Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceQ&A – Jonathan Owen and the role technology is playing at local council level – part 1

Q&A - Jonathan Owen and the role technology is playing at local council level - part 1

Austin Clark talks to Jonathan Owen, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils, about the role technology plays at local council level

Jonathan Owen from NALCAustin Clark talks to Jonathan Owen, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils, about the role technology plays at local council level

There’s a lot of talk about technology and plenty of investment in digital transformation within the public sector at a central and regional government level. How is this cascading down to local council level?

Local council level is the 10,000 parish and town councils in England who make up the first tier local government and invest in the region of £2bn in communities and the local economy when you add in all the volunteering hours from the 100,000 councillors and other spending and things that they attract. That means it’s a sector with a tremendous influence – and one that’s growing. As a result of austerity and devolution of services, local councils are getting much more involved in providing local services that had previously been run by district, county or unitary authorities. While they focus on adult social care, health and other statutory services, local councils are picking up a range of other discretionary services other tiers simply can’t afford any more.

I think the sector is transforming and technology has a big role to play in helping that transformation. For example it can help councils become more efficient and effective and, most importantly, it can help them engage with their communities. That’s vital. Our councils are the first tier of local government and therefore closest to communities. It’s important they reach out, especially to younger people that perhaps aren’t looking at traditional noticeboards, but who are online and interested in their area and want to find out stuff through social media.

As a sector, because we’re growing, developing and changing, we’re probably at an early stage of the digital journey. That means there’s huge potential for the sector to embrace digital more. It is doing so now and will do increasingly, but we probably need to look to accelerate this.

How do you see local councils adopting technology?

Website usage is a great first example. The Stone Parish Council website reflects what you expect to see in a site – it’s got the ‘I want to’ function, but they’ve also been using it to engage with residents about budgets, which I think is important. This helps citizens understand how their local council is spending their small share of council tax. Local councils often don’t have the resources to send out loads of leaflets or organise loads of meetings, but simple material on a website can really drive knowledge and communication. Another good example of a local council website is Frome in Somerset where citizens have been able to vote in the People’s Budget.

An added benefit is it helps with transparency, which is an important element of localism. Councils are using their websites to increase understanding of corporate governance, processes, budgets and a whole range of other information. And that’s something we’ve had to do because of changes to transparency rules.

You alluded earlier to technology helping local councils to communicate with different audiences. Is this something you hope to see develop further?

We recently secured £5m funding from central government help our  councils including providing grants around 5,000 of the smallest councils, enabling them to invest in websites and the capacity to put their minutes and financial information online. So that’s making more people aware of what councils are doing. Once you have a basic website or basic web presence you’re likely to grow it – and in turn grow your audience demographics.

But I want us to go further and see digital used to encourage more people to get involved in the work of local councils. At NALC we’ve set up a Diversity Commission which is exploring how we can encourage more people from different backgrounds to get involved and stand for election. At the moment, of our 100,000 councillors only about 40 per cent of them are women. We’d like to see that number grow. If you look at age, under 45s only account for about 11 per cent of councillors. Again, I think the use of technology, especially when people can hold meetings digitally, which is not a case now as there all sorts of rules and restrictions, it might enable more people to get involved in local democracy. That has got to be a good thing for the country as we go through the reconstruction period following the Brexit discussion. It’s about reconnecting with communities, and local councils have a key part to play in that – the digital agenda will help councils reach out not just to the people they normally have good relationships with but to those people who want to access information on the go by phone, tablet or whatever.

Is the cost-saving aspect of technology something local councils can benefit from?

The bulk of our councils are very small, around 6,000 spend under £25,000, so there probably aren’t huge economies of scale to be achieved through going digital. Having said that, a number of small councils in places like Dunkerton in Avon and Clutton in Somerset are moving to paperless meetings and using audio visual technology to put up meeting materials, planning applications and that kind of thing. Other councils are using CRM systems for bookings such as leisure facilities.

So, it’s certainly true for our larger town councils, but less true for the smaller ones. But again, I think there is huge scope going forward as we embrace and develop new services for our councils.

One local council has gone into partnership with a local provider of technology to introduce free Wi-Fi into their village centre. Do you expect to see more initiatives like this?

I think councils need to help their communities and give residents what they want. It won’t surprise you to hear that a lot of our councils are in areas where there’s poor broadband or mobile connectivity and they’ve been lobbying hard for better connections. Some have put in their own transmitters, working with other organisations to do it. Uppingham in Rutland has a neighbourhood plan that requires a certain number of new houses to have internet connections to the home. Many of our councils run markets and try to put in hotspots.

There’s a growing recognition in our sector that if local people and local community groups don’t do things then they won’t happen. They’re often the very tangible things. A district or county council focus on and invest resources on strategic economic development. But having better wifi in a small town is just as important. Little things make big things happen.

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