Don’t let digital projects become ‘lipstick on the pig’

Digital transformation projects that lack long-term resourcing and buy-in from council leaders risk being isolated and unsustainable, the Local Government Association has said.

In an interim evaluation of its Digital Experts programme, published on 1 June, the LGA said that digital projects worked best if they were part of a wider intention to change local services and improve quality and cost-effectiveness – not just as a way to boost the use of digital tools.

Without being part of this broader approach, projects are less likely to gain senior support, which the LGA said put them at risk of becoming cosmetic – or “the proverbial lipstick on the pig”.

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In March 2015, the LGA awarded funding for 27 local government projects through the Digital Experts programme, which aims demonstrate the benefits of digital tools to councils and encourage them to share their innovations more widely.

The interim evaluation considered 13 of those projects, and picks out examples of best practice from the teams’ work.

The evaluation found that many of the projects had already made financial savings, for instance by moving people on to cheaper contact channels, making better use of community resources and reducing time spent on administration or travel.

Other benefits include helping the public gain better access to council services and develop their digital skills through continued training sessions in the community.

“The Digital Experts programme has helped our staff to identify practical improvements in the service they offer the public,” Warwick Lightfoot, the Kensington and Chelsea Council Cabinet member for finance and strategy, said in a statement. He added that the use of technology had reduced the cost of providing services, which he described as “the acid test of the use of digital technology” in the public sector.

As well as best practice examples, the association’s evaluation stated that the projects demonstrate that local government remains best placed to bring together local groups and help residents engage with changing digital technologies.

The document also uses the projects’ experiences to set out a series of practical recommendations for other councils embarking on digital projects.

These emphasise the importance of investing the right time and resources, to both the management of the project as well as the project itself, and of ensuring an evaluation framework is developed from the start.

Having a governance structure that connects the work to other parts of the council and other projects is crucial, the LGA said, as is involving frontline staff from the outset, as gaining their commitment to change will help implement the project later on.

The LGA also advised teams not to assume that they will get internal resources at the right time, and to make sure they have considered any potential hidden costs – such as additional software or reviewing cybersecurity agreements.

A further consideration should be who will be involved across the timeline of the project, which should include proper consideration of any customer research strategies.

“Several of the projects found it difficult initially to get the right demographic mix for the research they wished to undertake,” the report said. It added that councils could better engage with hard-to-reach groups by developing closer links with council staff and external organisations that deliver front-line services.

The remaining 14 projects in the LGA’s Digital Experts programme will be evaluated later this year, which will also offer any further recommendations based on continued progress of the initial 13.


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