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Four years on…how much of the plumbing really is ‘fixed’?

We're proud to support the Local Digital Declaration #LocalDigital4Years

This month sees the four-year anniversary of the Local Digital Declaration:

A laudable and ambitious statement of intent, designed to shift embedded cultural norms in the procurement and delivery of council digital services for the better. Making them more user centric, encouraging greater sharing and reducing reliance on sometimes archaic and expensive ‘locked in’ ICT solutions.

Launched during a time of a squeeze on the public purse, the collective ambition to develop common building blocks to be re-used across the sector, to enable easier-to-use services while protecting privacy and security and to put users at the heart of design made, and still makes, a huge amount of sense.  To date, 272 organisations have signed the declaration with that intent.

So four years on, how much progress has actually been made? And on reflection, do we need to do more to challenge ourselves to be more radical in our approach?

Without doubt there’s been a shift in those intervening years, helped in no small measure by the excellent support provided to councils by colleagues at DLUHC’s Local Digital Team, backed by seed funding to get shared initiatives off the ground.  To date 44 collaboration phases have received funding and more than 3,000 council staff have been trained.

Yet in our day-to-day engagements with councils, while chief execs tell us they want to invest in an ‘Amazon like’ experience, under the hood, we are still seeing a spaghetti-like labyrinth of expensive solutions, inaccessible data, plenty of duplicate functionality and little prospect of truly joined-up services without a more fundamental change.

No one said it would be easy. 

It’s taken years for current ways of working to evolve, so will inevitably take some time to undo. The barriers are plentiful, including:

  • services and related funding looked at in isolation without understanding what could be better joined together
  • under-resourced teams not having the capacity to review contracts far enough in advance
  • valid concerns about swapping one problem (expensive line of business systems) for another (lack of in-house skills in a hot market)
  • short-term pump priming with no long-term revenue funding to support what’s developed.

Not to mention considerations of cyber risk and building digital maturity overall. The list goes on. It’s understandable that it’s often easier to stay with what you’ve got than to do what will make the bigger difference longer term.

At Socitm

Most of us have worked with and for the sector for some time and understand that a ‘big bang’ change is hard. And to some, an insurmountable challenge.  We understand the dilemmas councils face and endorse a pragmatic approach that involves thinking big, but starting small to at least ‘move the needle’ incrementally over time in order to impact the strategic outcomes that the sector tells us they want to see.  By doing this, the ‘too hard’ box eventually becomes smaller and councils can focus on what they can achieve in stages.

So, what CAN you do?

  1. Strategy first
    Firstly, you need to know where you’re going.  A good customer strategy, underpinned by a digital strategy and supported by effective governance of what is bought and built will help to win hearts and minds more than ‘talking tech’ ever will. Most councillors and executive teams want to see joined-up services, which requires a shift in service delivery away from silo-based service by service decision-making about processes, systems and data towards a whole council approach.  A strategy gives you a direction on which to pin this change. It’s painful at first and it will involve ‘stopping’ services working in isolation – but it’s ultimately better for customers and better value for the council.  This strategic intent is a critical enabler of change.
  2. Customer centric service design
    To local residents and businesses, you are ‘The Council’ – so as well as aiming for the sought after but rarely achieved ‘single view of customer’ it’s important to consider what the customer sees as the  ‘single view of council’.  Achieving customer input needn’t be costly or time consuming and is a small investment to make upfront for increased uptake in the use of digital solutions later.  To design and deliver services that meet the best people’s needs it is essential that councils first understand what those needs are – and what the current and target experience is. Not doing so risks developing solutions that are not valued by customers, not needed, or simply will not be used. We strongly endorse a ‘discover first’ approach for that reason.
  3. Digital skills and culture
    The old adage ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ has never been truer.  Everything we do tells us that the mindset at the top of organisations has a direct influence on whether digital initiatives succeed or fail. Digital isn’t about IT. It’s fundamentally about delivering services in a different way and doing it well requires a move away from thinking of digital as a ‘separate’ thing, or an ‘IT thing’ and instead considering it simply ‘how we do things round here’ – and part of everyone’s job.  Done well, digital ways of working force councils to break down organisational silos, with governance and decision making that cuts across services in the customer interest.  Alongside the mindset challenge also comes a skillset challenge with many councils now seeking to build internal capacity through side by side working with external companies like Socitm Advisory who can seesaw knowledge back into the organisation to increase resilience and reduce costs over time.
  4. Tech choices and commissioning the right thing
    One of the principles underpinning the Local Digital Declaration is that councils will ‘fix the plumbing’ and break their dependence on inflexible and expensive technology. In reality it’s easier said than done with councils locked into long term contracts with a small number of local government software suppliers that make change difficult, and many lacking the technical skills in house to adopt the more modular approaches advocated by the Declaration.  What is possible however are smarter conversations about commissioning, aligned to architecture principles and to the technology code of practice.  By spec’ing technology choices well, this will enable greater control over time.
  5. Share, share, share….
    Finally, and perhaps most obviously, while every council is slightly different, there are a lot of commonalities in how services operate.  Yes, there will always be some ‘special’ parts of processes that have to operate differently for certain reasons, but councils do undertake similar work in lots of areas and as such, greater sharing of design patterns, tools and methodologies should be more easily achievable.  Whether you share by blogs, at Socitm’s membership events, use GitHub or the LocalGovDigital Slack channel, working in the open is actively encouraged, as is sharing lessons learned.  At Socitm, we believe that knowledge is for sharing and aim to link our members and clients together to learn from one another, but we recognise even we could do more here and our teams are working hard to achieve this in different ways.  Ideas are always welcome too of course – tell us what works best for you and we’ll see if we can do it!

So, four years on, being braver, bolder and more deliberate in our intent seems like a logical next step.  We’ve come a long way already and most CEOs and Executive Teams no longer talk to us about digital being ‘the website’ or ‘technology’ – but we need to now embed that learning, to have a stronger voice at the top table and insist on joined up approaches to digital governance and delivery and to focus on creating the cultural conditions for success as much as the practical ones.

We’re always happy to chat, to share ideas and to support in discussions and planning. 

To find out more about how Socitm Advisory might help you, please contact Kate Lindley.