Local government digital engagement varies greatly between senior officials and frontline workers, research finds

Published today, the PublicTechnology Local Government Digital Transformation Report contains exclusive research shining a light on councils’ challenges with skills, funding and the need for digital support throughout the workforce

Local councils report a significant disparity between senior managers and frontline staff in the levels of engagement in digital objectives, PublicTechnology research has found.

Published today, the Local Government Digital Transformation Report – which is available for free download here – includes insights from senior representatives of 75 councils across the UK, who shared their views on issues ranging from strategy, to staff engagement, to suppliers.

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Our research found that senior managers and service-area leaders are significantly more engaged in their organisation’s digital plans and programmes when compared with both colleagues delivering frontline services and elected members.

According to our survey respondents, a total of 37% of senior executives in their organisation are ‘very engaged’ in digital matters, with a further 42% reported to be ‘quite engaged’. These percentages were replicated for heads of service.

However, only 13% of research participants described their councillors as ‘very engaged’ in digital issues. This figure was just 11% for frontline service staff.

In both cases, more than 40% of respondents indicated that these colleagues are ‘not very engaged’ or ‘not at all engaged’.

When asked for in-depth qualitative feedback, one of our respondents said that their council has “huge variation in knowledge of councillors and staff [which] adds to the challenge” of delivering digital reform.

Another suggested that their leaders ought to consult frontline and operational workers much more widely before implementing digital systems.

“The council’s senior managers need to ask staff their opinion of how IT can be developed, rather than making decisions for staff without involving them,” the respondent said. “Just because senior managers use the technology does not mean they are fit people to make these decisions. It is the staff who use the technology to do the same tasks, day in day out, or week after week – and they who know it best, not managers.”

Our research also identified major ongoing challenges for local authorities in accessing both the expertise and money needed to realise their digital ambitions. Some 7% of councils told us that they currently have all the necessary skills in place to maximise their use of technology and data, while only 2% are fully confident they have sufficient funding for their digital requirements.

Only 13% of research participants described their councillors as ‘very engaged’ in digital issues, and this figure was just 11% for frontline service staff

The Local Government Digital Transformation Report – which also marks the launch of PublicTechnology’s new PT Insights research brand – is published two weeks before many authorities hold local elections. This includes about 100 councils, as well ballots to elect 10 city or regional mayors – including London, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands.

Writing in the report’s foreword, PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall said “the incoming leaders that are elected across the country on 2 May will join local government at a time when the sector faces bigger challenges than it ever has”.

“Most authorities are dealing with both rising demand for services and support, alongside diminishing funding – all of which is compounded by a cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing fallout from the coronavirus crisis,” he added. “Moreover, there are ever-growing security threats from cyberattacks and disinformation, and a populace that seems to be losing trust in public and political institutions. A growing number of councils see solutions to these problems in technology and data. And there is no doubt that digital services, automation and analytics have the potential to help local government get closer to citizens and improve the support being provided, while also saving money and creating other efficiencies. But, for all its possible benefits, tech transformation begets its own challenges.”

To find out more about how councils are viewing these opportunities and challenges, the full report – including a complete breakdown of our research findings, as well as in-depth analysis and one-on-one interviews with the digital leaders of big-city councils can be downloaded here.

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