Despite discussions of more devolution you may see in the media, slowly but surely local government services are being centralised. In this piece I’ll highlight a few examples, and suggest what this might mean for councils.
The first high profile service to be centralised under the GOV.UK banner was Register to Vote, or more accurately as it says underneath its page title, apply to register to vote. Whilst the creation of this service was good start, it doesn’t meet the new Service Standard in that it fails point number eight which is "Iterate and improve frequently", and it arguably doesn’t meet a few others too.
Because of this it’s never really achieved it’s full potential, and not only does it not meet a basic user need of telling people they don’t need to register to vote, it creates additional unnecessary work for electoral registration teams in councils because you can register to vote as many times as you like, even if you’re already registered to vote.
There are also plans to centralise some aspects of the annual canvas too, which is the form you get through your door asking you to confirm who lives there every year. These haven’t been approved by Parliament yet and may not be any time soon.
Probably the most contentious function which has been centralised comes under the umbrella of Apply for Universal Credit, which consolidates a number of benefits including Housing Benefit which was formerly administered by local government. Universal Credit can only be applied for online, and famously has a helpline that once cost up to 55p per minute to use.
Next there’s Apply for or renew a Blue Badge, a service administered by local government with a new central government front end provided by the Department for Transport. The design and development of the new service involved local government with workshops across the country, and whilst the front end is under the GOV.UK banner, assessments are still carried out locally.
Similarly Search for local land charges is being rolled out to councils across the country and replaces a council managed front end, however councils will still conduct searches.
Perhaps the most ambitious centralisation is Street Manager set to launch next year. It’s not 100% clear which services will be offered through this, however it’s suggested that permits for things like placing traffic lights on a highway and carrying out works on a highway will be included. The main reason for the introduction of Street Manager is the creation of a central, up to date database of roadworks, which is a great idea but something already provided by one.network.
There are functions that form part of services, Pay and Notify for example, which are seeing increased an take-up by councils and fit in with a more modular approach to delivering digital services. We won’t dwell on Verify for local authorities though, which highlighted some of the inadequacies of the product, and the bureaucracy around the way the Government Digital Service works.
So what do these examples mean for the bigger picture?
Given the delivery of council services is increasingly shifting online, then this centralisation does not just involve decommissioning functions of council websites, it’s actually re-designing how local public services are delivered.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example it might stop hundreds of councils procuring the same thing and re-badging it. Take planning applications for example, where same product has been procured and over, and over, and over, and over again. Something similar to Street Manager but for planning could save millions each year.
The main problem with this centralisation is that it doesn’t seem to be driven by a strategy or roadmap, and therefore it’s difficult for councils to incorporate this work into their own strategy. Because of this, if we are to continue down the route of increasing centralisation, local government needs more of a say in how this progresses, not least because of done correctly there’s huge potential for creating cheaper services.
We need to have a proper discussion about this and I’ll be running a session at this year’s LocalGovCamp on 15th November in Birmingham, if I don’t see you there, they’ll be other ways to contribute through LocalGov Digital.