Steven Cox says it is time for local government to play catch-up on digital services.
There is no doubt of the importance and impact of digital services on our lives – as citizens, as consumers and at work. Whether it’s communicating with colleagues or shopping online, digital technology has transformed the way we live and it is now becoming increasingly important for local government organisations to deliver these services to citizen’s expectations.
As part of the 2015 Budget in March, the chancellor of the exchequer announced plans to assist the development of digital services provided by local government. It was revealed that the government Digital Service (GDS) would collaborate with partners in local government to enable more customer-focussed, digitally enabled and efficient local services. However since then, the GDS has seen a flurry of change with various senior officials leaving the organisation, resulting in many wondering what the implications are for the future.
With this among other new commitments in the March budget announcement, the government is now under pressure to deliver on its promises. The next spending review, due in November, is expected to identify how the government intends supporting key priorities, including how to modernise Britain’s public services through the use of digital technology. We live in a digital age and public expectations of the government’s digital services are rising. So what exactly are citizens expecting from their local authority when it comes to digital services?
To look at this in more detail, Fujitsu undertook research to compare the performance of different sectors to see how well they are delivering on digital. The research indicated that the UK is becoming a ‘digital-first’ nation, with more than a quarter of citizens always using digital services when they are available to them. The ability to work remotely (57%), real-time access to information (50%) and saving time (46%) were the three most cited benefits of digital at work across all sectors.
Looking specifically at digital in local government, both citizens and employees were positive. 67% of UK citizens admitted that they ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ use the digital option when it’s made available to them, while 57% of employees believe that flexible working is one of the main benefits of using digital services. Assessing the role digital is playing within local government or more specifically, how well local government employees are able to fulfil digital tasks, 61% of respondents also revealed that digital services have made their job easier.
However, there is room for improvement and it seems there is a greater demand to invest in more digital technology over the next four to five years. According to the report, it is employees in local government that would most like to see improvement to their digital services. Only 45% of such employees feel that they are provided with access to the technology services and applications they need to do their job, while 17% believe that their own organisation needs to invest more in technology applications.
The results show that while local government has made good digital progress so far, there is a demand from both employees and citizens to build and improve on existing services and eventually move to a ‘digital first’ approach. For local government the challenge is that to become a truly digital-first organisation, it must be digital-first internally.
Becoming digital-first internally is a long journey for all organisations. For local government, there are also further considerations that can impact this, such as the increasing spending cuts which continue to put pressure on this sector.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, government spending cuts will continue until 2020, giving local authorities a huge challenge in the coming years. However, a vital aspect that local authorities must understand is that achieving the changes needed is not about cutting government IT costs, but instead looking at IT to cut government costs. To take this step towards digital we believe there are two key ways local authorities can, or should, empower their employees with digital services: increased collaboration and flexible working.
By opening up data between different authorities and local government services, local government will be able to increase collaboration and efficiency. For example, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service have provided staff with the tools, processes, support and information to allow them to be a truly empowered and connected workforce. The project involved replacing 1,800 laptops with new ultrabooks and hybrid tablets, giving staff new and modern equipment, enabling better access to remote working and case information.
But it’s not just about the hardware. Cafcass also digitised incoming court orders, local authority checks and Police National Computer level 2 checks. This created an improved service which enabled an increase in the number of documents processed and a reduction in manual handling time.
Digital services that enable flexible working, such as accessing services through a mobile device, are also vital in improving work flow throughout the organisation. Mobile digital services are important for employees within local government as it ensures employees are not tied to paperwork at their desk. Cafcass was able to free up 105,000 hours, previously spent on administrative activities, through the use of 4G laptops.
Mobile devices allow staff to focus their efforts and visit people that need them the most – the vulnerable who require human interaction for their care. For most local authorities that work in the field, digital services provide employees with information they need instantly so they can do their job better.1
The use of digital services such as these has allowed practitioners to be more collaborative, responsive and improve the user experience, providing the children and families with the highest possible professional level of care and support.
Digital services will only become more important as we as a nation continue to be digital first, so it’s time for local government to catch-up. Digital services ensure better productivity and more mobility for employees and as a result allow local authorities to provide more efficient citizen services. It’s vital that local governments embrace the mantra “it is no longer about cutting government IT costs, but instead looking at IT to cut government costs”, and it will be interesting to see the role digital plays in the next spending review. It’s time for local authorities to take advantage of digital so both employees and citizens can benefit from the opportunities available.
Steven Cox is executive director and Vice President, head of public sector at Fujitsu UK & Ireland
1. Source: Top Employers for Working Families Award 2015, http://www.topemployersforworkingfamilies.org.uk/index.php/special-awards/case/cafcass