Why Welsh councils must kick-start digital services

A review of digitalisation in Welsh local government calls for leadership, collaboration and a tight timetable to bring councils up-to-date. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Two decades is a very long time in technology. So it is shocking that an investigation commissioned by the Welsh government has found that digital services across the nation’s councils are stuck in the mid-1990s.

According to the review, cloud computing and agile working are almost non-existent, while old technology and out-dated ideas predominate. And when the report’s author David Jones raised the potential of digital transformation within the “highest levels of leadership in local government”, the response was disappointing.

Jones, a member of the Welsh government’s public services leadership panel, was tasked with leading the review in 2015. The aim was to provide an overview of the approach taken by local authorities to developing digital services. 

His report, Why Local Government Must Go Digital, follows discussions with chief executives, directors, IT leaders, organisations including innovation charity Nesta and the Local Government Association, plus consultations with two English councils – Devon County Council and the London Borough of Camden. It shows that Wales’ 22 councils have some catching up to do.

According to the document, digital up-take has so far been “modest” and limited to merging back-office services, improving websites, creating Wi-Fi access for citizens and using technology to enable people with social care needs to remain at home. 

Councils rely too heavily on the private sector for solutions and leadership, leaving many of them locked in to costly deals with limited scope to adapt software and services to meet the changing needs of local government, it continues.

“If you are not comfortable with digitising services, then it is perfectly understandable that you will reach out to the private sector which appears to have the capability to deliver,” says Jones. 

“At the point where you are using digital, not just for the main infrastructure or to do things which are peripheral, but where public services are digital services, then there is a real question of democratic mandate.

“It is not up to me to say whether privatisation is a good or bad thing, but the point I am making is that this is something politicians need to understand.”

How feasible is it for Wales to leap into a digital future? Jones’ key recommendation, to create a small central team – just two or three full-time equivalents – to help local authorities build on existing IT, could be the starting point. Each team member would have areas of expertise, such as infrastructure, software development, user-research and service management. 

“With a really small team of people you could hit the ground running and look at how you need to use those skills to roll out digital,” says Jones.

The report calls for collaborative working on existing projects and for collaborative leadership. “Chief executives know this needs to happen, but they need support,” Jones adds.

Another step in right direction could be a government-as-a-platform concept, delivering a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems and processes. Jones thinks this would work very well in Wales and identifies services such as cloud, finance, HR and payroll services among them. 

While the report acknowledges the significant impact of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in England, it does not suggest a similar a model for Wales.

“The idea of having a Welsh GDS was a relatively obvious option when we starting doing the work, but that was not the conclusion that I came up with. And the reason was two-fold,” says Jones. 

“First, there is a degree of push back from local government in England about using a centralised model. And that is because of the split question of local government and responsibility. If you are a council in Greater Manchester, you don’t really want those people in London telling you exactly what you should be doing. 

“Equally, if you run a council in Wrexham, you don’t want those people in Cardiff telling you what to do. Councils are elected locally and they need to do things that are right for their communities.”

The elections to the National Assembly for Wales on May 5 create uncertainty and could mean that progress is delayed. And there is the issue of funding. Although Wales has a digital innovation fund to improve digital capability and leadership, this £250,000 pot has to be shared across the whole public sector.

A spokesperson for the Welsh government told PublicTechnology: “We commissioned the report to inform our approach to digital transformation. We have appointed a chief digital officer who has a clear remit to deliver digital strategy, services and infrastructure within the government and to support wider public service developments. 

“As part of the digital innovation fund, the digital innovators network brings together people from across the Welsh public service who are working to champion digital approaches. The fund will also provide for a number of projects to trial innovative ideas around digital service transformation.”

Jim Dunton

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