In the second part of his interview with GovTech Leaders, Jonathan Owen, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils, talks about barriers to tech adoption, digital exclusion, GDPR, data management and what the future holds for technology at local council level
What are the barriers to technology at local council level?
I think one of the main barriers is, as usual, change. That’s why it’s important we achieve more diversity in our councils, which will bring fresh perspectives and better understanding of current challenges.
I also think there is a bit of a capacity issue in the sector. Most of our councils are supported by part-time clerks, so they don’t always have a lot of capacity or expertise to embrace some of the new things and keep up to speed with new developments around digital and technology.
Investment can also an issue, although I think that’s becoming less so as costs come down.
Are you seeing issues around digital exclusion?
There are lots of areas where people don’t get great mobile or broadband coverage for various reasons, including lack of infrastructure as well as social reasons. I know many our councils do provide facilities in town halls or in community hubs so that unemployed or older people and others can access IT to go online to access parish websites amongst other things.
From a leadership perspective we need to be thinking about where we’re going to be 10 years from now and the reality is that many older people are already silver surfers and know a lot about digital. As time passes, more people are going to be comfortable going online to find out about things – and they’ll want to find out information online – so I think we might have a problem if the pace of technology adoption in local councils doesn’t accelerate.
As a sector we need to ensure we’re riding that wave and picking up people who will want to access their services, understand their communities and find out what’s going on locally through websites and social media. I think it’s important we position the sector to think about the future and how we ensure it can capitalise on all of these opportunities.
How is GDPR and data management impacting local councils?
It’s a big issue for many councils, and I think they are concerned that the new regime is going to be quite burdensome for them. I think there are lots of companies out there who are holding several issues over the sector, including the large fines that are available to the Information Commissioner.
Much of the concern surrounded the need to appoint a data protection officer, which we estimated could cost upwards of £3.5m for the sector to comply with. However, NALC has successfully campaigned to secure an amendment on the data protection bill which exempts parish councils from the requirement to have a data protection officer. That will certainly help.
On a similar note, we’ve been working very closely with the ICO to get some very reassuring messages to our sector which is that we are a very low risk sector with limited use of data. If our councils are making good inroads into preparing for GDPR then we’re not going to be high on the agenda for breaches and we’re working closely with other organisations to ensure the sector is as prepared as it can be.
In fact, we recently had the inaugural meeting of a group we’ve set up to try to improve understanding of information governance generally in the sector, including GDPR and FOI, which is called the Joint Information Governance Group (JIGG), which brings key players in the sector together, hopefully with the ICO and DCMS, to shape advice to the sector. It’s a sort of practitioner’s guide to make sure that people know what it is they should be doing when it comes to not using their own personal email addresses but having a proper working email address through to how they can use social media and other tools to promote access to services. We hope over the coming years to regularly issue authoritative guidance to councils so that they’re aware of what they should be doing to comply with GDPR, which I think will help us.
Are parish councils working in partnership with larger district councils?
We’re seeing plenty of co-operation on numerous projects. For example, local councils are working very closely with principal councils on things like website development. Many counties have hosted websites for local councils in the past and they work closely together on some aspects of cyber security.
I think cyber security, in addition to GDPR, is one of the big issues that we really need to get to grips with as a sector. We probably haven’t thought enough about it. It’s not just true of our sector, it’s true of many other sectors, but I think we have thought that we’re probably low on the spectrum of risk, but as our services grow and the importance of the sector grows, I think it is going to be a risk. It’s one of the things we would like JIGG to look at.
Finally, what new technology do you think will be adopted by local councils over time?
I think digital mapping is an important issue and I think we might see more apps being created. We’re keen to support development of applications to provide better information. Above all else though, for me it’s about mainstreaming some of the current technologies, particularly using social media such as Twitter to engage with people who perhaps haven’t previously got involved with local democracy.
If you look back five years you wouldn’t expect some of the things that happened over the last five years to have happened, so it’s difficult to second guess. I don’t think as a sector we’re ever going to be on the cutting edge of new developments, but I think if they work for communities and for the council, there’s potential and appetite to get behind digital technologies.