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Report of the Digital Government Review

Appendix C – Local Government and Digital

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As with central government the old ways of building and buying ICT and digital services has dominated in local government for many years. Significant investment had occurred but spend has primarily been with large suppliers and on proprietary solutions; often on long contracts. Typically these solutions have been customized to particular local authorities needs and processes, decisions have been (and often still are) made by delivery verticals rather than by IT departments. Local authorities are frequently structured around these verticals, or silos as some would call them

A number of organisations whether membership-based, such as Socitm [190] and the LGA [191]; voluntary organisations, such as LocalGovDigital [192]; or loose coalitions of local authorities, for example Camden and Bristol with the Open Systems Alliance [193], have taken some steps into the leadership gap that has been left. Some local authorities have also been inspired by central government organisations, such as Government Digital Services (GDS), or by the digital changes they have seen occurring in the private sector.

Despite everyone’s best efforts we are in a situation with pockets of greatness but a vastly disparate set of solutions and services. Even where solutions are bought from the same suppliers, and some suppliers do dominate parts of the market [194], they are customized for each authority. This customization negates much of the advantages that should be obtainable by buying solutions from suppliers.

To some extent this is understandable, each local authority started at a different point and many were locked into long-term contracts, but the lack of consistent progress towards better and cheaper digital services is disappointing. It is the lack of progress that we can expect to result from an overarching policy direction that leaves each authority to their own devices.

Many local government practitioners will simply nod along with the above statements. Others will ask for evidence of the scale of the problem.

There are various existing pieces of research that highlight the scale of the problem:

  • Fewer than 10% of councils received 4 stars in Socitm’s Better Connected 2014 survey with only 31% passing standards for mobile access [195]
  • Socitm briefed out 23 case studies with potential for reuse in a report in December 2013, the councils involved have seen little takeup
  • No authorities have reused the GOV.UK publishing platform, local authorities are not benefitting from the community and government investment into what could be a reusable component
  • Few authorities have reused the Open311 component developed in the US [196], we are not benefitting from the community around that component

During the review we wanted to investigate the problem more deeply. So we sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to each local authority to determine the number and type of applications in use. The results were as feared:

  1. Several councils responded to the wrong email address but, luckily, to the right domain name. As we controlled that domain we could pick up the response but this speaks to an environment of manual processes and staff retyping email addresses rather than having an automated and common response handling system to handle inbound questions to the council
  2. 40% of authorities did not respond at all, maybe they mistyped our email address that badly that we never received it?
  3. One council had over 100 different web browsers installed on its computers. Some simple research confirmed that many of the older versions had security threats [197]
  4. Fourteen authorities said that the cost of responding to our request was too high. We would expect every authority to have an ICT asset register, it allows authorities both to look for security vulnerabilities and to check if all items that are being paid for are actually being used, this can be a simple source of savings
  5. Several authorities reported that they could not respond as elements of their ICT had been outsourced. Even with outsourcing local authorities should retain overall architectural control of their ICT assets and be able to respond to FOI requests like this. This is imperative to understand the threats to which they and their citizens are exposed
  6. One authority reported to us that it operated over 1300 websites, our checks reduced this to a small handful as this authority was reporting webpages/URLs as websites
  7. We explored linking the data to Spend Networks [198] open data on local ICT spend, this was an arduous task due to the lack of standardization and hence ability to link between the datasets. A shame as it may have yielded some interesting and empirical insights on the value for money of the approaches of different authorities

Finally, we come to the meat of our investigation. How many different applications are in existence in local authorities?

Local government and digital

It is worth highlighting the total number of estimated applications, 66,648 [199].

Now it is important not to take these figures at face value. We certainly don’t. The data is tricky to compare and some of these applications will be identical but the large variations in maximums and minimums tell the story. This is yet more confirmation that the vast majority of local authorities are running extremely different ICT architectures and solutions. There are few, if any, standards.

As explored elsewhere in the review this proliferation of architectures and applications coupled with the lack of standards inhibits collaboration and reuse and creates unnecessary costs.

[196] West Berkshire, Open311 creates open standards for handling inbound requests from people in a number of formats
[197] We would expect many other authorities to be in a similar position and would recommend a security review of IT asset registers for out-of-date desktop applications before a breach occurs.
[199] We removed some of the most outrageous high numbers (several councils reported figures in the 1000s) as, on detailed inspection, these turn out to be local authorities reporting small applications such as desktop drivers or applications to handle smartphones.

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