Councils told to embrace ‘radical outcomes’ of smart technology
Councils should be in the “driving seat” of technological change, but need to rethink the role they play in their locality and invest in long-term planning, a report has said.
According to the think tank the New Local Government Network, councils need to become more creative in their use of smart technology, and improve their relationships with both the public and suppliers.
In a report published on 20 March, Abigail Gilbert, a researcher at the think tank, argued that technologies like drones, sensors, apps and blockchain have the potential to go “beyond glamour [and] allow for genuinely radical outcomes” for councils.
However, in order to take advantage of this potential, the report said that councils would need to rethink their roles in their local areas.
This will involve them bringing citizens into decision-making processes, being open about their failures, working to encourage new ideas and taking a more proactive approach to shaping the technology market.
“As the owners of assets, gatekeepers to data, makers of connections, and architects of public service delivery, councils should be in the driving seat of change,” the report said.
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The report noted that, with the sector facing an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020, there was a temptation for councils to focus on their immediate problems.
But, it said, “investment and planning is needed now to reduce demand and better predict and prevent problems. To do this, councils should be supporting the delivery of networked infrastructure, data analytics and public WiFi.”
The report made a series of recommendations for councils, including that they develop “sophisticated relationships” with providers and try out more creative models for procurement to bring in innovation.
They should aim to create an inventory of all the data they hold on local areas, and work across silos and sectors to bring together that information. Universities are suggested as research partners for optimising the data councils hold.
A further issue raised in the report is the tensions between the General Data Protection Regulation – which will come into force in May 2018 – and the Digital Economy Bill, which is making its way through parliament.
“Current conflicts between these two emergent pieces of regulation are creating confusion and uncertainty within the local government community which may stifle progress in data sharing,” the report said. “To overcome this, [central] government must resolve the conflict between the two items of policy and ensure that there is consistency of language.”
Writing in the foreword to the report, crossbench peer Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, also emphasised the importance of collaboration between local and central government.
“Data and commissioning processes must allow for a more collaborative, inclusive and creative approach,” he said. “For councils to achieve this, leaders, policy makers and central government must collaborate to resolve existing challenges and confusion around data sharing.”
The report also recommended that local authorities work to build up public trust in government use of data, and suggested that councils encourage people to play a more active part in decision-making about investments.
This would also generate data and increase awareness about activities that are happening locally, it said.
A further recommendation was the councils share failures as well as examples of best practice to stop councils reinventing the wheel or repeating the same mistakes.
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