Jason Kitcat: the case for a Local Government Digital Service
The Brighton & Hove City Council leader says local service organisations should be pooling resources to develop common platforms
The call for a Local Government Digital Service has become louder with its inclusion in the preface Socitm's Better Connected 2015 report.
Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, has added some political weight to the cause along with his long term experience as a digital specialist, which has included roles in Netmums, the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Rights Group, as well being co-founder of agency Swing Digital.
His words in the report preface echo its position that councils are moving too slowly in improving their websites.
"There is some fabulous work out there, there are some brilliant apps, websites and more as evidence by this report," he writes. "But it's not enough. If we continue at this pace of change, then the transformation will only be ready long after our sector is dead and buried."
His solution is for a collective approach to digital transformation, which "prevents reinvention of the wheel" and "provides collective leadership".
Speaking to UKAuthority, Kitcat says the service could sit within one of a number of organisations, including the public sector IT organisation Socitm, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives or the Local Government Association. But this is secondary to the general idea of the sector working together - and he includes other place based organisations such as fire services and ambulance trusts - bringing together ideas and best practice rather than developing multiple solutions to common problems.
"The priority is to focus on what we know already and the best of what we've got, and work out how we push forward in encouraging its use by other councils," he says, citing an example of developing an online benefits checker. "By having a central place with support from the sector and ministers it would give such solutions credibility.
"Currently there are regional and ad hoc groups doing some work like this, but they're not extending across the country."
He places an emphasis on the potential for common platforms, reflecting the priorities of the Government Digital Service's initiatives for central government, and says a national organisation with sufficient members and ministerial support from the Cabinet Office and Department for Communities and Local Government would provide the credibility to make them stick. But he says it needs more flexibility for local authorities than the GDS has applied to central government.
"For example, if you tried imposing a single website platform it would not work and it would get backs up.
"We need to get the balance right. We don't want uniformity but we don't want a lot of different approaches to common issues."
Need for talent
There is also a difference with the GDS in that it has had the resources to hire some serious talent to work on its programmes, while local authorities, and even small groupings of councils, cannot afford the wage bills. Kitcat says this is where a national organisation, pooling resources from its members, could bring in skills at the same level, and that it would not require a massive investment to get started.
"You could get started on about £500,000," he says. "It would only need four or five people to get off the ground, and you would see some results quite quickly, maybe in six to nine months, as there is already a lot of good stuff happening."
The crucial step, he says, is to get support from senior officers and political leaderships in local authorities. This can provide the first injection of resources, and give the body the credibility it needs for councils to follow its lead.
Expressing the view from his position as a council leader is a step towards this. Now it is likely to need support from the larger organisations in local government, and the promise of a first injection of funds, to make a Local GDS more than just an idea.