ICT chief: Pace of change and poor leadership hampering councils' digitisation

Written by Rebecca Hill on 16 September 2016 in News

Local government is struggling to keep up with the pace of change in technologies and true digitisation is at risk of being held back by poor leadership, according to Tower Hamlet’s head of ICT.

Local government is trying to juggle rapid tech developments, legacy systems and changes in working methods - Photo credit: Pixabay

Speaking at an event hosted by TechUK, which represents small businesses in the tech sector, in London yesterday, Nadira Hussain set out some of the major difficulties faced by councils when it came to digital.

“For me, the biggest challenge is the pace of change,” she said. “We’re so knee deep in doing so many things at the same time; we don’t want to drop any of them because it could mean failed systems.”

She added that cultures within local government also posed challenges, saying that it was “often very bad at change management”. To tackle this, the workforce needs to be guided through the changes, setting out clearly what the benefits are and how it would improve services for citizens.

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Hussain also referred to difficulty in gaining the senior buy-in needed for creating a true digital service that went beyond channel shift.

“I’m not sure have adequate leadership in place,” she said, stressing that for some it was about “shiny toys” and keeping up with other councils’ cutting-edge tech – rather than using digital tools as something to facilitate an end-goal.

She also acknowledged that local government was still quite new to the agile way of working.

“We’re behind the curve,” she said. “Recently we’ve been trying to do things significantly differently. It’s just going to take time…It’s a very different set of behaviours.”

Advice for suppliers

Hussain was speaking at an event aimed at small tech companies that want to work with local government, with the idea being to show them where they could best focus their efforts.

Other speakers included Georgine O’Toole, director of analysis company TechMarketView, who gave a detailed overview of the “three Ds” she thought would disrupt the local government market: devolution, data and digital.

“These will start to change behaviour in the market, with greater collaboration between local authorities, use of more preventative analytics and deeper transformational thinking,” she said. “They are also facing up to greater budgetary pressures – not just cutting money out but also commercially bringing revenue in.”

Discussing devolution, she said that, despite some recent set-backs, “the train has left the station” and there was likely to be more shared services needed.

Her advice to suppliers was to recognise that local authorities may not look the same in five years’ time, and work with them on that, and to be aware that differences may become more pronounced between regions.

O’Toole’s other advice to suppliers was to focus on areas that are suffering the most – such as children’s services and libraries – and work out ways to help councils run them. She also said she expected greater roll-out of AI and machine learning, as well as using Internet of Things technologies for more complex social issues.

Meanwhile, Alan Mo, research director at business analysts Kable, said that suppliers should compare councils by the financial and service pressures they face and position themselves to suit the individual authority.

As an example, he said that councils under high financial pressures and high service pressures - bigger populations, more waste and more need for social services – are going to be under more pressure to act.

The drive to innovate might be higher here, as they need more radical change, but suppliers should be aware they may also be risk averse.

Although audience members welcomed the advice given by the panellists, many urged councils to set out their needs and challenges so businesses could design something for them – rather than tendering for a service they think they need.

In response, O’Toole indicated that, as local authorities move from simple to complex digital services, they are becoming more aware that the need this sort of support.

“We are seeing them coming to market looking for someone to partner them on a transformation journey,” she said.

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