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A rough guide to central vs local government digital

More than ever there seems to be a willingness for civil servants and local government officers to work together to build digital services. Because of this I thought I'd put together a rough guide to councils and digital, for those working in central government digital.


There are lots of governments

First off, local government isn't a single government, it's hundreds, in fact over 420. There are blue, red, yellow (two kinds), green (but not that kind) and purple governments, some with no overall control (equivalent to a hung parliament) and one independent. More on this later.

To make matters more confusing, there are lots of networks, representative bodies and events too. I made a graph commons of all those I think relate to digital because I've tried to explain how I saw the relationships between them all so many times.

If you're looking for a single voice to talk to there isn't one because there is no Local Government, just local governments.


It's political

Like central government, councils are run by politicians. Those politicians may be of the same political persuasion as central government, or not. They may want to work with central government, or to some extent against it.

They may also want to work with their neighbours, but if they're a different political persuasion, they might not. Even if government as a platform is seen a good idea, don't bank on every local government wanting to work together to achieve it, because of political differences.

I guess that if you work for a government department you rarely see a politician, but in some councils politicians will take an interest in operational matters, which in itself is a good thing, however in the most extreme cases I've heard from around the country, to the detriment of the service.

So if you're looking to talk to a number of councils at the same time, beware of the political implications of this.


There are around a thousand possible services

The Local Government Services List shows most services that a council might provide, from the 16 to 19 bursary fund to providing zoos, farms and wildlife parks. There are 989 services in the list for England and Wales. Councils may also offer additional functions through traded services to generate income.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) took a couple of years on their first 25 exemplars. At that rate it would take decades to complete all local government services. Clearly if we want to transform local government services, focusing on a few exemplars isn't going to achieve the pace and scale that many people think is needed. Another factor is that some services are of so low volume that they barely warrant creating a digital service for them.

The other main difference is that many central government services are transaction based. renewing a licence, calculating and paying tax, and so on. Some local government services are transaction based, others are people based, many relate to physical services.



There are silos within silos

Each council has departments, often confusingly called services. There are usually somewhere between ten and fifteen in each council. There's no mandated structure, so departments aren't directly comparable from one council to another, although some might sometimes be referred to as the local planning authority, or local education authority, and so on, and when they are it's fairly obvious what they do.

Just to confuse things, in areas with "two tier" authorities (a county and a district) highways will be delivered by one council and planning by another, so there are twin silos within silos in these areas. To confuse things even more, in some areas there's a third tier of local government which are town and parish councils.

Some departments support the other departments, some work almost as autonomous business units. There are 25 ministerial departments plus 22 non-ministerial departments in central government. Whilst that quantity may make make joining up things hard, when you consider there are probably over 6,000 council departments, the task is immense.


There's no money

OK, there's some money, but remember all those departments? Many of them are funded from the same shrinking pot of cash, and when some of them can legitimately say they're protecting lives or making the community safer, or doing the basics like fixing the roads or emptying the bins, taking a longer term view and redesigning services around the benefits digital provides can seem a pretty abstract concept.

Central government digital teams are extremely well resourced compared to their local counterparts. The same size teams that deliver one service for central might be delivering tens or more for local. This is partly because of funding, partly because councils deliver lots of relatively low volume services.

It's also easier to recruit digital talent in the big cities where central government tends to be based, less so in smaller provincial towns. Working in Whitechapel has a lot more kudos to it than at Borchester Borough Council, plus there's a much larger pool of talent in big cities than provincial towns.


It's constantly changing

Remember I said there are over 420 local governments? There are going to be fewer soon with proposed reorganisations in Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Northamptonshire and perhaps Wales too.

You'd think it would be a good chance to start again, but the when the last reasonably large reorganisation happened in 2009 pulling together small districts with county councils, the legacy tech and systems persisted for years, meaning it took a long time for some new unitary councils to function as one.

Central government departments might change, but they're still part of the Civil Service. Local government reorganisation is the dissolution and creation of organisations.


But it's not Agile

A few councils have embraced Agile, Bristol City Council won best "Best Use of Agile in the Public Sector" in 2015. Some work in an agile way, but for most it's Waterfall all the way. This is slowly changing, but as a rule, PRINCE2 rules local government.

Whilst GDS and LocalGov Digital worked together to create the the Local Government Digital Service Standard this isn't mandatory and it's only slowly being adopted by councils.


Everyone's in a different place

It's not completely true to say every council is physically in a different place as some district and county councils cover parts of the same area (see "two tier" earlier on), however councils by their very nature are spread across the country.

Each council is at a different stage of digital transformation and cultural change. When it comes IT, most have a variety of contracts with different combinations from a small pool of large suppliers. This makes it hard to collaborate, and when you add in geographic and political differences, even more so.


Thanks to everyone who contributed in this thread on Twitter


Do join in if you can. Hopefully it and this piece will help anyone who's interested in gaining an insight into the differences between central and local government digital.

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