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Ben Cheetham · local gov digital

A new Service Standard or reshaped institutions?

Phil Rumens recently wrote a post on whether the Service Standard works for local government. It makes some really good points on the challenges, but I’m not sure that a new, more inclusive standard is the answer.

At a high level, I don’t think anyone could really disagree with the intent of the 14 points of the Service Standard. Even if a council buys-in a solution to deliver a service I would still expect to see iteration and a multi-disciplinary team as part of that solution. Using and contributing to open standards, patterns and common components feels like it could form part of a good part of a social value offer. There are lots of suppliers that already use open standards or common components like the GOV.UK Design System so it would be nice to see them contribute rather than just use.

But is the Service Standard and its intent really embedded in council cultures and by suppliers? No. Which makes me think about the Local Digital Declaration. Launched in 2018, it set the “collective ambition for local public services in the internet age” with 5 principles to go further to transform local services.

The majority of councils in England have now signed up and all made commitments as part of that process. Now getting the majority of councils to agree and sign up to something is no mean feat, it should be applauded and is something I am very proud to have played a small part in. But I would be the first to admit there is still a long, long way to go to actually deliver that vision.

There has been change but, we still have:

  • the organisational and technological silos
  • the dependence on inflexible and expensive technology that doesn’t join up effectively
  • challenges sharing information to better support the most vulnerable members of our communities, and to target our resources more effectively
  • a desperate need to grow digital leadership
  • and lots to do around an open culture, sharing and reuse

But does that make it wrong? Should we change the Declaration? No, I don’t think so. I’m terrible at analogies, but I worry it’s just moving the goalposts to make it easier to score a goal, rather than making the actual changes needed.

We need to be bolder

Even after all these years, I think there is a lot to learn from this talk by Tom Loosemoore, one of the co-founders of the Government Digital Service.

I think we be need to be bolder and think about the more fundamental changes we should be making to local government.

There are hundreds of services listed in the Local Government Service List (part of the Local Government Business Model), some of which are effectively controlled or constrained by national policies or legislation, and only delivered or administered locally by councils. There is no local democratic control over those services, it just made sense for the service to be delivered locally when it was a paper-based process.

What if we were to redesign these services? Could we save hundreds of councils from digitising and re-digitising these processes, freeing up their transformation teams, and have the service delivered by the folk that actually own the policy? Would this make democratic accountability clearer? Would this enable policymakers to gain better insight into how their policy is working and have the service be more responsive as a result? I think it could.

It feels like there are similarities to banking - once upon a time to open a bank account or take out a loan, you had to physically visit your local bank, maybe even talk to the manager. Now you can open an account online or via an app in minutes - even with some ‘legacy’ high street banks. This shift has fundamentally changed the front-line operations of banks. There are fewer branches, but through the Post Office counters and Banking Hubs there is still access for those that need it.

And even Royal Mail is getting in on the action. I can now buy postage for a letter online and arrange for the Postie to not only collect the item on a particular day, but also bring the stamp!

What do you think? Are there services that local government could stop delivering? Would this start to free up councils to focus on the delivering the services they really need to?