Local government’s digital development has stalled. After a period of innovation, councils lack the skills, organisational culture and leadership to exploit the potential for digital transformation of its services.
Those are the conclusions of Smart people, smart places, a study by the New Local Government Network. But the problems it describes run deeper than just digital. It is a window on wider local government weaknesses.
It describes a world in which digital development is still peripheral, with councils failing to exploit the potential of digital to deliver integrated and personalised services, engage and empower citizens and create greener, more economically vibrant places.
Perhaps the most damning criticism is that councils are failing to create a culture where staff and councillors feel trusted to innovate with technology and have the confidence to invest in it and use it.
These barriers to exploiting the potential of digital are undoubtedly exacerbated by the dearth of young councillors – being 40 is youthful in many authorities – and the lack of movement of staff between the public and private sectors.
But, as the report points out, there are other external resources councils can call upon. In the spirit of social media, citizens can ‘co-produce’ digital solutions tailored to the needs of local people. An increasing number of councils have hosted hack days, when local people bring their own ingenuity to bear on council issues, using the local authority’s data sets. Camden council’s hack day to find ways to use space in the borough more effectively and support welfare claimants to thrive, is just one example.
There is also a lack of sector-wide leadership. The report calls for a local government digital programme to attract graduate talent and encourage collaboration.
The NLGN report points out that local government is, unforgivably, falling behind Whitehall. The government’s gov.uk single website has been a striking success, greatly enhancing public access to government departments and services, while the Cabinet Office has been pursuing a vigorous strategy around digital procurement and skills.
It is ultimately attitude, not cost, which is holding back digital development in councils. Data from the Society of IT Management shows the average face to face contact in local government costs £8.62, compared with £2.83 for a phone call and just 15p for a web transaction. Digital technology also offers substantial efficiencies in time and money for services such as adult social care, with staff accessing and logging information on the move. Websites and apps do not have to be developed at great cost by blue-chip companies. Try going local.
This is dangerous territory for councils. If digital does not become core to their work, they risk appearing increasingly irrelevant to the lives of a growing number of citizens. Local government needs to make a big cultural shift on digital.
Richard Vize is a freelance journalist, communications consultant and public policy expert with 20 years’ experience commenting on public policy. He writes for the Guardian and the British Medical Journal, and is former editor of Health Service Journal and Local Government Chronicle.