Roberts warned that the Government Digital Service should not try to build all of the cross-government technology platforms needed to replace legacy IT.
“The problem with GDS is that it’s all about doing it in-house. I’m not getting into build versus buy, but no way can you have a team big enough to cover everything,” Roberts said.
The CIO called for councils to embrace platform thinking and use an “ecosystem” of different suppliers to save money and improve services. Roberts added that authorities need to consider new ways of operating if they are to meet Whitehall-imposed 40% budget cuts during a time of increasing demand on services.
“Just automating processes or putting in big systems is not going to cut it. We need to think differently. We need to look at how to use digital tech, information and data to connect groups to fix problems,” Roberts said.
Leeds City Council hopes to meet financial challenges by focusing on “delivering outcomes rather than services”, he said.
Roberts dubbed his plans “City as a Platform” and said “it’s how you enrol and enable a whole ecosystem to create solutions and innovations to fix our problems”; alluding to the famous government as a platform essay by Tim O’Reilly.
This means contracting then integrating individual services from both private and voluntary sectors and getting citizens to “do more for themselves” via online services, he said.
“For example a digital company in Leeds could develop an app to help manage Alzheimer’s. Ultimately that might help deliver an outcome we need without the council leading it. It’s how you combine people, endeavour and data,” he said.
However Roberts warned that moving off legacy infrastructure while ensuring service continuity presents a “major challenge” that needs to be dealt with before government can fully adopt platform models.
Digital technology could allow councils to personalise the online services they offer to citizens in future, he suggested, allowing them to have one single account to deal with government. For this to work, local authorities and Whitehall would need to work together to create common standards for data and formats, Roberts added.
“We need to focus on information and interoperability. People could have a GOV.UK account with information sucked into it from all the services they deal with,” he said.
This will also help with current work underway across the UK to integrate health and social care services, according to Roberts.
“I’m a big believer in platform-based approaches. Now we need to set open standards, APIs and requirements. We in the public sector need to force this issue with vendors,” he said.