Was the local digital declaration too ambitious?

There have been a few posts flying around the bits of the internet with an interest in digital and technology in local councils recently, reflecting on the local digital declaration, which is now 5 years old. Here’s one from the Local Digital team themselvesTass’ excellent post about Warwick, another from the nice folk in Stockport, and a good one from Gavin Beckett giving a supplier’s perspective.

Gavin’s is extra interesting because he was in the room when the declaration was being planned and written – as was I, although my involvement was significantly less than his. Despite that, I wholeheartedly agreed with the text and the ambition it articulated.

I felt it was necessary to put into words for the sector what we meant when we talk about digital, and to find a way for senior people in councils to understand their responsibilities in moving their organisations forward on this agenda. It was important to point out what good looks like, and to acknowledge some of the really tricky problems that needed ironing out before real progress could be made. I feel the declaration did that, and still does.

So, how’s it gone, really?

Loads of good stuff

Lots of projects have been funded. Discoveries have been completed, prototypes built. Perhaps most importantly, Councils have tried to collaborate to produced shared outcomes that many can benefit from.

We’ve got a really good content management system. It’s technically excellent, takes just the right kind of open source approach, and has taken the time to think about governance and sustainability. That is not to be sniffed at, and is a major achievement.

A commercial supplier has productised (can’t believe I just typed that as if it is an actual word) a product developed through one of the projects. I think this is ok – part of the ambition of the declaration was to disrupt the supplier market, and this is exactly an example of that.

The field worker mobile application developed in Birmingham is genuinely impressive and hopefully can be rolled out effectively in local councils.

There’s still loads of work happening in the digital planning space, which I will have to admit having almost total ignorance of. It feels like it still could be a thing – but it has definitely not broken out in the same way that LocalGovDrupal has, I don’t think.

All the other projects have also produced good outcomes: learning, research, developing capabilities, introducing new ways of working and culture to councils that otherwise might never have experienced it. That’s good, worthwhile and not to be sniffed at.

But…

…let’s have a quick look at the declaration, and what it says.

Can we really say that in more than a handful of councils “digital expertise is central to our decision-making”?

How many councils have “visible, accessible leaders throughout the organisation (publishing blogs, tweeting and actively participating in communities of practice), and support those who champion this Declaration to try new things and work in the open”?

How many local government digital services have been “informally tested by our peers against our national service standard where appropriate” in the last 5 years?

How many cases are there in which “[w]here appropriate, every new IT solution procured must operate according to the technology code of practice, putting us in control of our service data, using open standards where they exist and contributing to their creation where they don’t”?

That’s just a handful of the commitments that hundreds of councils have made. I would argue that none could honestly say they could tick every one off – or even come close.

I think that is completely understandable, and to think that it could happen in 5 years is unreasonable. However, I also think that the almost complete lack of progress on most of the basics highlights a massive problem.

The problem

The issue is that the declaration is not wrong. The things it asks for are exactly the things that councils ought to be doing. But it’s too ambitious. What it is asking for is probably too far along from where councils are at to enable them to even think about starting.

Why is that? The majority of local authorities are pretty small organisations, that in over a decade of austerity budgeting, have salami-sliced their way to making the figures balance in such a way that their digital and technology people are woefully understaffed, lack the capability and skills to do what needs to be done, and have allowed things to get into such a mess that it’s as much as they can do to put the fires out. And we think these people can just start delivering user -centred, agile, digital products, just like that?

There are councils that have put off doing major infrastructure work because of cost and time, which has left them in positions where they can’t upgrade a system because the server it runs on itself is in need of so many updates it’ll cost an arm and a leg and take a year to sort out.

There are some councils websites (and no, I am not talking about parishes) out there that are an absolute travesty. I’ve no interest and naming and shaming, because people are doing their best in probably really difficult circumstances. But of course you’re going to have a terrible website if you don’t even have a single person whose job it is to make it good. And that’s where a lot of councils are right now.

Why have you got Word documents – WORD DOCUMENTS!!!! – on council websites for people to download, fill in, print, sign and post to you to get something done in 2023? Probably because someone, somewhere, thinks it’s ok, and nobody has been able to convince them otherwise. Or maybe everyone knows it’s a problem, but nobody gets round to fixing it because, you know. Reasons.

And we genuinely thought that all the councils signing up to the declaration might really be able to meet the technology code of practice? Come on!

What has the declaration ever done for us?

I think the declaration has a done a really useful job. It has proved a number of things:

  • it is possible to make change happen in the sector, if the idea is good, you have agreement and alignment, and the people with the capability to drive it forward (Will Callaghan I am looking at you)
  • there is an appetite among a lot of people across the sector that things need to be better, and they have the energy and motivation to work together to make it happen
  • that a lot of councils have ambitions and desire to do good work in this space, and also that many do. But an awful lot of others aren’t able to meet their own aspirations, and a bunch of others maybe don’t care that much at all
  • The most important learning? That this is really, really hard.

I don’t think I can overstate the last point. I can totally understand why councils signed the local declaration in the hope of getting some funding money to help them out of some of the holes they found themselves in. I can totally understand why councils hoped that by piggy-backing onto some collaborative projects, they might have been able to get hold of a new bit of free tech that might make some part of their lives just a little bit easier, to take just one thing off that massive to-do list.

But if you’re in a tiny organisation that delivers so many different services with a tiny team of technologists to keep all that stuff running, you’re never ever going to have the breathing space to make the fundamental changes needed to be even competent in this space.

What, then?

We have an ambitious vision. We have proven that in the right circumstances, council collaboration can prove results.

We’ve also proven that many problems are just too intractable for this approach to fix them.

  1. We need to build more capacity and capability in the sector, which might mean structural changes – councils need bigger digital and technology teams than they currently have. If they can’t afford them, they need to design ways to share them. Shared services often suck so badly they are neither shared nor services – but this doesn’t have to be the case. There must be a way of doing it that meets organisation and user needs. More on this in a future rant, but we cannot keep expecting councils to adopt all these new ways of doing things when they don’t have the staff, the time, or the skills. It just isn’t fair.
  2. We need to work harder with people in leadership positions. Still far too many chief execs and directors think it’s acceptable or even funny to not be competent with technology. If you’re someone in one of those roles, and you’ve ever joked about it in front of your staff, book yourself on a course right now. If you pretend to understand it by learning a few stock phrases and when it is a good time to say them, find someone to talk to and ask questions. It’s impossible to fix this stuff without understanding at the top.
  3. We need to properly learn from those councils that do this stuff well. My current favourite is Tewkesbury – a tiny council of 225ish people who are doing great work. Is everything they do perfect? Absolutely not, but given their resources and capacity, there is a lot to learn from what they are doing. I am not sure we are currently telling these stories in a way that helps them to be replicated effectively.
  4. As well as the ambitious declaration, we need some steps to get there. Can we break down those ambitions into 5 different levels, and describe how they differ? Can we get across that councils should be banned from talking about AI or automation when they still have Word forms on their websites? Can we say that having a website that doesn’t meet basic accessibility requirement is simply unacceptable? Can we say that running Windows Server 2008 isn’t a great idea, and that councils should find a way to fix it?

Yes, councils should be creating digital services that are user-centered and help people achieve their outcomes. Yes, we need agile product teams. Yes, we all can and should be doing a hell of a lot more with data. Yes, all our infrastructure should be up to date, patched and secure.

But pointing this stuff out is one thing, doing it is another – particularly when you have no time, no people and no money. Let’s find creative ways to fix that, and that probably starts with getting some of the basics nailed.