Monday 28 April 2014

NLGN report findings – GDS are wonderful and local government is useless

Like all award-winning internationally popular rock combos, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has a fanzine – in this case Digital by Default News – and they've just published a collector's edition article, Local government is being left behind by the digital revolution.

It's the usual riff. GDS are great. Everyone else is an idiot – the US government, the UK government and all big IT companies (the "oligarchy") except Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and, natch, Apple.

Lead singer, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken MBE, takes GDS on tour all over the world, insulting people and patronising them, while manager Francis "JFDI" Maude entertains flocks of adulatory fans back at the band's Aviation House studios in Holborn with the same everyone-else-is-an-idiot message.

It's hard to remember in all the excitement that GDS have only released one track so far – Student Finance exemplar #6 (catchy, or what?) – with the other 24 they've been rehearsing still in the edit suite.

Which brings us to the DbyDNews article putting the boot into UK local government (hopeless losers all, apparently). They're covering a report produced by the New Local Government Network (NLGN), whom younger readers may not recognise.

Seven years ago NLGN were a vibrant young radical enquiring underground indie think tank-cum-fan club bravely supporting whatever policy the New Labour government came up with, including ID cards, please see Local Identity – the role of local entitlement cards in public service delivery:
Successfully undertaking such a project, however, requires collaboration between local government departments. In many cases, this is curbed by concerns over information exchange under the Data Protection Act. This requires a more sophisticated and less risk-averse attitude towards information management. (p.4)
Judging by the DbyDNews article, over the past seven years NLGN have got a lot better at sneering at local government for spinelessly obeying the law. Here's what you'll read, with notes:
Local government’s digital development has stalled [has it? in what way? prove it.]. After a period of innovation, councils lack the skills [stupid], organisational culture [uncouth] and leadership [useless, sheep] to exploit the potential [if any] for digital transformation of its services.

Those are the conclusions of Smart people, smart places, a study by the New Local Government Network [who's that, never heard of them]. But the problems it describes run deeper than just digital [hard to believe]. It is a window on wider local government weaknesses [draw the curtains, please].

It describes a world in which digital development is still peripheral [omigod], with councils failing [you can say that again] to exploit the potential of digital to deliver integrated and personalised services, engage and empower citizens and create greener, more economically vibrant places [they've missed out "agile" and "trusted"].

Perhaps the most damning criticism is that councils are failing [they've said it again] to create a culture where staff and councillors feel trusted [bingo!] to innovate with technology and have the confidence to invest in it and use it [old-fashioned as well as weak and out of their depth].

These barriers to exploiting the potential [that's three times we've had "potential", and never once an explanation or example] of digital are undoubtedly exacerbated by the dearth of young councillors – being 40 is youthful in many authorities [antediluvian] – and the lack of movement of staff between the public and private sectors.

But, as the report points out, there are other external resources councils can call upon. In the spirit of social media, citizens can ‘co-produce’ [what's that? sounds fun. is it legal?] digital solutions tailored to the needs of local people. An increasing number of councils have hosted hack days [so they're not all useless?], when local people bring their own ingenuity [sadly lacking among council staff] to bear on council issues, using the local authority’s data sets. Camden council’s hack day to find ways to use space in the borough more effectively [example, please] and support welfare claimants to thrive [what does "support to thrive" mean?], is just one example [looks more like two examples].

There is also a lack of sector-wide leadership [we know, you've said that]. The report calls for a local government digital programme to attract graduate talent [uneducated as well as well as old, eh – thought so] and encourage collaboration [shouldn't that be "co-production"?].

The NLGN report points out that local government is, unforgivably [immoral as well as old and uneducated], falling behind Whitehall [that's bad]. The government’s single website has been a striking success [really? in what way?], greatly enhancing public access to government departments and services [name an access that has been greatly enhanced], while the Cabinet Office has been pursuing a vigorous strategy around digital procurement and skills [so vigorous that the OFT failed to mention it in their report on government IT procurement, according to ... DbyDNews].

It is ultimately attitude [slovenly, no doubt], not cost, which is holding back digital development in councils. Data from the Society of IT Management shows [warning – factoids coming up:] the average face to face contact in local government costs £8.62, compared with £2.83 for a phone call and just 15p for a web transaction [that proves something, probably]. Digital technology also offers substantial [how substantial?] efficiencies in time and money for services such as adult social care [15p is too much], with staff accessing and logging information on the move [the staff are meant to be providing social care, not logging and accessing information, or is that an old-fashioned way of thinking?]. Websites and apps do not have to be developed at great cost by blue-chip companies [no, anyone can do it]. Try going local.

This is dangerous [oooooh!] territory for councils. If digital does not become core to their work [the core of their work is meant to be the users, not technology – that's what GDS say. NLGN need re-educating already], they risk appearing increasingly irrelevant [only true if you first assume that IT makes you relevant, as well as green and vibrant] to the lives of a growing number of citizens. Local government needs to make a big cultural [you mean they have culture? all those old uneducated immoral local council people?] shift on digital.
You might think that writing this sort of stuff makes it hard to get on with local government, which must presumably be the point of the New Local Government Network.

Obviously it'll go down well with GDS who, like NLGN, think GDS are wonderful and who despise local government, see PSOTYE-GM Mike Bracken MBE's speech to the Code for America Summit 2013 starting about five minutes in.

But then GDS have their own problems co-operating with other branches of government. Sorry. Co-producing with other branches of government. Relations with DWP aren't warm. Nor with the Electoral Commission, for example.

Even a rock combo great like GDS needs to try to fit in with the rest of the industry a bit. Otherwise – no digital government. It's a funny way to go about winning people over. Start by accusing them of being ignorant and useless.

Let's see if GDS denounce NLGN's report.

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