A healthy digital future for local democracy starts with designing services around people, rather than bureaucracy, according to Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer at Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
Speaking at mySociety’s TICTeC Local Civic Tech Conference, Maltby outlined how it’s vital for the good of all – service providers and service consumers – that citizens experience an excellent experience when interacting with local government. “Whether it’s an online transaction, a face-to-face experience or an event, the enhancing the experience will benefit all, and technology has a role to play in achieving this,” he said. “If you look at it from the other side, if you’re a local government officer having to deal with some truly terrible tech or business models that make the working experience awful, the benefits of better, person-centric tech will be welcomed too.”
Maltby continued on to suggest that machine learning can drive a more personalised service that anticipates need and that digital solutions should be looked at to improve local democracy, ensuring decisions are being made well together, rather than being polarised. This, he said, involves stakeholders coming together better to drive buy-in.
“We can’t dream of a world of AI and robots if colleagues are still moving data from one service to another,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of groundwork to do to prepare for the future world.”
Positive strides – but more is needed
After highlighting how local authorities have come a long way in a short space of time with their digital initiatives – most notably the growth of online services, mobile responsiveness, and the fact service design teams are springing up to improve service delivery and user experience.
“As a sector we’ve made huge strides in a short space of time, but I think we would acknowledge that there are areas where we can do better. Legacy software gets in the way, there’s still an issue about our capacity and skills, leadership needs to evolve, the funding situation doesn’t make life easy and we can do more to share across the public sector.
“There are a lot of barriers, which is why we launched the Local Digital Declaration, which really outlined what we think great services fuelled by digital know-how should look like in the local government sector. So many ideas are familiar, but they’re still not default across many local services. That needs to change if we are to put our citizens and users first. We need to think more about data, we need to work in a way that’s conducive to excellent service delivery. We need to fix the plumbing – it’s not just about websites – it’s about getting the core technology right that allows us to deliver well-thought-out, well-designed services.”
Strength of community
Maltby confirmed that MHCLG has received 389 expressions of interest, representing 45% of local councils, in the £7.5m exemplars fund made available through the Local Digital Fund, confirming the interest the sector has in developing new solutions.
“I’m really excited by this – especially the fact that we’ve published all of the expressions of interest – whether they were successful or not,” he said. “This will help us shape the market ourselves. We’re seeing suppliers – new types as well as traditional ones – looking at this and seeing what the market wants and needs to do. It also helps everybody involved to see which areas are at the top of the agenda – including homelessness and planning.
“We’re trying to be a force multiplier for a community of local government organisations. We see this as a campaign, if you like, within and across the sector to bring together people who are ready to make change happen. Together we can drive service delivery forward.”