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18/05/2017

Tech landscape: Slaying the digital dinosaurs

Words: Simon Wicks

A new report by the Local Government Information Unit paints a patchy picture of the digital transformation of local authority services – there’s plenty of support but piecemeal implementation and concerns about digital exclusion

Local councillors are not ‘digital dinosaurs’ but a vocal minority for whom digital exclusion is a major issue may be holding back the digitisation of local government services.

Furthermore, digital development in local authorities is held back by the piecemeal creation of software platforms – a lack of investment in development of standard software is a major hurdle.

New research by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) found that ‘legacy’ IT in local authorities is so complicated and they are so difficult to sell to that ‘bleeding edge’ technology providers are reluctant to invest the time and effort in creating and selling tools to councils.

“Today local authorities will to a greater or less extent have a mixture of ‘Big IT’, proprietary solutions, legacy software, middleware (software ‘glue’ enabling different systems to bind to each other), open platforms and open source,” states the report. “This has created a complex environment where hundreds of services and lines-of-business right across local councils are operated by a diverse array of technology products which are procured or developed separately with little consideration for the need to line or coordinate operations.”

"Hundreds of services and lines-of-business right across local councils are operated by a diverse array of technology products which are procured or developed separately with little consideration for the need to line or coordinate operations"

Few senior leaders “have a complete idea about their organisation’s technology capabilities, relegating IT in many authorities to a non-strategic category”. Councils themselves have a have a “reputation of failing to engage systematically with new ideas”. Meanwhile, scaling a successful product from one authority to another is “extremely challenging” – particular in an era of biting cuts to service budgets.
It may seem a bleak picture, but there is cause for optimism, according to the report. The government itself is providing better strategic support nationally through initiatives such as the industrial strategy, digital strategy and government transformation strategy.

On top of this, the report reveals that the majority of local councillors were “digital enthusiasts” with “an overall positive view” about big data, automation and the future well-being of their area.

The digital divide

Start of the Possible: Digital Leadership, Transformation and Governance in English Local Authorities was commissioned by the LGiU with support from Essex, Kent and East Sussex County Councils.

Written by Theo Blackwell, London Borough of Camden cabinet member for finance, technology and growth, the research aimed to probe the attitudes of local councillors towards digital services and their understanding of the potential of technology to alter service delivery. Some 808 councillors from 278 councils across all English regions completed the 17-question survey. Fifty-five per cent of respondents represented district council wards, 17 per cent unitary authoritIes, 13 per cent metropolitan and 12 per cent were representatives of county or London boroughs. Almost one in three had served four or more terms.

The survey covered five areas:

  • Outlook on technology
  • Transformation plans and digital strategies
  • Application of technology and challenges
  • Needs and support
  • Leadership and governance

"We need to support digital leadership right across our cities and counties to public services more effective"

Overall, the survey found clear backing for digital to be included in thinking on devolution. Councillors also expressed a desire to be better supported to understand technology and its transformative potential.

Concerns tended to focus on the digital divide – lack of connectivity and potential exclusion of those who are not tech-savvy or tech-enabled. Councillors were also worried about data sharing arrangements, particularly with the private sector.

As one councillor from the east of England put it: “The more the digital transformation proceeds, the more we shall have a two-class system of those who are able to access it and those who are left behind. That is a very bad thing.”

Another, from a South-East unitary authority, made the point that “We will move into a tick-box society if we lose sight of the fact that everyone is different. People count, and those who need our help most are the least able.”

Writing in the foreword, report author Theo Blackwell said: “I see today’s digital technologies helping to reform public services in three main ways: first, through use of technology directly with agile working, innovation in design, culture and delivery; second, how technology can support better decision-making and investment; finally, imagining what the future of public services look like and enabling more innovation.”

He added: “For this to happen we need to support digital leadership right across our cities and counties in order to make public services more effective and make a difference to the people and communities they represent.”

Proposed solutions

Blackwell proposed a series of steps that can be taken to address the challenges identified by councillors and accelerate the digital delivery of local authority services. Most involve authorities working in partnership.

1. Support multi-authority chief officers and digital innovation teams with the following principles:

  • Better collective buying from the open market
  • Adopt common standards: service design, coding, data and infrastructure
  • Invest together in innovation - reducing risk but building scale
  • Sharing products: approaches, business cases, design, business processes and code – while remaining local and responsive in character and focus.

2. Establish council or multi-council scrutiny investigations into digital transformation.

3. Digital transformation and GovTech innovation to be a future question posed in devolution and growth deals.

4. Identify leading councils and promote actions and behaviours. Extend Government Digital service leadership programmes to local government, including elected councillors.

5. Outcomes-based review of central-local government spending on GovTech initiatives for local public services. Focus on intermediaries helping ‘scale-ups’.

"That’s not just a question of doing the same things better online, it’s about using digital as a way of thinking and connecting, of driving a cultural and relational attitude that changes how we think about what local government does"

The LGiU’s chief executive, Jonathan Carr-West, said: “Much has been written about the shift to digital in local government and public services more generally. Such a shift represents an opportunity, almost uniquely, to drive down costs while simultaneously improving outcomes. But that’s not just a question of doing the same things better online, it’s about using digital as a way of thinking and connecting, of driving a cultural and relational attitude that changes how we think about what local government does and how it interacts with the communities it serves.” 


Comment –  Democracy matters most

The Start of the Possible survey offers an insightful view into the need for leadership in the delivery of digitised public services – which would include planning, of course, writes Simon Wicks.

To my mind there are two really critical areas that the survey identifies but doesn’t fully deal with. The first is the need for joint investment and development across local authority boundaries. Digital development will continue to be piecemeal and unsatisfactory without a concerted joint effort.

We’ve previously reported in Tech Landscape on the work of the Future Cities Catapult [http://www.theplanner.co.uk/features/tech-landscape-future-planner], which is trying to do precisely this. It’s happening, but it’s poorly funded and not enough people know about it. There are enormous opportunities here for technology developers and for councils to save money.

The second issue is the ‘digital divide’. The report rightly touches on this and flags up the concerns of some councillors. The report’s author conveys a measure of frustration about this attitude and explicitly states that this “vocal minority” is holding up progress.

But there’s a critical democratic principle at stake here, as quoted councillors succinctly point out. “I have a distrust of a blanket policy of relying on digital,” said one unitary authority councillor from the South East. “We will move into a ‘tick-box’ society if we lose sight of the fact that everyone is different. People count, and those that need our help most are the least able.”

This, really, is the crux of it. Councils have a duty to provide services to all, and certain services are targeted at those in greatest need. They also have a duty to be cost-conscious in the delivery of services.

"It’s up to us a nation to fund a full ‘clicks and bricks’ approach to the delivery of council services"

I would argue, too, that councils have a duty to keep abreast of modern service delivery and take advantage of the best that technology can offer in order to create efficiencies.

But in so doing, we are almost bound to make access more difficult for those who need it most: those on low incomes, the elderly, people with disabilities, learning difficulties or mental health issues.

We may want our local authorities to be more like Amazon in their service delivery. But in reality they have to be more than Amazon. Your local council can’t choose its customers; Amazon can. A council can’t afford to let some go because they aren’t cost-efficient. Amazon can. A council has to provide, in the ways that are most convenient or accessible to the wide range of citizens they serve. Amazon doesn’t have to be democratic in this way.

Local authorities must provide digital access to services, for all the reasons outline in the report. They must also, simultaneously and forever, provide the same services by telephone, by post or face to face for those who prefer that or require it.

It’s up to us a nation to fund a full ‘clicks and bricks’ approach to the delivery of council services. Alternatively, we accept one of two unsatisfactory outcomes:

-    public institutions becoming old-fashioned and redundant
-    exclusion of those most in need from the services they most require.

In either case the overall quality of service deteriorates and ability of a local authority to fulfil its democratic duty declines.


Download Start of The Possible from the LGiU website: https://www.lgiu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Start-of-the-possible.pdf

Image | iStock

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