Is LocalGov GDS a contradiction in terms?

 

Over The last few months I’ve been involved with attempts to bring into being a local government response to the central Government GDS initiative (see www.gov.uk). This has been variously termed Local GDS, GDS for Local Government or as we have termed it LocalGov Digital. There have been a few meetings and the LGA in the form of the Digital team here have been facilitating these by offering secretariat support a Knowledge Hub group.

There are many, many issues involved and the differences between a central Government initiative like GDS and a local government one are myriad. Perplexingly so. Not the least of these is localism and devolvement. In fact to my eyes this is the key underlying one because it changes the character of every single issue to be tackled.

Standardisation in this context is a perennial problem for local government. In my time I’ve seen it scupper many a well-intentioned initiative. Local government as a sector is rightfully, fiercely defensive of its independence. Regardless of your standpoint on it, this is a fact of life.

When done well standards are agreed and enforced. Those using them see the benefits of using them or the dis-benefits of not. They need a narrow frame of reference, apply to specifics and are most applicable in technical contexts in my experience. A difficult thing to do in an independent heterogeneous community with lots of localised autonomy, like local government, without seeming didactic or hegemonic.

I’ve seen standardisation done badly before in the context of ‘soft’ organisational development. Often this takes the form of reverse engineering the idealised organisation i.e. taking a ‘nirvana’ state, tracing it backwards and placing more or less evenly spaced but essentially arbitrary points on the path back to a zero point and calling them standards of achievement. The two examples that spring to mind are Knowledge Management in organisational development and equality and diversity work in local authorities.

About 10 years ago I was closely involved in work on what was then called the Equality Standard for local government (ESLG). ‘Closely’ means I was on the team and developed an online data collection and management tool for the work not involved in the work to build the ESLG itself.

It was a big step forward at the time but the ESLG gradually came in for more and more criticism. It was felt that it was too rigid and fell foul of the performance management zeitgeist with its tendency to emphasise certain elements and distort resourcing accordingly. Commonly known as ‘box ticking’.

It was difficult to know how to deal with this as the model just didn’t have the necessary flexibility to overcome what was an inherent flaw. In 2007 Angela Mason CBE joined the team at the then IDeA and began work on a review of the ESLG. The genius of her thinking was in introducing a flexible solution that allowed each organisation to apply the work to their context and come up with different but consistent solutions which were appropriate to their organisations and its priorities. This was the Equality Framework for local government (EFLG). The change in structure from the ESLG meant that the limiting rigidity was over come through providing direction and structure on high level outcomes while demanding that context is established objectively through research. In the space between these two parameters, organisations could set their own agendas and work programmes establishing contextually appropriate solutions and ownership of the work.

Every organisations’ set of solutions could be different and locally appropriate while remaining consistent nationally. It was the most inspiring piece of work I’ve had the privilege to be part of in my career. When I say ‘part of’ I mean I did my usual trick of developing a tool to facilitate it. All the hard work and creative thinking/problem solving was done by Angela and the crack team she assembled.

It occurs to me that there is much to be learned here for the LocalGov Digital crew. It addresses many of the same issues we face. It takes a multi-dimensional approach but reduces complexity at every turn. It allows for appropriately local solutions while providing a clear sense of direction nationally. It allows a clear agenda to be set with each finding their own way. The genius is in the structure and its configuration.

Clearly this is not the GDS way. But do we really want the GDS way? Don’t we really want the LocalGov Digital Framework? It would be uniquely ours and not a LocalGov GDS. Forgive my presumption but I don’t think we really what that, right?

Isn’t it annoying when an opinion piece ends with heaps of questions?

Sorry about that.

Mike

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