Local digital standard will need work to become a reality, conference told

Written by Rebecca Hill on 20 September 2016 in News
News

Councils must not let the local government Digital Service Standard become another set of principles that "gets shoved in a drawer” and isn’t made a reality, a conference has heard.

Councils told to make sure digital standard doesn't end up at the bottom of the pile - Photo credit: Flickr, Sebasitian Wiertz

The Local Government Digital Service Standard Summit, held in London yesterday, aimed to improve knowledge and understanding of the standard, which was launched in April this year.

The standard, which is based on a version used in central government, aims to improve design of digital services – with an emphasis on user needs – encourage peer review of those services and increase collaboration between councils.

Speaking at the summit, Olivia Neal, head of standards and assurance at the Government Digital Service, said she was “delighted” to see the local government version. However, she added that “this is where it gets really hard”, saying it would be a challenge to make it a reality.

“There are hundreds of standards across government that are launched with fanfare and get shoved in a drawer,” Neal said. “It would be such a shame if this happened with the local government standard.”


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Meanwhile, Natalie Taylor, senior manager for digital translation at the Greater London Authority, urged councils not to see it as a tick-box exercise.

“There’s a real need for a helpful framework,” she said, but added that it shouldn’t be “the new PRINCE 2” – a commonly used project management training system.

“There’s a lot more to getting under the skin of what these principles mean in practice,” Taylor said. “It’s about understanding agile working.”

She added that this was where the peer groups that the LocalGov Digital network for digital staff had organised would be able to help, through sharing best practice and discussing how to implement the standard. “That’s the best way to adopt these principles, rather than see it as a checklist.”

The standard has 15 points, which cover user research, hiring skilled, multidisciplinary teams, testing and evaluating services iteratively and encouraging maximum use of the digital service by citizens.

It also sets out principles for assessing services before they go live, which the GDS' Neal said could lead to “some difficult conversations” when services don’t pass.

She said that these often happen when the department is under pressure from political leadership to launch a service but the assessment had indicated it wasn’t ready.

“The more you can build allies, especially at senior level, the easier that conversation will be,” Neal said, adding that digital leaders in councils should start working to get chief executives on board with the standard – a point that was emphasised by all speakers at the event.

Neal added that she was proud of the assurance processes for services, saying that each time a service gets a recommendation and is improved it will be a direct benefit for citizens. “If you [in local government] can feel you’re doing the same, you’ll be equally proud,” Neal said.

Standard benefits

Further benefits of a digital standard include cost saving, improved services and providing an impetus for culture change in organisations, according to Kit Collingwood-Richardson, head of product delivery for the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship digital project Universal Credit.

In her speech, which detailed the sometimes-unexpected positives of having a digital standard based on her experience at DWP and the Ministry of Justice, Collingwood-Richardson said that she hadn’t expected the standard to save money, but that it had indeed cut costs.

This is because the standard ensures that customers will find it easier to get online, and find services easier to use, meaning they are less likely to resort to other, more expensive methods.

A standard also leads to reduction in waste because products are built only after extensive user research so only the things that people require are built.

Another unexpected benefit Collingwood-Richardson discussed was that it was “a lightning rod for culture change”.

“One of the hardest things about a move to digital user-focused organisation is the fact it’s a huge culture change,” she said. “Persuading a load of people that doing all this stuff is a good idea [is hard] – they want to see it done for real.”

But, she said, the standard had indicated that the changes she was pushing to her department were happening across government. It also encouraged more open recruiting that created more diverse, multidisciplinary teams that also changed working practices, she said.

She also said that the standard had helped departments make the move from outsourced IT to the digital age.

“When I started, the standard was a huge thing I leant on to show me what good looked like,” Collingwood-Richardson said. “It helped start conversations about the move from out- to in-sourcing and what that meant for all of us.”

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