Digital is changing the relationship between the state and the public, a new PwC survey finds most councils are only at the beginning of their evolution.
Delivering on the potential of digital must be a priority for local government and the wider public sector in 2015 and beyond.
Innovation in digital technologies – from social media, mobile/smart technology, big data, cloud computing and advanced automated intelligence – has undoubtedly enabled a fundamental shift in the way people communicate, make decisions and exchange data and information, with significant implications for public sector organisations and the public they’re there to serve.
So how successfully has local government embraced the opportunities digital offers?
Local government still under pressure
Local authorities are facing challenges on all fronts: financial pressures look set to continue while demand and public expectations grow.
PwC’s local government survey, the Local State We’re In, shows found that only one in ten chief executives are confident that they can manage savings while protecting the quality of frontline services in the next five years.
In response, councils have had to redefine their role and purpose and consider more radical options for transformation.
A recent Management Consultancies Association (MCA) report, Local Government – Time for Reinvention, highlights the advantage of digital technologies in this transformation, both within the council itself and in enabling a new kind of relationship with customers and communities.
However, the ‘Local State We’re In’ found that while 60% of Chief Executives and 70% of Leaders are confident about their approach to digital (slightly down from the responses to the same questions last year) suggests that councils are beginning to recognise the challenges of operationalising their digital ambitions.
Furthermore, only 28% of the public agrees that their council has fully embraced digital and many would prefer to see more services online. Bridging this gap will be critical if councils are to remain relevant to their communities.
What impact can digital have?
The opportunity digital presents goes far beyond ‘putting transactions online’ and can be pivotal to introducing new ways of working.
For example, automated intelligence can provide basic decision making and provide on-line and telephone based support, 24 hours a day with minimal staff intervention, delivering significant efficiency savings while protecting the frontline and providing citizens with the digital engagement they’ve got used to from other institutions like banks and online retailers.
Digital approaches, for example community hubs and social listening, can provide customers with greater independence, allowing them to manage their own information and access to services, enabling a more personalised relationship with their council.
Increasingly, the role of the council is to act as a facilitator or broker, helping people and communities to achieve the outcomes they want themselves without interference.
Having an integrated view of service users and assets can provide powerful business intelligence for local government.
However, few councils have truly got to grips with potential insight that their data could provide.
Our survey found that only a third of chief executives are confident they have the capabilities they need around data analytics.
Developing skills and capacity in data analytics will help councils better understand the impact of interventions and the outcomes they’re achieving, enabling more informed decision making, which will be particularly important given the tough decisions that councils need to make.
Overcoming limitations on the ability to share data across departments and organisations is imperative if councils are to develop a true picture of their impact and outcomes across a place.
Clearly, new digital and data approaches offer great opportunities for local authorities, but also new risks and it is important to put in place the relevant safeguards both for privacy but also to ensure cyber security.
Half of the respondents to our local government survey agree that their council is confident that its approach to digital security will cope with cyber threats.
Perhaps more worrying, is the fact that 46% of respondents are neutral on the issue, suggesting that perhaps chief executives and leaders aren’t as knowledgeable and prepared as they should be for potential cyber threats.
Where do councils start?
In order to deliver on the opportunities digital presents, councils need to develop a clear vision, strategy and plan for getting the most value out of their digital investments.
This means digital needs to be fully embedded in the council’s broader change agenda. Councils don’t need a digital strategy, they need a business strategy for a digital age.
Jonathan House is director at PwC.Local State We’re In is available from www.pwc.co.uk/localgov2015