Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.

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