What Stops Every Local Authority Becoming its own Amazon

The last holdouts to big tech-powered local government transformation may need to fasten their safety belts.

UK local government represents a £2.5 billion annual market, shared between its 350-plus constituents. But that’s spend that, so far at least, is barely going into the government’s Digital Marketplace (though councils are said to be buying a lot of IT that’s cloud-delivered through other Commercial Vehicles and buying Frameworks, of course).

So how realistic is it really to see cloud as that big a deal – or any realistic candidate as a driver for wholesale business process change?

Commentators agree there are some challenges here – but that there’s also enormous promise, with big prizes possible here: in the words of Nick Howes, Sales and Marketing Director at public cloud software firm Arcus Global , no less a prize than so redesigning your processes as to become “a kind of Amazon of local government service delivery”.

Procrastination is a real issue

Perhaps less grand a definition of G-Cloud success, but still just as compelling, is the route of travel laid out by Will Laing, Senior Relationship Manager – Local Government, Crown Commercial Service, who sees the task ahead as:

"Local Authorities know they can use things like cloud to design services that will be better, smarter, and if possible at lower cost for the citizen."

Sounds ideal… But yes, obstacles are there, and they are non-trivial ones. As Jos Creese, a past local government CIO himself who is now Associate Director of local government ICT leaders’ organisation Socitm, says:

"Becoming digital by default in local government is the right thing to do but difficult to make happen. Procrastination is a genuine issue out there right now; there’s a lot of fear, masked by this umbrella term of ‘security.’ That actually is a catch-all to cover a very wide range of fears and reluctance, from not wanting to lose control to genuine lack of clarity about data location, as well as what data really can be safely put online."

"I also see a lot of effort going into the transactional side of things, but really what’s needed is emphasis on the relationship side – about sharing information across boundaries about service users, that cloud work should be directed at, too."

But who’s the drag on the wheel here: the scaredy-cat CIO, the Council officer class or the local politicians? Practitioners don’t think it’s the latter, but rather the former, says Creese:

"Politicians like the idea of a bright shiny thing they can hang their reputations off. Local government CIOs are more worried about a huge cock-up as a result of a big move to cloud that goes wrong, or some embarrassment off any serious embrace of social media."

Well, they may just need to cowboy up here, says central government’s Laing:

"The English devolution agenda is going to be the game-changer, I think. There just has to be much greater integration across public services, with Manchester  around health and social care, elsewhere around closer links between local government bodies and the emergency services."

That means the landscape will look a lot different in just ten years. That can only happen through technology, changing not just delivery but the way the back office is constituted, too.

My Take

So what needs to happen is that silo-ed data, teams reinventing wheels all over the place, relationships with vendors selling the same software to multiple customers with minutely bespoke contract changes and differential charges – all the variety and wonder of today’s British public sector – has to change? That’s going to have to be a yes, I’m afraid.

But it may not be so difficult as you think. Mechanisms like the Digital Marketplace and GDS have started the change process from the centre, as have various alliances and the support of bodies like Creese’s Socitm and Solace.

To quote Laing, the future can’t be any more confusing than the past, after all:

"No one wants one Stalinist central Revs and Bens system that all councils have to use. But the level of diversity we have at the moment is just not helpful."

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