Saturday, 14 February 2015

Local government should... (Part One)

I've seen a lot written recently about what local government should do in terms of digital services, so I thought I'd write a quick guide to this bit of the public sector, for those who might not be so familiar with it.

Local government isn't one government like central government, but a collection of Counties, Districts, Boroughs, Unitary, Town, Parish and a few other Councils. There's around 9,000 of these. Many members of these councils have affiliation to a political party, but some don't. When people say "local government" however, they're usually referring to the 433 Tier One and Tier Two councils though, so for the rest of this article that's what I'll mean, when I refer to local government or councils.

Each council is split into departments or service units. Depending on the size of the organisation there could be quite a few of these, but I'm going to guestimate on average there's 15. They're sometimes referred to authorities in their own right, so for example a local planning authority, local education authority and so on. So when if one makes a broad statement saying "local government should do this", they're really saying "6,500 local government departments do this".

There is no one organisation that represents councils. There are in fact hundreds, from the Local Government Association right though to more niche organisations such as Directors of Adult Social Care. There's also unions, such as Unison and the GMB that represent staff.

Whilst central government deals with a few high volume services, local government offers many often low volume services. The Local Government Services List is a good indicator of them and there 942 on this list, though not all councils offer all these services because its not in their remit to do so and many offer additional services bespoke to local user need. If the Government Digital Service were to create exemplar services out of these it would take 75 years at their current rate, assuming they finish their current 25 by the end of next month.

Politicians lead councils, officers carry out the decisions of councillors. Officers are also there to advise councillors. Local politicians tend to be more hands on than Members of Parliament, some taking an interest in general or specific operation matters. This gives "user need" an added political dimension at local level.

Like Members of Parliament, some politicians won't support the views of others, usually because they're from a different political party. Because politicians run councils this means that some councils won't work with others at a strategic level and they may choose to ignore or work against central government too, particularly if central government is a different party to the ruling party of the council.

So next time you say "local government should...", bear in mind you could be saying "6,500 local government departments, with agreement from local 1,000s of politicians should....". Faced with this, one might despair and give up, but there are other ways to achieve change.

One could seek to change the system, and some are, but for the reasons above this is often slow. One would also need a mandate to start to change the nature of local government.

There is a third way, doing things differently, and I'll be covering this in Part Two.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.