A bit of history
GDS has received a lot of good press by going against the grain of how we in the public sector traditionally do things and acting more like a startup, using agile project management techniques, shying away from the traditional Microsoft stack by using Ruby and other open source programming languages and publishing (most of) their code on Github.
As someone who works in local government and is an advocate of these practices, I would love to see this sort of thing cross over into local government. There are pockets of local government webby innovation around the country, and this isn’t often shared - meaning that there are some councils who have great websites, and some councils who have not so great ones.
This is exacerbated further by the fact that some councils have no technical resource at all, meaning they’re beholden to suppliers who sometimes (not always!) charge the earth for simple solutions and tweaks to existing products.
Therefore, it would seem that the simple solution would be to abolish all local government web teams and have one central web team for all local councils, but to do this would be to miss the point of local councils completely. We could just as easily say let’s just have one national waste service, or one national planning department. By being close to their residents, and having councillors who live in an area, councils can better adapt to their residents’ needs.
I think, therefore, a better solution would be to have something closer to a local government skunkworks.
What is a skunkworks?
For the uninitiated, the first skunkworks was set up in 1943 at the defence company Lockheed, and was tasked with working on highly secret and advanced projects, unheeded by bureaucracy and given a high degree of autonomy. The Lockheed skunkworks came up with number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor.
This has been tried before in the public sector with the HMG Skunkworks (presided over by one Mark O’Neill), who worked on (amongst other things) the latest version of the government ePetitions site. The Skunkworks has since been moved into GDS, but it could be argued that without the skunkworks, there would have been no GDS.
So, how would a local government skunkworks work?
There are two possible solutions, either a centralised team that works out of an office, or a collection of individuals working for local councils seconded for a couple of days a week.
However it works, these people will already be doing great stuff in the field of web development, design, UX, sysadmin etc.
The skunkworks could work on modular projects (like planning systems, ‘find my nearest’ tools, bin collection day finders etc), as well as actively looking for projects from councils who don’t have technical resource, but also don’t have the budget to use big suppliers.
All these projects would be open source and published on Github for those with the technical nous to self-host, but could also be sold / given away via the G-Cloud, so the headache of setup and hosting is taken away from them and taken care of by the skunkworks team.
This is sort of the thing we’ve already talked about with Project Maple, but I think I’ve struggled to communicate these ideas properly, and, to be honest, they’ve only just crystalised in my head recently.
What do you think?
I’m keen to get people’s thoughts on this, so let me know what you think, either in the comments, or join the Project Maple Google Group and have your say there.