A local GDS, for Local People

In case you aren’t familiar with it, GDS is the acronym for the Government Digital Service, which was set-up by the Cabinet Office to ‘transform’ government digital services. GDS is responsible for – amongst other things – the single government domain.

Some concern has been expressed that GDS is ‘hoovering-up’ local digital talent, but it’s generally perceived as a ‘force for good’ in the central government digital space.

Blogs and bloggers

There’s been masses of discussion recently about setting up a local equivalent to the GDS, and lots of blog posts have already been written about it. If you haven’t already read them, the blogs and the accompanying comments are well worth a look:

Consensus?

The consensus seems to be that some kind of co-ordinated #localgov digital service or network is needed.

Centralise?

Characters from the League of Gentlemen comedy against a backdrop of the London skyline and image of a local shop

The idea of setting up a centralised team was mooted, and there would certainly be some benefits such as:

  • common standards
  • shared tools
  • coordination

But a basic tenet of local government is that it’s local, which kind of rules out the idea of a team physically located in one place.

Why bother?

Some have asked why anything is needed at all, when there are lots of examples of local government cooperation already out there:

These already bring local authorities, government departments & agencies, voluntary organisations and the private sector together, either physically (the camps), or virtually (Twitter chats & remote participation at events).

Volunteers only

One of the reasons the camps and chats work so well is that they are entirely voluntary:

  • no one is “in charge”
  • no one is made to attend if they don’t want to
  • those who ‘turn up’ must therefore be genuinely interested
  • there is a common drive to share information, best practice, experiences etc
  • helping to drive costs down by using expert local knowledge.

The trouble is…

The trouble with camps and weekly chats is that they are ‘events’. They take place at a point in time, and then they’re over (until the next time). There’s a sharp increase in activity in the lead up to events, which peaks and then drops off again as participants return to their respective organisations. Often there is a flurry of activity after these events to capture what was said, shown, shared, but nothing long lasting.

CityCamps or Hack days are a little different in that ‘projects’ are worked on after the main event so is this what a Local GDS needs to achieve?

Social works

Social platforms enable conversations to continue between events, help the sharing of tools and techniques, and allow others to catch-up or join in at a later date. Where Twitter is used for public chats, Yammer is widely used across local government for conversations between people working in the same organisation or sector. The LGA’s Knowledge Hub - which replaced the popular Communities of Practice – seeks to do something similar.

It would be great if the design spec for the Knowledge Hub could be revisited, and some of the functionality originally envisaged by Steve Dave – like an ‘App Store’ for local government – brought in after all. It’s a shame that a platform procured for the sector, by the sector, doesn’t appear – yet – to have met the needs of those who should be its champions.

Really useful?

There’s also the series of ‘Really Useful’ events the Local Directgov team has organised as a way of helping local government people connect with each other and central government. They’ve also set-up a group on the LGA’s Knowledge Hub, which contains some good stuff about model customer journeys and a guide on Cookies and Privacy, thereby helping to tackle some of the issues with lack of common standards.

Should any future system have the ability to have a tiered structure in relation to open and closed areas so that not only can local public sector practitioners have a safe medium to discuss issues but also have an open area to engage with the community and what they can bring to a project.

And the answer is?

Probably, more of the same. At the end of the weekly #lgovsm chat about a Local GDS, James Cattell (who, incidentally, is shortly off to join GDS) tweeted four action points:

  1. Find political allies in your organisations who get #socialmedia and the power of engagement
  2. Chip away at ICT barriers; modern internet browsers, #socialmedia open by default
  3. Good, engaging & constantly updated training delivered by champions who get the power of tech
  4. NEVER GIVE UP! Go to @LocalGovCamp for support and motivation. Work within the rules and #jfdi!

A small group (Ken Eastwood, James Cattell, Mark Braggins and Sasha Taylor) carried on the conversation last night and discussed some additional actions which will be shared shortly. It was interesting to note that the group convened on Skype, and used Google docs to ‘live’ update a shared document. Collaboration doesn’t need to involve expensive procurements, it’s founded on mutual trust, sharing and cooperation.

This post is a joint effort by Sasha Taylor and Mark Braggins

Photo credits
The League of Gentlemen merchandise

I’m interested in lots of things, in no particular order: society, politics, public services, open data, technology (and what you can do with it), wildlife, photography, the countryside, and long distance walking.

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Posted in apps, LocalGov, Sociable Enterprise, Technology, weekly blog club, WordPress
5 comments on “A local GDS, for Local People
  1. Thanks for your thoughts Mark. I’ve been reading all the blogs you mention and the whole idea sounds a bit mad to me. A framework, yes. Standards, yes. But a GDS? Sounds like a job for a cat herder.

    I guess it depends on the scope of the work. GDS have a strong mandate to implement their work under a unified political structure. That is not the case with local gov and as you point out localism and hyper-localism is local gov for local people (I like that bit).

    Even though a standard model for digital delivery makes sense on paper, I think it would be naive to think that this rationale alone will win the day. This is both a practical and an emotive issue. There is the political dimension to consider.

    I think something regional is probably more achievable in the first instance in the absence of a unified political will to push it through nationally. Then there is the issue of staying abreast of a technical landscape which is changing so rapidly that even the most keen professionals have trouble keeping up sometimes.

    Would this not end up as the worst of centralised compromise whilst stifling innovation and creativity?

    • markbraggins says:

      Mike, thanks for leaving a comment. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I think there’s lots of support for continuing to build and reinforce a local government network, rather than set-up the local equivalent to the GDS.

      Re Knowledge Hub, is there still hope of an app store as originally envisaged?

      • Depends on what you mean by ‘app store’ Mark.

        A place to store details of and links to relevant apps in the data.gov.uk sense? This is planned and should be available in the next few months.

        A fully realised app store in the Apple or Android sense is not planned. It is not clear to me what the actual value of a fully realised app store would be. It seems like substantial cost with significant risk and without a clear ROI model. The administrative overheads are significant and at a time when there are competing priorities e.g. revised design spec as you refer to above, the business case just doesn’t stack up. Sounds good but expensive to realise and hard to see the real value to councils.

        Happy to discuss this further if you have suggestions.

        • markbraggins says:

          I think I have the original design spec somewhere, Mike. I’ll see if I can dig it out. I like the idea of (a public sector body) developing neat apps which they then make available to others to use, ideally for free. Platforms like WordPress make it easy to use and share plug-ins, and users rate the quality and support provided by plug-in developers. I take your point about ROI, but am convinced a lot can be achieved with a little money wisely invested which draws on the huge amount of talent and good will that’s around.

  2. x333xxx says:

    I’d be delighted to be ‘hoovered up’ by GDS. GDS please note!

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