What would radical local digital delivery look like?

We’ve been delighted with the feedback on the Radical How. Lots of people have said nice things. But it has also been helpful in pointing out things that we missed - and in particular, a view on local government.

When we wrote the Radical How, we drew heavily on the experiences that we have had in or near Whitehall, working at the centre of government. But ‘government’ is obviously much broader than that. Many public services - including several that are many citizens’ most frequent interactions with the state - are the responsibility of local and devolved governments.

The challenging circumstances in local government in recent years are well documented. Many local authorities have already declared effective bankruptcy, more are expected. A lot of those financial pressures are born of political decisions, but pretty often, there’s also a major programme failure - often with an IT flavour - lurking in the background too. 

The disastrous implementation of an Oracle IT system in Birmingham City Council led to an overspend of £91 million, plus lost efficiency savings of a further £69 million. There are plenty of similar stories out there, and doubtless more bubbling away in risk registers across the land. Equally - much like central government - there are examples where new ways of working are being successfully applied at a local level, but these are the exception rather than the norm, and often especially hard to do when services are overwhelmed.

The Radical How report did not go into much detail about local government, but we think there’s a good chance many of the changes that we described still resonate. But that doesn’t mean the way to bring them about is the same as what’s needed in Whitehall. What needs to change to make local government organisations capable of applying test-and-learn, outcome-focused, multidisciplinary approaches at scale?

Just as important is clarifying the role local government could play in delivering national-scale missions, and what needs to happen to unlock that. It would be a huge missed opportunity to limit agency to central government staff and not empower the whole public sector workforce. But how to effectively coordinate efforts across a highly fragmented landscape is not an easy question to answer. We have opinions, but know enough to be dangerous.

So we’re really pleased that the Future Governance Forum is kicking off a piece of work to start answering these questions, convening thinking from local digital practitioners who have seen what works, and what gets in the way. Building on the Radical How, this will look at what a new local settlement for digital might look like, and what practical steps would be needed to get there. Public Digital will support the project team, with Cate and Philippa adding their experience to the voices of others who have also spent years at the sharp end. We’re excited to be a part of what comes next.

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