Speeding up the process of digital change

In the run up to the general election promises and policies are being announced left, right and centre. In amongst them are fail-safe vote winners, those that make the pencil waiver in the ballot box, and others which confirm long standing views. But others have fallen wide of the mark, including Labour’s announcement to save ‘at least £8.6m a year’ by bringing local authority websites within the Gov.uk platform. Our feature writer Suzanne Danon looks at why the proposal is coming up against opposition.

Technology continues to develop and evolve at a rapid pace. The result? Phenomenal developments in the worlds of medicine, science, communication, education, healthcare, manufacturing, government, transport, personal computing and phones. Changes are so rapid that some phones we carried in 2014 are already considered sub-standard, and opinions voiced last year by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear regarding motoring advances will now be viewed as obsolete, for more reasons than one.

In the world of local government technology now plays a massive role, however a number of barriers remain in place right across councils when it comes to digital change. These barriers have led one chief executive to declare that ‘local government will be dead by 2020 if something doesn’t change’. To speed the progress of digital change along Jason Kitcat, Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, has called for a Local Government Digital Service funded and backed by councils. In Socitm’s Better Connected 2015 report, released in March Jason said in the foreword councils were facing greater cuts than any other part of government and increasing costs and demands for services risked ‘finishing us off’.

This increasing pressure means councils are left without time to ‘rethink services from scratch’.

He wrote: “So capacity is limited and, through no fault of the people involved, digital capabilities in the sector are very limited. Given all that, what has been achieved so far is miraculous –there is some fabulous digital work out there; some brilliant apps, websites and more as evidenced by this report. But it’s not enough. If we continue at this pace of chance, the transformation will only be ready long after our sector is dead and buried.”

He added that digital transformation needed to be turbo-charged across the sector, a collective approach to digital transformation needed to be grasped and a place which supports local government, highlights best practice and hosts reusable design patterns and codes needed to be created.

“In other words, a Local Government Digital Service by and for local government; not a centralising force, which I know many would rightly resist. We need to do this for ourselves, together- now”, he added.

In her position as Business Development Director for the Council Advertising Network, Katie Wright can empathise with the concerns of Jason, and also has a very clear insight into where some of the challenges lie in terms of overcoming digital hurdles.

“Some directors don’t see a value in investing in their website”, she explained. “This is partly because it is expensive, partly because there are too many cooks (members get very involved in the website because it is public facing), and partly through a lack of understanding that channel shift has a quantifiable value.

“While it is true that to achieve a successful digital shift is expensive, a failure to do so could mean the failure to compete in an ever changing market.”

Katie explained she has also witnessed situations where the hurdles involved in digital change frustrates web and communications managers so much that they avoid any change. “In particular, this surrounds outsourced IT and the ridiculous costs associated with minor changes. This is coupled with the amount of negotiation involved with each department to drag them into channel shift and the general debate around ‘great local public services’ and ‘innovative, efficient client interaction’,” she added.

Katie went onto to add that where councils have shown the most promise is where the chief executive is the ‘digital champion’ working with digital managers to drive forward change across the organisation.

Despite these internal challenges Katie agrees with Jason that councils need to work together to create a joint digital platform that can benefit local authorities as a whole at a time when financial pressures are challenging them all.

Katie concluded: “Councils face a multitude of challenges when embarking on digital change. The challenge might come from senior management, members or even external technology suppliers. What is important is that councils work together to overcome barriers through shared intelligence.

“We are already seeing this behaviour with the Council Advertising Network, where councils build scale to generate advertising revenue and work as a collective to add data to the channel shift journey. There are still many hurdles to face but together we can build a business case for digital change and advocate for a better deal with technology providers and the local community alike.”

It is clear that the general mind set is that digital shift must come from within local government. To make the change successful and to encourage councils to buy into it, this must be something which is owned by the sector. If a centrally developed model is used the focus will fall away from local government aims and move towards an agenda which central Government thinks works best. Creating a successful model and branding it to work for each council has far greater chance of succeeding than a centrally led model which fails to grasp the challenges councils are facing. 

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Sarah Jennings 7 Years Ago
A statement of fact on this (being purdah so not voicing an opinion!), the Budget last week included mention of a GDS role in the local government digital landscape, so it's not just Labour looking at this: “The digital ambition will extend beyond central government and arms-length bodies, to consider local services. HM Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Government Digital Service will collaborate with partners in local government, as the sector develops a set of proposals that will enable more customer-focused, digitally-enabled and efficient local services in time to inform future budget allocations.”