I’ve read some really great posts on all angles of the Local GDS idea in recent weeks from a lot of people I respect.
Ben Welby made a number of cogent arguments in favour.
Phil Rumens suggested why he thought it shouldn’t happen.
Eddie Copeland of Policy Exchange has argued strongly for it to happen – and I find much of merit in his riff about open standards being a critical enabler of change.
Sarah Prag added a particularly interesting flavour to the discussion, really focusing on exploring aspects of the problem rather than jumping to the solution
Rob Miller expresses many opinions I share in his post pointing to the potential stifling of smaller local providers if we take a monolithic approach.
And many people track the whole discussion back to a post by Rich Copley – itself inspired by Dominic Campbell’s tweet in December 2013.
(Anyone I’ve missed out – sorry!)
Some of these posts explicitly mention the way that a number of local government system suppliers are making a nice income from selling the same products to 300+ local authorities in England, and ponder on how much money could be saved by renegotiating large volume contracts with a single Local GDS, removing lots of software support and infrastructure duplication at the same time. They also talk about having one CMS and one set of integration and related back end services.
For many of us who work in local government, in IT or more latterly digital teams, it’s easy to pile up stories of the difficulties we’ve had trying to work with certain suppliers, and the tired legacy systems they provide – many of which were written in the 1980s and have never been overhauled. Boston Consulting Group would be pointing out “cash cows” all over the place in the council applications landscape! Whilst I could try for a bit of fairness, there are indeed many instances of products that simply aren’t fit for purpose for the world of digital services and user needs driven service design.
But, and it’s a big but, the market is changing. There are lots of new entrants, many of them SMEs, many working with a wide variety of open source and open standards based products and services. But they aren’t all using the same products – there are multiple CMS, portal, integration, EDRM, and related systems, running on several different infrastructure stacks.
So even if we think that the local government line of business apps market deserves to be shaken up and the companies in it should lose business, revenue and some should probably go out of business (just a thought experiment here people, stay with me…) do we really think the same about all these keen new entrants? When we decide on the one CMS product for the Local GDS to use, and the single integration platform, and the chosen EDRM, are we all clear and happy that every supplier who doesn’t support those products is barred from competing for the work that Local GDS has to offer – and will have to weather the financial consequences.
What about the fact that depending on the products that get chosen, some parts of the country will be winners and some losers – for instance there happen to be lots of PHP coding companies in Bristol, so adopting Drupal as the platform for Local GDS would be great for them. But all the Umbraco developers in a.n.other council’s geographical area would lose out unless they switched platform.
Of course if we ensure that the products support major open standards, and if they are also open source, then lots of companies can provide services to Local GDS, but that doesn’t minimise the initial impact on many companies that are not trying to exploit councils, simply providing an honest service for the needs we present.
How would all this stack up in terms of open competition and trade law? Does anyone know? I certainly don’t, but I suspect one or two businesses would be consulting legal experts and mounting sustained campaigns to pull the rug out from under Local GDS and its supporters. Just look at what happened to Massachusetts back in 2006 when it tried to adopt a fully open standards approach to their enterprise IT architecture, or indeed what happened to GDS and the Cabinet Office in the recent history of open standards adoption in the UK.
So I think there are many commercial difficulties with our ability to implement a Local GDS that had a major infrastructure element to it’s role. That’s not saying it shouldn’t happen – I’m still not decided which side of the fence to jump off myself 🙂
The other angle to this of course is that every council that has invested in this variety of systems and suppliers has a large amount of sunk cost in their current technologies – which of us is ready to simply write that off and walk away? Most councils would want to ensure there was an appropriate return on investment in their assets and therefore would want to look at a phased migration to any new centralised platform.
And another thing – Phil Rumens has argued passionately about the local democratic aspect of councils as a barrier to adopting a Local GDS. It’s not just about ward members representing localities – Chief Execs and Mayors/Leaders have great ambition for their areas, and often want to ensure that economic success and the distinctive local character of an area are sustained by the way we spend our technology budgets. I suspect that no matter how economically rational it is at the whole system level, every council leader that sees their region losing out to wherever the Local GDS is based would resist and argue against it.
BUT – and I think it’s a big but – none of that complexity should take away from one critical point in all of this. As a sector we have to bite the bullet and whole heartedly commit to an open standards based approach – seeing that through in the face of all the challenges and complications that are involved. Insisting that all of our systems can exchange data openly and that standard schemas and protocols are being used, begins to tackle the ability of councils to migrate towards flexible, agile solutions that meet user needs, and opens the door for considering collaboration and co-ordination across the sector.
Standards bodies have a part to play in this, but it’s really important that people in the sector stand up and get deeply involved – so it’s brilliant to see @localgovdigital people like Dan Blundell @danblundell and Ben Cheetham @_BforBen working with folks from GDS to find ways to share assets and form a community around practical implementation of common open standards.