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Think tank recommends '.gov.uk' equivalent for local government in move towards shared digital services

Out-Law News | 04 Jun 2014 | 5:23 pm | 4 min. read

A new body should be created to help local government bodies provide digital services and a central website for local authorities should be set up, a UK think tank has said.

In its new 'technology manifesto' (32-page / 212KB PDF), Policy Exchange recommended that local government equivalents of the Government Digital Service (GDS)  and the '.gov.uk' website be set up to help smooth the transition towards more digital services, cut costs and deliver a consistent user experience for the public at the local delivery level.

The GDS is part of the Cabinet Office and is responsible for moving government services from paper to digital platforms. It is also responsible for maintaining the '.gov.uk' website and improving the way the government procures IT.

"Local government must not be left out of the digital revolution," the report said. "Local authorities face similar budgetary pressures and deliver some of the most frequently used citizen-facing transactions. Though they must be free to determine their own course, local authorities will fail to achieve the benefits of digital government if they try to undergo the transformation completely independently of one other. A local GDS hub should be established to help them apply platform technologies, converge on open standards and replace more than 400 local authority websites with a single domain, in the style of gov.uk."

In terms of digitalisation at central government level, Policy Exchange also said that efforts must be made to cut down on the number of bespoke IT products being bought and used by government departments. Equally it warned against the GDS becoming the back up for developing bespoke IT solutions for departments to replace those bought from external suppliers.

"The primary goal for the next parliament should be to phase out the hundreds of bespoke pieces of hardware, software and processes used across the public sector and replace them with simple, standardised and interoperable building blocks that can be locally assembled and used repeatedly," it said.

IT contracts expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "Developing a shared services model for local government is in line with the Cabinet Office's drive to pull together back office functions of the different central government departments. Shared services are not always the answer where IT needs of different bodies are markedly different, however. Policy Exchange has therefore rightly identified, much like the Cabinet Office before it, the importance of different IT systems to be able to 'talk' to one another where shared services are not the right solution. Who can argue with the view that development and use of common, open standards is the best way of achieving that."

Colvin said that one of the challenges for any shared services agreement is obtaining the necessary 'buy in' from the partnering authorities. While the Cabinet Office has been able to take a lead in driving and coordinating the pooling of expertise and buying power in the procurement of back office services within central government, local authorities have not, in the main, benefitted from the same level of cohesion, he said.

"It has been left to individual authorities to weigh up whether the risk of loss of autonomy that can occur from sharing services with others is worth accepting so as to realise the operational and financial benefits of joining up with others," he said. "The increasing or continued budgetary tensions that authorities are under are likely to give the business case for shared service arrangements greater credence and deliver the 'buy in' necessary to encourage take up of shared services deals."

Policy Exchange also highlighted the potential of public sector use of 'big data'. However, it said that the government has "barely scratched the surface" of the possibilities of 'big data'. The public sector could save between £16 billion and £33bn by using the vast swathes of data held by public sector organisations better to achieve "cutting-edge performance", it said.

The think tank recommended that a dedicated data analytics team be established within government to help departments identify better ways of using data. It also said that an independent data ethics committee should also be set up to provide guidance on data use and win the public's trust on issues of privacy.

Among the other recommendations made in its report was for the government to conduct annual reviews to ensure that the legal and regulatory environment surrounding intellectual property (IP) keeps "pace with technological change".

"Advances in technology lead to new models for creating and sharing content, such as the emergence of the second-hand digital goods market, digital inheritance and 3D printing, which challenge existing legal frameworks surrounding IP," the report said. "As the technology sector makes increasing use of patents, the UK must remain vigilant in protecting against patent thickets and patent trolls, undertaking annual reviews of their prevalence and effects as our IP market becomes more technologically rich."

Policy Exchange also called on the government to produce an assessment of how new technology is expected to impact on each sector of the UK's economy by 2025. It said the research could help ensure that new legislation, such as proposed reforms to EU data protection laws, do not act as a barrier to innovation. The impact assessment could also help the education sector address potential skills gaps and "enable targeting of investment in technologies that produce the most economic benefit".

"Many of the recommendations Policy Exchange have made are eminently sensible in the drive to push forward the digital agenda, but there remains the question as to whether the government has the necessary capability to deliver so many ambitious initiatives in the short to medium term," Colvin said. "Delivering on all the objectives would constitute a seismic change across government."

"The challenge is in prioritising activities whilst the sands are continually shifting politically, technologically and operationally. Identifying how to coordinate the different key projects, for example  identifying better uses for data at the same time as merging back office functions, will be key to the overall success of the recommendations," he said.