Local government ‘needs digital leadership overhaul’

Council management structures, contracting procedures and networks should be reformed to help UK local government catch up with ICT services provided by central government and international counterparts, according to a new report.

The study, released by the New Local Government Network (NLGN), found that many councils are improving their use of digital to help deliver better outcomes more cheaply, enable improved engagement of citizens and to progress the green and digital growth agenda.

But it warned that the full potential of councils’ digital technology is still untapped, identifying a big gap with Whitehall  and “world leaders” in the USA. 

The report said: “Whilst there is much good practice in existence, we have seen how the potential of digital technology is still untapped by councils.”

Using roundtables and interviews, the report found that councils are not confident investing in digital technology and have not always done so effectively.

It blamed inadequate skills, organisational culture and leadership for the fact that many councils struggle to define the outcomes required of digital solutions.

It said: “Often new solutions are not informed by the real needs of citizens, and councils fall into the trap of prioritising efficiency over customer journey process mapping.

“As a result digital solutions such as online transactions are sometimes simply ‘tacked on’ to existing services rather than being part of a full service redesign in which the potential of digital is matched to the behaviour and needs of users – both citizens and staff – throughout the process.”

In addition, long and inflexible contracts can hinder local authorities from achieving digital innovation, with suppliers not provided with incentives to evolve products over time.

The report said: “This approach to developing digital solutions is often not ‘agile’ and iterative,  and also tends to ignore the necessary ongoing role the council needs to  play in making sure that solutions evolve in partnership so that they really  meet needs.

Siloed approaches to procurement can mean that different departments in the same council can often procure services, such as customer relationship management systems separately, leading to duplication and inefficient use of resources, it said.

Cultural barriers, including resistance to change, were also identified as a problem, particularly when new digital technology was linked to service restructuring.

The report said: “At present it is not uncommon for councils to have ‘surfing policies’  which restrict the use of social media and other digital platforms amongst staff.

“In such an untrusting and digitally backward environment it is unsurprising that new  technologies are sometimes viewed with suspicion or disdain.”

Responsibility for digital services currently usually reside with technical staff, such as the ICT department, web team or customer services, according to the authors.

“This can lead to a techno-centric approach, and there is a need for leadership to come from those who can link the technological aspects of digital to the everyday business and transformation of all council departments,” they said.

The report also said that organisations created to share good practice among digital ICT professionals, including the Smart City Advisory Group, LocalGov Digital, are currently “piecemeal” and poorly resourced. It added that many networks and meetings often involve high level meetings rather than real programmes of work.

“Furthermore organisations like Socitm are subscription only, and the reach of most campaigns tends to be targeted at IT managers and heads of customer services rather than chief executives, councillors and heads of  service whose roles are vital and should also be on board the agenda,” it said.

The NLGN suggested that councils should create a leadership environment where digital becomes core to all business, including the appointment of a cabinet member for digital.

It also called for a review of existing digital initiatives, and the establishment of a local government digital programme to coordinate initiatives and foster collaboration across the sector.

A digital skills programme should also be instituted to raise the profile of local government digital to professionals and draw skilled graduates into the sector, it said.

We also recommend the establishment of a digital skills programme to raise the profile of local government digital to professionals and draw skilled graduates into the sector.

Colin Marrs

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