Could the devolution of power to cities and regions help super-charge the work on local digital services?
As I write this post the debate around the devolution of powers to UK cities and regions is
hotting up. No doubt by the time you read it the details will have changed – but it seems highly likely that whoever is running the country after May 2015 they’ll be conceding some powers and funding, or fundraising opportunities, to some of our larger cities and regions (“metros” as the City Growth Commission calls them).
Much has already been said about the approaches or models that might help deliver high quality digital services across local government – with “one site to rule them all” at one end of the spectrum, and voluntary standards at the other.
Much as I admire and support the great work being done by practitioners like LocalGovDigtal, my view is that bottom-up voluntary best practice isn’t going to be enough. Even if I believed that this alone would get us to consistently good and affordable services eventually (which I don’t), we simply don’t have the time to find out – the funding situation is too acute, and the expectations of citizens accustomed to interacting 24/7 online are already raised too high.
There are also far too many chief execs, service directors and elected members who don’t yet understand the need for digitally enabled service redesign (including assisted digital), or the scale of the opportunity, or the extent of culture change required to bring it about.
We need to get their attention.
Even amongst the more engaged there seems to be a leadership vacuum. At events I’ve been to with representation from DCLG, the LGA, and Solace as well as execs and councillors from local authorities, everyone has been happy to agree that standards need to be raised, skills developed, opportunities seized, and that some leadership is needed… But no one has been prepared to step forward to lead, or even to suggest who might.
In central government, when GDS was created, it wasn’t enough to have a team of experienced people, or to say what good looked like, or even to show it via Alphas and exemplars – the new digital standards had to be made mandatory, and tied to access to funding (specifically spend controls). Yes, there’s a nice juicy carrot in positive user feedback and improved performance indicators (including savings), and ideally this would be enough to incentivise change, but I don’t think this alone will bring about the shift needed. I suspect we also need some stick.
I believe we need a new mandate or settlement or hard incentive to accelerate the pace of digitally-enabled change across local government – and that perhaps the devolution of powers to cities and regions might provide that opportunity.
Imagine a devolution deal which insisted that x% should be spent on digitally enabled service redesign, to an agreed set of standards and even a timetable. Or, if that degree of ring-fencing is too strong, how about mandating standards or expectations with targets and metrics attached, regardless of spend? In July Ed Miliband suggested that his version of devolution would come with “checks and balances”, with the introduction of local public accounts committees and the requirement to publish performance data. If this approach gets developed I’d want to see digital and service design standards as part of it.
Sticks aside, stronger cities and regions could also lead the development and sharing of digital expertise. Some commentators and practitioners are, probably rightly, sceptical of a central (London based) digital team for local government – but what if there were centres of excellence in each of the large cities, each perhaps running digital academies or events for council staff in the surrounding authorities? Would it also be more acceptable if the guardians of digital standards were up the road, rather than inside the M25?
So, do I think we need national standards for service design and digital? Yes I do. Do I think these need to be mandated in order to be truly effective? Yes. Does this mean a central team in London taking control? No, it needn’t. I think we need many centres of excellence, not just one, and I’m hoping that if we get devolved cities they might help lead the way.