Don’t let ‘perfect be the enemy of good’ on digital services, councils told

Written by Rebecca Hill on 14 November 2016 in News
News

Local government risks being left behind on digital services if it focuses all its attention on digital inclusion, an event has heard.

Striving for perfection might stop councils from acheiving service improvements - Photo credit: Pixabay

Speaking at a TechUK event on digital devolution held in Manchester last week, Niraj Dattani, a Labour councillor for Harrow Council, said that councils should aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later.

“If you think about the 15% of people who can’t access the service [then, in the long-run,] no one will be able to access it,” he said. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all.”

He added that councils needed to realise that the solutions to the issues around digital inclusion would not be solved in a single service or even by a single council and would require cross-government collaboration.

“To try and tackle it on your own […] is not going to work,” Dattani said.

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, agreed, saying that although concerns from the “digital divide brigade” were reasonable, they should not be used as a reason not to innovate.

“If the fear that 10-15% of people are being left behind is stopping a local authority doing something, then that is the wrong, wrong, wrong approach,” he said. “If it’s used as an excuse not to do things, local government will be left behind.”

Blackwell said that such an attitude showed a “misunderstanding of technology”, and that people should be championing the wider benefits of investing in technology, such as freeing up time for professionals to spend with people who need more face-to-face attention.


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Meanwhile, William Benson, the chief executive of Tunbridge Wells Council, said that digital leaders needed to challenge assumptions made about digital inclusion.

For instance, he said, a survey of residents found that 92% of those aged over 70 did not think age was a barrier to using online services, and that many people with lower incomes do have access to the internet, such as in shelters.

Speakers and participants at the event also emphasised the need for councils to gain a better understanding of their residents and remember that they are there to serve a purpose.

“People are interacting with you because they have to; they don’t want to,” said Dattani. “I’m always disappointed in the lack of awareness that you’re a provider.”

Dattani also called on councils to do more to encourage innovation, saying they should ring-fence part of their budget for innovative ideas and make sure they employed their own in-house tech teams.

“You need innovation in-house,” he said. “You can’t outsource innovation: when you outsource, innovation is always the thing that happens over there.”

He urged councils not to be “scarred by the past when local government didn’t do this well”, saying that there was much more talent available and that tech is no longer about managing a fleet of computers.

And it is particularly important that councils managing more devolved powers led the way on innovation, because they would be looked up to by other local authorities. “You’ll give confidence internally and to uses, but also to the rest of the country,” he said.

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