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£7.6m for Local Digital GDS – What would you do?

September 15, 2014

If you had £7.6m to spend on Local Digital, how would you spend it?

Martha Lane Fox’s vision for digital was about “how efficiencies can best be realised through the online delivery of public services”.

That’s a vision for all public services – not just for central government services. Its a vision that includes Local Authorities and local third sector organisations. It was this vision that resulted in the creation of GDS, the Government Digital Service.

Today however, GDS spends virtually all its energies and budget on Central Government. There are a few exceptions. I have been fortunate enough to work with GDS on a local digital project – but it has to be fitted in around the central government work that is GDS’s focus.

A huge amount of talent, energy and budget is invested in GDS – and it simply does not reach local public services in any significant way.  That’s not because GDS is not interested in Local – it clearly is. It’s more because Local is really hard to engage with in a cohesive way. More of that below, but first some figures and evidence based financial logic:

  1. GDS has a budget of £58.3m for 2014/15, employing 635 staff (“425 civil servants and 210 interim staff”)
  2. GDS mostly works on central government projects
  3. “Local” makes up 13% of Public Sector expenditure (£98bn out of £732bn) – although some estimate it to be 23%.
  4. 13% of £58.3m is £7.6m. And 13% of 635 is 82.
  5. THEREFORE: Local GDS should have a budget of £7.6m and a staff of 82 people.


I feel like an adolescent raging that “its not fair”! But quite frankly, it is not fair. Even if you accept that half of what GDS produces can be used across all sectors, there still should be 40 people working for Local GDS. How could this have happened, that central government digital has become so well invested in, whereas local government has not?

Its not because Local is already fixed and there is nothing to further to do with digital. That’s not it.

Its not because Local Authorities don’t need help because they can spend their own budgets on Digital. They can, but then so can Central Government departments.

And its not because there is no requirement for shared digital assets for local public service. I can think of many.

I think its more because of the way in which local and central government is organised – this makes it hard for GDS to reach local. Hard, but not impossible. And anything created by people can be changed by people.

The enthusiastic volunteers at Local Gov Digital and Digital Makers are busy creating digital assets that can be used by many authorities. How much more productive they would be if they just had a couple of staff to develop their ideas. That would still leave 80 people.

Another crowd of local authority enthusiast volunteers, loosley associated with SOCITM, are working with GDS on a local government digital performance platform.  Performance Dashboards are at the top of the GDS business plan priority list. Our local variants been slow going, because GDS is focussed on the central government exemplars and central government dashboards. We are not going to transform government with two dashboards in 6 months. How much faster and better we would have been if we had just two people to develop and co-ordinate this. That would still leave 78 people.

The problem with Local fixing its own problems with volunteers, is that the authorities paying the salaries for specific local outcomes, require their people to work for them. I know too many situations where well intentioned and energised initiatives have withered on the vine because it is distracting from the “day job”.

I don’t think Local GDS needs anywhere near £7.6m and 82 people. But I do think it needs some central capacity.  And I’m convinced that the culture, methods and passion of GDS make it the right place to host Local GDS. It does not have to be in London but, for the sake of the users, it does have to be joined up thinking.

I can think of hundreds of things a Local GDS might produce. There’s a debate coming up at which I have been invited to speak and I’ll share more of those there and on this blog.

There has been some discussion about a single web site for all local authorities. I strongly believe that there is a requirement for Local GDS, but I don’t believe one monster local government website would improve user experience or drive down costs. Local Authorities are politically and financially autonomous – the governance alone for a single web site across all of them would almost certainly make user experience and cost effectiveness worse.

Also, most of the costs of digital are not in the front end of a web site. The costs are in the digital business processes; how the website transfers information to and from the “back office” systems. I know there is a lot that a Local GDS could do to standardise this and drive out costs from suppliers.

So a single web site for Local is not the solution. But imagine a Local GDS that produces open source code that each authority can freely implement; and then switch off expensive commercial software, while delivering better digital services for their local customers. It would be irresponsible not to do that.

So, if you are passionate about Digital in Local, claim your Local GDS investment.

–  Do you think it’s unfair that Central Digital has all the GDS money?

–  What would you do with £7.6m and 82 staff for local digital?


  1. Great stuff Steve. If we spent £7.6m on a Local GDS we would be able to make savings across Local Gov in the tens/hundreds of millions (every year). It’s a pretty simple invest to save business case:

    Will SOCITM write to Cabinet Office and formally request that LGDS is created?


    • Richard,

      I think it would be a fine thing if SOCITM, LocalGovDigital and others jointly wrote to Cabinet Office to formally request that LGDS is created.
      Perhaps after the September debate? It would be great if you can make it.

      • Excellent. Who would be the signatories to that Steve? One organisation needs to co-ordinate this – will SOCITM pick that up?

        Can’t make the debate in London unfortunately – hoping for an up-north version. Having said that – if we send the letter mentioned above then I think the debate is over?

      • I’d be happy to co-ordinate via Socitm. Could other organisations contact me if they would like to be included, please. I think the debate might be a good opportunity to formalise and shape this further though.

      • Sarah Lay posted something on this subject that might interest you:

  2. An interesting take on the LocalGDS debate. In the briefing I read, the role of SocITM GDS seemed to be advise, not make stuff. Do we really need 82 advisors in central government telling local government what to do?

    It’s worth pointing out that Makers Project Teams would be part of the “day job” rather than in addition and collaborative working would be part of new projects. This means that the number of potential staff in a LocalGDS far exceeds 82 without any additional spending.

    It’s a shame you couldn’t come to this last week: There was lots of positive intent and a real feeling that this could be the model for part of a LocalGDS.

    Whether that translates into a real change in working practices only time will tell though and it’s important that people such as yourselves and Richard (and everyone else who participates in the debate) keep exploring different models as only then will we get the best solution.

    • No Phil, I specifically say we need nowhere near 82 people. But that sort of number is the logical extension of the facts and figures.

      And no they would not all be advisors, they would be mostly makers, in my view. But with decision making in Local Government working in the autonomous way we know and love – there needs also to be people offering strategic advice and “selling” the LGDS outputs.

      Looks like lots of great ideas at the event last week. Sorry I could not make it, but keep me posted for future ones.

      • No problem. We’ll be releasing details of the three Makers pilots in the next couple of weeks. It would be great to get you involved in them too.

        Hopefully they’ll lay the foundations for the Makers Project Teams part of LocalGDS.

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  1. Should we have a Local GDS? | Sarah Lay

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