Local government

06 July 2014

Sarah Prag has written a great shopping list of things a ‘GDS for local government’ might need, and points out that some would be controversial.

Part of the reason some might be controversial is because, I think, there are some seemingly contradictory problems that need addressing.

Rather than offering my own view on what a ‘local GDS’ should be, I thought I’d have a go at stating what the I hard things are, in the hope it makes evaluating the shopping a bit easier.

The hard things:

  • Boundaries don’t reflect the real world

    If you want to know where the nearest open library or swimming pool is right now, you probably need information from more than one authority.

    If another authority starts on the other side of the road - you still care about any planning applications.

  • Geography is core

    The information and services that local government provides are often inherently geographical in a way that central government is not.

    Publishing systems and services need that baking into them in a way I don’t think is widely understood, and lacking in parallels.

    The understanding of geography is often hyper-local, beyond the understanding of what a centrally managed gazetteer can convincingly do. It is in the heads of residents and local officials.

  • Democracy and power matter

    Local governments are independently elected to provide services, in a way that separate government departments are not.

    As citizens we have the power to remove local government if it is not providing adequate services. The boundaries matter in this context.

    Separately, from time to time local government disagrees with central government, very occasionally to the point of serious dispute. In rare events like these, who controls the publishing button might matter more than we think.

  • Information is distributed

    The person who knows the times that the park shuts is probably the person who locks them.

  • Understanding of the structure of government is patchy and inconsistent

    People don’t understand the full detail of the structure of government, and should not have to.

    What’s local, national, devolved district, county? But then that understanding is different between people too.

  • The same problem is being solved many times over

    Or, at least a set of very similar problems, are being solved by each local authority. Any that is just and obvious frustration and inefficiency.


I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but it probably is useful to start thinking of some parallels beyond just GDS to try and get to the answer.

Here’s a few that seem to jump out at me:

  • Wordpress.com and wordpress.org - host it yourself or pay to host centrally (or your own domain or theirs). Code is shared and there is a healthy market in plugins.
  • OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia - and open shared commons of structured information editable by many.
  • FixMyStreet.com and Open 311 allow a distributed model of reporting civic infrastructure issues via multiple websites and apps.