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From the other side of the world

SilverStripe’s CEO Sam Minnée looks at the differences between the government’s approach to public sector technology in New Zealand and London.

I’ve just returned from the SOCITM conference in Leicester, where the UK public sector meets to talk about how tech can empower citizens, councils and local authorities.

But throughout the experience, I couldn’t help but be troubled that some of the attendees still aren’t taking digital transformation in government seriously. Others attending the event shared the sentiment, saying: “They get digital is coming, but they don’t really see it as an answer to their problems.”

In New Zealand, the public sector saw digital coming from way off. But importantly they took clear, consistent action to make technology a key lever against their greatest challenges. This is what led to the Common Web Platform, creating a single standard for public sector websites built on an open source foundation.

Having worked hard as part of the team for that project and witnessed that kind of change, it makes the impact of what we are seeing here all the more striking. Six months into our time here in Tech City, it felt like the right time to highlight a few observations about the approach here and how things might improve.

Licence-fees strangle local councils

Without naming any names, we’ve seen several market leaders selling proprietary technology to local councils with long contracts and large licensing fees.

At the time this tech may be cutting edge and help councils do a better job. But as these contracts drag on, tech that cost millions of pounds is suddenly no longer fit for purpose.

This problem has been acknowledged by Government Digital Services (GDS) but in local government the leaders are still largely proprietary and that needs to change before things grind to a halt.

Central government must help local authorities collaborate

In New Zealand, central government actually helps facilitate and enable change, rather than just issuing orders. Projects like the previously mentioned Common Web Platform empower every local authority by giving them a powerful and stable platform to deliver the best service to citizens.

What we’ve seen so far in the UK is that GDS does a great job of preparing central government for a tech-driven future, but it isn’t involving local councils properly.  As Carl Haggerty, digital communications manager at Devon County Council, put it: “In local government, digital leaders often work alone without a unifying strategy across the sector.”

A fine balance needs to be struck between allowing local authorities to keep their autonomy while still offering them centralised support. I believe if the UK can bring local authorities together to collaborate in the same way GDS is doing for central government, great things can happen.

Open source is still overlooked

Even though GDS has highlighted the importance of open source software, there’s still some reticence around open source in the UK government. Whether the perception is that there security risks, a lack of commercial backing, or simply that open-source systems are amateurish – the same old fear, uncertainty and doubt about open-source still persists in parts of local government.

The truth is that the web is built on open source and open standards and the UK needs to embrace them in the same way New Zealand has. The security risk is no more than that of closed code software—a whole community of contributors can scrutinise every line and make sure there’s no nasty surprises in there. As for maintenance, any established open source software will have a range of organisations offering support services.

Open source and standards enable better collaboration and communication, there are no mandatory license fees to pay or locked-down contracts, and everything can be built on, meaning if a function you need doesn’t exist you already have a framework to create it.

Keeping calm and carrying on won’t work

Many of the Government agencies we’ve talked to around the world are facing similar challenges when it comes to embracing the digital revolution. The difference is that many are at different stages of the journey. In the UK, GDS is doing well, but in local government some things seem to be moving a bit slower than they should be.

Now is the time to take action. The top dogs in Whitehall have the ability to bring together local authorities and empower them with the knowledge and the tools to grow. At the same time local authorities need to drop the us vs them mentality and accept that collaboration with central government could be the key to increased autonomy in the future.

Once local and central government learn to work together to tackle the challenges ahead, then the focus will go back to the most important challenge of all – delivering the best experience to their citizens.

Sam Minnée is CEO of SilverStripe