The digital world … why local government is still running to catch up

In 2015, one third of local councils were still running Windows XP, months after a public sector-wide support agreement came to an end. By failing to update their systems, these local councils increased their vulnerability to cyber-attacks, potentially risking the loss of data.

Although many would argue that not installing a supported operating system is a minor risk, it does highlight a more fundamental issue with local government. That is, whether it’s making simple upgrades or delving into advanced ‘smart city’ technologies, local government is struggling to keep pace with the digital world.

Why should local government invest in digital?

Local councils in England are facing a 6.7% cut in their funding by Whitehall between 2016-2020. It’s expected that the majority of the cuts will come in the first two years, easing off in the remaining two. Additional funding measures have been put in place for social care, including enabling local councils to raise £2 billion by increasing council tax and providing access to £1.5 billion from the Better Care Fund (BCF). However, Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), Lord Porter, has emphasised that social care will not see the benefits of this funding for a decade and in the short term, services will still be under pressure.

So, with this challenging financial context, local government is looking to redesign services, to create efficiencies and improve the experience for citizens. Embracing digital could provide some solutions.

Where could digital be adopted?

According to the National Digital Report, local councils are wasting two million man hours per year by re-keying data they receive through online services or a CRM. The research shows that 50% of local councils are re-keying more than half of the data they receive via e-forms, creating £14 million in waste. It’s estimated that 11% of local councils are re-keying all their data.

In addition, a report by independent consultancy Bluefin Solutions has found that if local councils improved their access to mobile technologies, they could save £10 million per year.  Chris Smith, Head of Public Sector at Bluefin Solutions, suggests that allowing council employees to access information via laptops and other mobile devices is an ‘untapped’ opportunity for council leaders. The report provides further detail, highlighting that local councils should allow staff to complete timesheets via mobile devices, engage with collaborative platforms, digitise data, and introduce a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.

These are just a couple of examples of where technology- enabled savings could be made in local government.

Sounds great! Why hasn’t local government implemented more digital solutions?

Limited infrastructure

Although there are a number of initiatives to improve broadband services across the UK, a lack of connectivity is still an issue, particularly in rural areas. For smart city projects, Wi-Fi infrastructure needs to be in place to support millions of sensors and connected devices. And in remote communities, local councils need basic broad infrastructure to ensure they can implement digital solutions such as cloud services, as well as encourage mobile working.

Red tape

Unlike the private sector, local councils often face challenges with red tape and providing a business case, especially when investing in unproven technologies. Interestingly, though, the Local Digital Today 2014 report found that the need to provide a business case for digital projects has slightly declined (falling from 85.4% in 2013 to 78.3% in 2014), suggesting that maybe digital technologies are gradually becoming more acceptable in local government. However, for the majority of local councils providing a clear business case can act as a barrier to digital change.

Funding

In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority. And with the legal obligation to set a balanced budget, under the Local Government Act, councils are unlikely to fund projects with debt. Seeking external investment can also be a challenge, as (unlike start-ups looking to develop new technologies) local councils are unable to work with private sector organisations such as venture capitalists.

Local councils have also received no funding from the recent Autumn Spending Review – with all £1.8 billion being allocated to central government departments. Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research at Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), argues that investing in digital health without investing in digital social care means that efficiencies and improved outcomes for citizens will not be achieved.

Politics

The public sector has been scarred by failed high profile IT projects, including the abandoned NHS patient record system, which cost the taxpayer nearly £10 billion. As a result, local council leaders have tended to be risk averse and avoid investment in major digital projects.

Additionally, public concern over privacy, an issue raised when national ID cards were considered, has also impacted enthusiasm for digital. Even exemplar digital nations such as Estonia are underpinned by departmental data sharing agreements, which the British public may not be comfortable with.

Research has also shown that a limited understanding of smart cities by the public, has led to a lack of support. Local councils have therefore been reluctant to invest in projects that have limited demand.

Is devolution the answer?

In the Policy Exchange’s Smart Devolution report, co-author Eddie Copeland suggests that devolution might provide the tools to encourage greater digital progress. In particular, he highlights the ability city authorities will have to pool together funding from separate pots, co-ordinate initiatives at a city-wide level, and exploit the benefits of data through a designated Office of Data Analytics.

This won’t entirely address why local government has struggled with digital change. Yet, it’s possible devolution will provide greater opportunities for local government to embrace the digital world. Either way, it will be interesting to see what role digital plays in devolution deals, and how this will impact the lives of citizens.

By Steven McGinty, Idox

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