Why stop at council websites?

I’m beginning to like the cut of this government Minster’s jib, when it comes to how local government should be preparing for the future.  His suggestion that councils should share the resources used to produce their internet presence makes total sense, but should not be limited to just websites.

All councils do a range of activities and deliver a range of services that are virtually identical.  No matter how many times you hear councils claim to be different, or even unique – which is of course is true geographically – people are people and what they require from their local council, tends to be very much the same.  So why do the four hundred plus councils across the UK continue to insist on purchasing something as expensive as software, using an individual, or in some cases, bespoke approach?

Historically, councils didn’t tend to need to talk to each other and were very inward looking and protective of their way of doing things.  Part of this was of course was an element of self-preservation.  As we have now seen in many councils in recent years, sharing resources, including staff, leads to efficiencies, which in turn leads to a need for fewer specialist staff.

The one place local government seems to be slow to make progress, is when it comes to sharing software systems.  I’ve little doubt that this will be due, in part, to the software companies making life difficult when it comes to a genuine shared procurement arrangement between councils.  However, it’s also likely that both central and local government play a significant part in not seeking combined software solutions, when a new duty, or service is introduced, because they think there’s bound to be a need to do something different in their area from every other council in the country.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Minister proposes ‘open source’ solution for council websites
23 October, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

Local authorities should not be spending money developing their own individual web portals when a single system could be developed and shared across councils, a government minister has said.

Speaking at a conference on public service reform on Wednesday, cabinet office minister Matt Hancock praised the Government Digital Service and its approach of developing platforms which could be shared across government for free.

The service developed the gov.uk platform now used for all Whitehall department websites.

Mr Hancock said GDS was now developing “core digital infrastructure for common activities like making and receiving payments, or tracking the status of an application” which would allow the public to deal with government “through one simple interface”.

Asked whether councils would be able to use the product he said: “The product should be available to local government… We are looking at what we can do to ensure that specific requirements of local government, as opposed to the source code more broadly, are available, that’s part of the spending review.”

Many local authorities are currently developing their own individual web portals, working with companies such as Agilisys and Civica, allowing residents to access services on line and conduct secure transactions, such as paying council tax.

Asked by LGC whether they should wait for an ‘off the shelf’ government product, Mr Hancock said he would “hate to see every council spending the development money to develop their own portal”.

“One portal written in open source software could be used by lots and lots of different councils and joined up that way,” he said.

Trevor Holden, chief executive of Luton BC, advocated a centralised approach at a recent Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers event.

He told LGC he welcomed the minister’s comments and called for a single piece of research and development work to develop the software, coordinated by central government or the Local Government Association.

“The vision has to be buy it once and buy well,” he said. “There should be a single portal it should be local and central government in the first instance but with an aspiration for the whole public sector so [for example] it knows who your GP is as well and you could book appointments through the system.”

Music to our ears, but will the public accept this approach?

Matt Hancock has captured very nicely the quandary so many councils, councillors and of course officers find themselves in when proposing new projects, or trying to do things differently – fear of failure and the subsequent criticism from local taxpayers for wasting ‘their’ money.

Neither he nor I would suggest that local government should be cavalier in the way it uses public money.  However, if we are going to do things differently, as we are constantly being entreated to do, we have got to take a certain level of risk in order to be successful in our endeavours.  If something that was being proposed was a racing certainty, we probably would have been doing it years ago, or certainly would have given it serious consideration, even if it had not been pursued, because of the level of upfront investment required.

However, we are now in a world where it’s literally sink or swim when it comes to not just surviving as ‘the council’, but actually growing and continuing to be relevant and important to the area we represent and care about.  

So, will we see another project like the Red Lion Quarter in Spalding being pilloried by all and sundry, simply because one minor element of it didn’t work?  Very probably, it seems to be the nature of the beast when it comes to the activities of government and the spending of the taxpayers’ cash.  The supermarkets and in particular Tesco, can get their business model seriously wrong, spending millions of pounds on the wrong approach, or the wrong projects and bounce back, reputation intact a few years later.  However, if the local council makes a mistake and a project doesn’t deliver as expected, certain elements of the public and local business organisations, will continue to drag it up at any opportunity, until their dying day.  

On the positive side, given the plans this government has for local government – a self sustaining, non-public money funded service provider – we should be free to rise from the ashes, reputation untarnished as needed, just like Tesco’s will, should anything go askew in that brave new world.  Of course there’s always the fate of the likes of Woolworths, Comet, Whittards, MFI, HMV, etc, etc, to consider……and then there’s always Detroit.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Cast aside caution on transformation, minister urges22 October, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

Local government has been too risk adverse and should be prepared to confront failure as it reforms services, a Cabinet Office minister has said.
During a speech on public service reform in central London yesterday, Matt Hancock also said greater control over business rates would allow councils to reform services to make savings.

Mr Hancock said: “The first question for government shouldn’t be what’s the best model for delivering public services, but rather what is the user need?

“Getting this right inevitably involves trial and error… In public services we are too cautious about using that phrase.”

Speaking to LGC after the speech, Mr Hancock acknowledged local government faced further funding constraint this parliament but insisted ministers were offering the sector freedom to reform and improve services.

“Reform both in terms of giving more freedom to operate according to how people on the ground see fit, policy freedom and the big business rate freedom that was announced,” Mr Hancock said. “These freedoms are given with the knowledge that people can use them to meet very tight spending limits.”

Asked how genuine this freedom was, Mr Hancock highlighted the general power of competence introduced by the previous government under the Localism Act 2011. This allows councils to do anything an individual can do, provided it is not prohibited by another law.

Mr Hancock said local authorities were free to try new things as long as they complied with relevant legislation, for example the Data Protection Act or rules governing social care.

He added: “I believe in the power of human ingenuity which includes the ability of people working on the frontline to constantly improve the services they deliver.”