Citizens are in the main reasonably forgiving. They understand that local government is under pressure. However, following a flurry of promises during election time, they want to be rewarded for their vote – and their taxes – with a public sector that is efficient and fit for purpose.
With this in mind, there is a heavy weight of expectation about how digital services can transform local government and service delivery. However, there is much work to be done. In England alone there are over 200 local government authorities. Despite each and every single one delivering almost identical services, from house and education to refuse, and each tackling some of the biggest transformation challenges ever seen. Each and every single organisation has a different set up.
If it’s not collaborating and working effectively together, how can local government possibly hope to tackle challenges such as bed blocking? Align resources for the Social Care Act? Or even at a more fundamental level create a culture of self-service within their organisation?
The simple answer is that they can’t. Why? Well, a large part of the reason about why they find themselves in this situation comes down to technology. More specifically the fact that open source has yet to be fully embraced by local government. It sits on the periphery; talked about but never quite invited to join in. This seems odd to me.
Open source has the potential to address many of the challenges facing local government organisations. They need to save costs, but not sacrifice quality. Essentially they must do more with less. The only way to do this is through increased collaboration.
Working together would bring cost savings to local government because it drives innovative and creative thinking, with the added benefit of cost savings. The direct.gov website is the perfect example of this. Built on open source architecture using open standards, the research, knowledge, processes and frameworks that went into creating the site are now available to all departments. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, which has the further benefit of rapid deployment times. This is yet another benefit of open source, the ability to not only share best practice but, most importantly, the knowledge around best practices.
The latter point is vital as in the past many local councils or NHS Trusts have outsourced these skills to third parties. As a result they’ve lost valuable skills from their in-house teams as well as lost control over how their money is being spent. Instead of an ‘open’ architecture, where the focus is on the service and if you don’t like it you can take your data elsewhere with ease, councils have found themselves locked into proprietary systems that they have to ‘make do with’ and stifles fresh thinking because the technology has become a barrier.
Simply getting by isn’t sustainable and doesn’t guarantee quality of citizen services. If the last five years have taught local government organisations anything it is that an agile and collaborative approach to technology, working in tandem with other organisations that have the same goals, is the future.
When advocates of open source first painted a vision of how it could transform service delivery within the public sector they were called mavericks. It is my belief that open source should be mandated. Does that make me a maverick too? Quite possibly. But if it is to remain fit for purpose in the face of a multitude of challenges, local government needs nonconformist and unconventional thinking. And I would argue that is no bad thing.
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