Why some UK local authorities are stuck in in a digital Stone Age

Written by Ross Harling on 30 November 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Ross Harling of Netitude lifts the lid on the findings of a study which shows UK councils are failing to recognise some major opportunities of digitisation

Across the UK every local authority is feeling pressure from above and below to improve their services by fully embracing 'digital transformation'. 

However, a recent study of UK council transformation plans has found critical flaws repeated across the board, especially when assessed against those of towns and cities in the US, Canada, and Australia. The majority of UK councils were found to be focused purely on internal drivers, without addressing the opportunities to create new operating models for the council and its service users. Many also failed to address the prospect of attracting to their locale the fast-growing digital, media, and e-businesses that will underpin the future UK economy. 

And, worryingly, the cultural challenge of digital transformation was often ignored, for example by leaving technology delivery choices solely in the hands of the ‘HIPPOs’ – highest-paid people in the office – rather than opening them up to the views of the public and other stakeholders, who could understand the effects from the ground up.

The first consideration for public-sector transformation investments has be the value that it will create, be that in monetary savings, productivity, or effectiveness in alleviating need. This starts by developing a ‘preactive’ vision and plan for how a council will operate in the future, one that predicts and anticipates a hopefully positive future and finds ways of accelerating towards it. 


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A substantial minority of councils’ plans focused exclusively on paring overheads and services to the bone, without considering the impact of their loss, or how to properly replace their function. Efficiency is always a necessity but a positive balance sheet doesn't always translate to real world success.

Another shortcoming was in failing to recognise the wider opportunities that digitisation brings. In many countries, high-speed digital communications are now seen as the ‘5th utility’, with local authorities acting as the catalyst for a digital infrastructure that attracts new high-salary businesses.

This has happened before, when the local investors of the 18th century built roads and canals to feed the first industrial revolution. Evidence shows that when local government invests in the right infrastructure, the area becomes a cradle for digital growth – whether it is a busy city or a remote island. 

Lastly, the internal culture of any organisation, whether public or private, can be the biggest obstacle to change. In the full sense of digital transformation, many council jobs and services have to transform along with the technologies. Realigning departments and services to be customer centric looks good on paper, but traditional hierarchies mean this can be slow and painful for all concerned. 

Competent leadership and management is vital – just one intransigent executive can stall progress to the point where any notion of transformation is long forgotten.

Changes within all local councils are inevitable and, with a positive approach, can provide efficient and effective services in the future. Digitisation may be seen as the silver bullet for these changes. But it is only with skill, practice, and careful aiming that it will meet its target.

 

About the author

Study author Ross Harling is an expert evaluator for the EU Commission and head of commercial development for Netitude Limited. He can be contacted here.

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