A small but significant announcement emerged from the budget yesterday: the Government Digital Service’s remit will expand to allow it to work with local government.

The debate over how to improve local digital services has been rumbling for years, with little consensus over how it can be done in practice and whether GDS should be involved.

The Labour party mooted the idea of GDS involvement in local government in its digital government review, published last November. However, the idea was attacked by local IT managers association Socitm, which said GDS's mandate of reforming central government services would “stifle local innovation and adaptability to local contexts”.

Questioned on the ensuing debate, two weeks later, government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell publicly backed the status quo saying: “The 440 local councils - and I come from a local council background myself - they are their own entities, they are their own organisations, they are elected by their residents…we do not have a monopoly of wisdom. We will not stand up and say: do that.”

But yesterday’s official budget document said: “The digital ambition will extend beyond central government and arms-length bodies, to consider local services”.

It added: “HM Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Government Digital Service will collaborate with partners in local government, as the sector develops a set of proposals that will enable more customer-focused, digitally-enabled and efficient local services in time to inform future budget allocations.”

Patchy details

The Cabinet Office declined to explain to ComputerworldUK the timetable for these proposals, their specific aims or even who will lead on drawing up and implementing targets and policies.

However the fact the budget document stated that the involvement of GDS in local government initiatives that will 'inform future budget allocations,’ raises the prospect of funding for fast track innovation of local government-led digital services and of penalties being imposed for the digital laggards.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which speaks for Britain's local authorities, was equivocal about the increased role of GDS. It welcomed the “wealth of knowledge and experience” central government can bring to local authorities, but warned against a top-down approach, arguing that councils should take the lead on delivering services.

“Councils are best placed to work with residents in shaping and designing digital solutions appropriate to local circumstances, so it is absolutely vital that we all work together and share our expertise and understanding of our customers”, Cllr Peter Fleming, chairman of the LGA's improvement and innovation board, said.

GDS will find examples of superb digital innovation and transformation in local government. For example, Camden Council has established a single view of individual citizens by matching data across 16 systems and Shopshire Council lets its residents get in touch via Whatsapp.

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead claims to have moved to an entirely cloud-based infrastructure, something GDS can only dream about for central government departments.

But GDS will also face the same variety in the quality of local digital services as it has found in central government. Socitm's annual ‘Better Connected’ survey, published on 2 March, for example, found 28 percent of local government websites were deemed to be ‘poor’ and just half were found to be ‘mobile friendly'.

If GDS does take a greater role in local authority digital services, it will certainly not be one-way traffic. Local authorities have invested in technology to deal with funding cuts of £10 billion since 2011/2012. They are half way through overall central government imposed 40 percent budget cuts.

In Whitehall, by contrast, budget cuts have been around nine percent, giving central government much more room to manoeuvre, which for some senior civil servants, makes digital transformation seem less urgent.

Georgina O’Toole, director at analyst house TechMarketView, thinks Whitehall has something to learn from cash-strapped local authorities. “Arguably local government has advanced further in its digital transformation and ‘channel shift’ agenda than Whitehall,” Georgina O’Toole, director at analyst house TechMarketView, said.

“Budget cuts have pushed them in that direction. But this may herald a more consistent approach with more common standards and sharing in order for even more cuts to be achievable,” she added.

A more consistent approach, with more common standards and sharing in local digital services is a prize worth grasping. The proposals, when they emerge, could help councils save money, improve their services to residents and reduce the ‘postcode’ lottery of local online services and they could help the integration of local and central government services - but the challenges are immense.

Image credit: ©Flickr/gdsteam