place to try to use technology to introduce efficiencies.”

Does he think the five exemplars can be achieved within just 12 months? “Because they are distributed and each one is being handling by a different group of councils or organisations, I think they probably will.

“My only concern is because the coalition is virtual – it doesn’t seem to have any staff or funding – its members are its only strength. I think they may eventually need to seek subscriptions from organisations who want to benefit from this stuff.

“I’m also a little confused as to the role of LocalGov Digital in this work. They’ve done a great job recently in producing the Local Government Digital Service Standard. But LocalGov Digital is not listed as being part of the Local Digital Coalition – which feels counter-intuitive.

“I’d like to see all activity in this area brought into the coalition to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

In addition, Copley would like to see the coalition create purchasing standards. He thinks guidance to help councils specify their requirements would enable them to shape the digital market, rather than suppliers acting in the traditional way and mandating products their customers.

He adds: “Things are moving in the right direction. It’s just a shame they can’t move more quickly and that it’s taken austerity to drive us to new ways of working. But at least there’s that positive dimension to austerity, if nothing else.”

Colin Marrs

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