Liam Maxwell has said that the Government Digital Service (GDS) does not have the power to direct local government, despite numerous recent calls for the unit’s remit to be expanded to help councils with their digital initiatives.

Maxwell, the government’s chief technology officer (CTO), said at the launch of the D5 digital nations in London this week: “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 and are responsible to their residents. We [GDS] do central government.”

A recent report commissioned by the Labour party said GDS’ responsibilities should be expanded to include local as well as central government. This is a recommendation echoed by the CBI, startup group Coadec and thinktank Policy Exchange.

Maxwell said GDS was very willing to help local government but added: “We do not have a monopoly of wisdom. We will not stand up and say: do that.”

Also speaking at the D5 event, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said local authorities are welcome to use any of the open source code made available by GDS on Github.

Meanwhile, government digital director Mike Bracken pointed to examples of NHS and local bodies using GDS assets, such as Solihull Council using the platform. He said: “When we build a platform, we make it for everybody.”

‘D5’ digital nations group launched

The discussion took place at this week’s launch summit for the ‘D5’, which represents five of the world’s most digitally advanced nations.

Representatives from governments in the UK, Israel, South Korea, Estonia and New Zealand gathered in London for the launch. The participants are “all at similar points” in digitising public services, according to Maxwell.

They agreed to work together on topics like digital communications and infrastructure, for example in the emergency sector, and identity for online services.

Potential £22 billion savings

In the UK, Maude says he hopes to halve the £9 billion spent per year on ICT contracts in Whitehall when agreements expire in the next parliament.

He said he thinks the government can save at least 50 percent – equivalent to £22 billion over the next five years - and have better services to show for it.

Maxwell said that the government needs contracts to finish before it moves to a ‘government as a platform’ model. This will allow the government to build common online platforms for services, such as booking appointments, once to be reused by departments.

He said: “It’s important to get into your head that these contracts are not a replacement. We will see savings of a different scale. And we will do more in-house. Previously we outsourced too much, in too big bundles, and we lost the ability to do our own integration.”

In addition, Maxwell questioned the wisdom of the ‘tower’ model of breaking ICT estates into chunks and outsourcing each one.

He said: “Buying in your IT department is not the way to go. You need to be in control of delivery and integration. SIAM [service integration and management] is no good if it is just making things slightly less awful.”

Image credit: Cabinet Office flickr


Find your next job with computerworld UK jobs