Is the public sector ready for devolution?

Andrew Gunn says that local authorities must not underestimate the technical challenges posed by the government’s drive to hand them more power.

Following George Osborne’s promise of a “devolution revolution” for England, the first debate of the Cities Devolution Bill taking place in Parliament this week provides a stark signal that devolution is an incredibly real prospect.

Yet worryingly the vast majority of councils are not prepared for devolution, despite the opportunities it presents to them. But those who don’t act soon to start preparing for change could find themselves facing further budget cuts rather than having greater power, and budget, devolved to them.

The start of devolution

The agreement made at the end of last year to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ by giving greater powers to Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) was heralded by some as the first move towards a devolved nation. Meanwhile cynics dismissed it as just one small step and still speak of such a radical change happening throughout the UK with scepticism. However, it is already becoming clear that by the end of the government’s five year term the scope of local government will look very different to what it is today.

The possibility of being given greater control should be an appealing vision to local councils. After all, the objective of devolution is to provide local authorities with new opportunities for economic growth and collaboration while enabling a better quality of life for all citizens and employees. This rather than having a mandatory centralised government one size fits all model.

However, as GMCA has already discovered, once it has been agreed to devolve power, the journey to taking control from central government cannot be taken lightly. With a bigger budget comes even greater need for efficiency. For most local councils the greatest challenges will be whether their technology is up to the job. However, what is also important is how they position themselves amongst their peers in terms of ability to collaborate and execute service delivery combined with the strength of their digital capabilities with the onset of devolution.

Is the public sector prepared?

The truth is the vast majority of local authorities are not adequately equipped digitally for devolution, and many are doing nothing to prepare their digital capabilities for the change it will bring. Operational efficiency and service excellence will be critical and finding the right technology approach to support this is essential.

For example, with bigger budgets to manage, cumbersome processes for planning, budgeting and forecasting can no longer be relied upon. Authorities need good systems and high quality data to highlight where budget should be spent in order to best serve their citizens.

Local powers will mean systems will be needed to enable collaborative working and ensure budgets are maximised and new sources of income grown. In addition, mobility solutions that can ensure everyone – inside and outside the organisation – is connected to information through phones, laptops, tablets and watches, must be put in place.

As devolution increases, many local authorities will have to fight for power, and those who are not deemed to be equipped could be forced to have their IT systems completely shut off and will be faced with the prospect of using systems from another authority. These councils will end up having budgets cut whilst many of their peers are growing and at a time when economic pressure in the sector is already at an all time high. 

Forward thinking for growth

Forward thinking councils will not only be prepared for devolution but will also see it as a commercial income enhancement opportunity.

Councils equipped for digital transformation will be able to ‘sell’ systems and applications space which has been tailored specifically for the changing needs of local authorities to other authorities. This ultimately means the more savvy councils can capitalise on their own IT investments.

One thing is clear – the public sector is facing a revolution. Over the coming months and years the sector will go through drastic change. As part of that change a great divide could potentially form between the councils that use devolution and digital transformation as an opportunity for growth and those that do nothing to take advantage of the changes that lie ahead.

Andrew Gunn is director of public sector at Bluefin Solutions

Colin Marrs

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