Why the digital standard must be on every council’s agenda

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 5 May 2016 in Features

West Berkshire’s digital lead Phil Rumens talks about the task of ensuring the new Local Government Digital Service Standard makes an impact. Gill Hitchcock reports.

The new Local Government Digital Service Standard has been trumpeted as a major step forward for digital delivery. Published in April, it aims to offer councils a common route to good quality online services, as well as value for money. But here’s the rub: it’s not mandatory. So while it may look like a great initiative, it lacks teeth.

“I would say, yep, that’s right,” says Phil Rumens, the digital services manager for West Berkshire Council and a member of the steering group that created the standard.

Because legislation to enforce it is unlikely, the job of LocalGov Digital – the network for digital practitioners that produced the standard, which Rumens vice-chairs – is to press the case for this.

There are already plans to create regional peer networks to promote it. In practice, according to Rumens, this will mean that neighbouring councils will be able to share their experiences of implementing the standard, or present evidence about it to digital decision makers.

September will see a “standards summit”, bringing together representatives from all the early adopters and the Government Digital Service, which developed the original Digital by Default Service Standard.

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“We are thinking that will be the official launch,” says Rumens. “And we hope the event will include a mixture of good news stories from central government and examples of where the standard has already been implemented in local government. Buckinghamshire is already using it. Devon, West Berkshire and a few London councils are starting to look at it.”

Councils in England are, of course, under the financial cosh and face a further 6.7% funding cut between now and 2020. So could the standard help to balance the books? “I think there are two main ways it would save money,” says Rumens.

“One is by developing and delivering better online services, so that more people are likely to use what is obviously a cheaper channel. We deliberately didn’t call this ‘digital by default’. We’re not forcing people to use digital services, but we want them to be good enough so that more people will choose to use them.

“And the other way, is that when councils start working to the same digital standard, it makes it much easier to collaborate. There may be savings in terms of working together because you have an understanding of what a good service looks like. Also, a good understanding when you’re buying something, and procuring that new system to a high standard.”

He believes that if councils procure digital services collectively, or to the same standard, they have more clout: “Individually a supplier may not be willing to change their product to meet the needs of just one council. But if 50 councils work to the same standard, it becomes much more likely that the supplier will improve their product to meet the needs of the customer.”

More than 60 councils were involved in creating the new standard but, despite this, Rumens says it remains largely unchanged from the central government original. Where it differs is in its accountability – to council cabinet members and senior managers, rather than ministers – and in what Rumens describes as “the emphasis on using authoritative data registers and making data open.

“There was nothing in the existing central government standard about that, and we are keen not to recreate datasets, for example with a central register of addresses, or any common information.”

He says the original standard shows how it is possible to make sure that a service is fit for purpose before plunging into a big investment, or fully launching it to the public.

And he is particularly impressed by its focus on “design patterns” so that services can work across departments on the open publication of performance measures and, perhaps above all, on designing services around the needs of the user.

Are councils falling down on user-friendly digital design? “Not necessarily,” says Rumens. “I just think it’s an area that needs to be emphasised. As it says in the central government standard’s first criteria: ‘understand user needs’. We didn’t change the text of that at all. And we didn’t include it in ours as a response to services being poor, we put it in as best practice.”

As evidence grows about the benefits of the standard, he is hopeful that councils will adopt it and improve their digital services as a result. “The outcome should be better services for citizens, and that can only be a good thing.”

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