Councillors aren’t ‘digital dinosaurs’ - but have yet to speak with one voice

Written by Rebecca Hill on 24 April 2017 in News

Camden councillor Theo Blackwell’s research finds most councillors are positive about technology but warns that delivery will lag behind without a clear framework for transformation

Many councillors have a good grasp of new technologies, and aren't 'digital dinosaurs' - Photo credit: Flickr, Kate Ter Haar, CC BY 2.0

Councillors broadly welcome an increased use of technology to deliver public services, but the local government sector lacks a consistent voice, according to a report from local government think tank LGiU.

The Start of the Possible, written by Camden councillor and digital evangelist Theo Blackwell in collaboration with LGiU, looks at how much technology has taken hold in councils across England.

It aims to emphasise the importance of elected leaders in driving innovation in local government, the need to increase collaboration across the sector and to encourage early adopters to start a coalition that will speed up transformation across all councils.

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As the basis for the report, Blackwell surveyed 808 elected councillors from 278 councils - 79% of the total in England - to assess how open to technology they were.

Among the respondents, he identified 373 “digital enthusiasts” - who saw the benefits of big data, automation and technology - and 118 “digital sceptics” who had more negative views of technology.

Blackwell concluded that councillors “are not ‘digital dinosaurs’”, with 64% saying that digital technology will impact positively on the wellbeing of residents over the next decade.

But the survey also identified areas of concern, saying that for a “small and vociferous cohort” digital exclusion is a major issue, and that fear of increasing the digital divide was a barrier to change.

“While this challenge does not stop change, it may impede progress or the pace of change so therefore remains a major digital leadership issue, not just a practical ‘channel-shift’ concern,” the report stated.

It said that mitigation against exclusion “should go hand-in-hand” with innovation, warning that if councils only focused on channel shift and efficiencies, the case for designing services around user need would be lost.

Meanwhile, those councillors that are more cautious about digital tended to see some services as being “too complex” to use technology effectively, as well as seeing cyber security as a problem.

"Many of the building blocks are in place."

The report also found that some councils lack a digital transformation plan, with just a third saying they had a specific digital strategy, and few respondents identified the leader or chief executive as the digital champion of the council.

However, Blackwell said that “many of the building blocks are in place” for a digital revolution in local government, citing good examples in Milton Keynes, Manchester and Bristol, and others.

He argued that this was the starting point, saying that the next question would be about how to create a culture that allows councils to make better use of technology, making it open to innovation collaboration and experimentation.

But in order to achieve this, Blackwell said, there would need to be a “redesign and reengineering on every level” of local government, from workforce to governance, combined with effective digital leadership.

“Just as we look at the capacity of senior leaders and boards in the private sector to innovate, so too we need to support our own public service leaders to be world class by being open to the digital economy developing around us,” Blackwell said in the foreword to the report.

A coalition of the willing and able

The report also calls for local government to collaborate more, noting that the sector “has yet to speak with a consistent voice on digital transformation”.

This is particularly true for communications with the tech community, Blackwell said, and suggested that the inherent complexity in some of the highest spending services, like adult social care, make it hard to procure solutions.

Focusing on collaboration between the most tech-savvy authorities - a “coalition of the willing and able”, Blackwell said - would be one way of speeding up digital transformation.

The idea would be for them to join forces to improve procurement systems, make better use of current infrastructure and share expertise, and then use this to incentivise other councils.

"There is a danger that the capability and deliver will lag behind the pace at which transformation must happen."

Blackwell also said that local government urgently needed a “clear framework” for transformation - without this, he said, “there is a danger that the capability and deliver will lag behind the pace at which transformation must happen”.

The report sets out a five-point action plan for local government, which focuses on increasing innovation and collaboration, between both councils and central and local government.

Among the actions is to create multi-authority digital innovation teams that will work to improve collective buying from the open market, make joint investments in innovation to reduce risk, adopt common standards - for instance on service design and infrastructure - and share products across councils.

The community should also identify leading councils to help promote these behaviours, and extend central government leadership programmes to local government, as well as carrying out investigations into digital transformation programmes on a council or multi-council basis.

There should also be a review of central-local government spending on government technology initiatives, research into a sector deal for digital government and a focus on helping scale-ups enter the market.

Responsibility for this should fall to a collaborative group of central government departments, including the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, and to mayors, combined authorities and the Local Government Association.

Finally, there should be more focus on digital transformation and innovation in all future devolution and growth deals.

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