UK government outlines "one digital platform" vision for local councils

Ed Vaizey suggests one digital platform to rule them all in local government

Government

Local councils struggling to create digital public services could be helped by sharing a single digital platform, according to Conservative digital economy minister Ed Vaizey.

There has been hot debate over whether or not the Government Digital Service (GDS - Whitehall's coding arm) can play a role in helping local government go digital, but Vaizey - speaking at a political debate hosted by trade body TechUK this week - expressed hope that it could happen following the development of the recently announced Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) initiative.

He said: "The GDS does have an ambition to work with local government. You can't wish this stuff overnight, in many ways it's tedious, walking through treacle to try and get to this stage.

"Obviously there's an ambition potentially to have local government on one platform, because it's all about how you transact with government and how we transact on the web." 

He pointed to GaaP as a way the GDS could help local authorities, where Whitehall-centric initiatives like Gov.uk have seen more than 300 government agencies ditch their websites in favour of a central government domain.

Others, like the Digital Marketplace, have provided public sector departments with a platform through which to procure cloud services.

However, Vaizey acknowledged the slow progress made by Whitehall to help councils, adding: "It takes time and  making that transition is complex."

Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister, Chi Onwurah,  went even further at the General Election Question Time: The Big Digital Debate event and suggested central and local government share one platform with third-parties.

She said: "What I want to see is [us] develop off a platform or platforms that local, national, and also third-party providers can share to enable co-operation and collaboration in the delivery of services which makes it best for the citizen as well as saving money."

Ministers at the event appeared to be focused on bringing the concept of GaaP, unveiled by the Cabinet Office last week at its Sprint15 conference, to local government.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude revealed the GDS will initially focus on building an Amazon-like payments platform that could be extended to local government, though analysts said it would clash with councils' existing payment systems.

Despite this, Onwurah suggested that were GDS to work with local government, it should focus on transforming major local services like social care.

She said: "[It's] about social care, it's about benefits, it's about housing, it's about looked after children, for example. There are really important services out there that remain to be addressed and that can only be done with local government."

Socitm, a representative body for council CIOs, told IT Pro it supported this view.

Policy and research director Martin Ferguson said: "For local public services, the big prize is not in transactional services (which comprise a relatively small proportion of spend), but in the more complex service areas like social care, as pointed out by Chi."

However, he said Whitehall cannot lead the process, but must work with local government to achieve such changes.

"This cannot be mandated top-down'." he said. "Rather, it need to be incentivised and facilitated by the availability of common platforms that can be tied into local solutions.

"These need to be based on a common understanding of outcomes and essential processes." 

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