Budget heralds digital step-change for councils

Andrew Hawkins says the new role for GDS may prove less significant for local government ICT than other measures in the Budget.

When looking at the full impact of Budget announcements, the devil is always in the detail.

This means looking in the small print and taking a step back in order to put a fuller picture together about the implications.

And for those of us interested in the future shape of technology in local government, the combination of the measures announced in the House of Commons and the bullets in the red book paint a picture of substantial change ahead.

It makes sense to start with the obvious.

This is the announcement that the remit of the Government Digital Service will be extended to cover local government.

This is good news because for all the talk of high profile exemplary work of councils like Maidenhead and Windsor, Hampshire County Council and Bristol City Council, there are clear signs that areas of local government need to raise the level of ambition and pace of change.

Our own research in the sector published this month found that a quarter of councils do not have a digital strategy while three quarters do not believe they have the capability to deliver digital transformation.

It is clear there is a role for the GDS to play as a champion in this sector for those organisations who are still struggling with the conflicting needs of reducing costs and the need to understand how investment in IT can transform services and drive greater efficiency.

But while this is an important measure, I think the real step-change in digital transformation will be driven by the wider devolution of powers to local bodies heralded in the budget.

Take a look at Manchester.

Here the Chancellor announced that councils in Greater Manchester will be able to keep all of the proceeds of business rates – estimated to be worth some £1.35bn by Deloitte Real Estate. Add that to the recent announcement around the devolution of the £6bn health and social care budget and you have a game-changing picture for the way the services will need to be delivered in the region.

When you look at the map of England in the budget book (page 45) you will find further examples of this type of fiscal devolution, from West Yorkshire to Wales and across to Cambridge, albeit smaller in scale.

These changes are deeply significant for the digital transformation agenda.

First, faced with the need to handle larger amounts of data more effectively and securely, councils will be forced to re-invent the infrastructure which underpins their operations.

Second, the necessity of collaborating with a wider range of service partners will require a further re-imagining of the processes which support service delivery as much as how services are delivered to the end user.

Last of all, in the case of Greater Manchester, the combined might of the councils should allow for truly joined up services and greater efficiency and value for end-users.

Those councils who are unaffected will, of course, still have to ‘do the day job’ of cutting costs and reinventing the way they do business in order to maintain vital services. But they too should benefit as new models for collaborating, organising and delivering services emerge.

There is no doubt that the changes which lie ahead will be extremely challenging. Mistakes will be made but there will also be substantial innovation and improvement in the way we plan and deliver services. In the end I believe that both local government and citizens will be in a better place.

While the opportunities to drive change are significant, they will only materialise if we learn from the past mistakes made in other major IT projects.

This means resisting the temptation to deliver changes through big deals with SI’s, learning from the agile development approach which has quickly been able to overhaul services like the DVLA vehicle licensing and, most importantly ensuring IT is at the heart of the business planning process, acting as a business partner.

Andrew Hawkins is head of public sector at government supplier Eduserv

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