Jos Creese 24 September 2015

Digital power

Devolution is essentially about power sharing, about empowering cities and counties previously bound to the whim of Westminster.

But it can be about much more than that, too. With the availability of low cost, easy-to-use digital tools, such as social media, even the individual citizen could now be entrusted with decisions affecting them and their community. An exciting proposition indeed.

Rather than devolution threatening UK democracy as some believe, it might just be the thing that invigorates it, especially given the low level of participation in political and community affairs by young people. Just look at what happened in Scotland.

The fear lies in the risk of mini empires emerging from devolution which do not function together, creating anarchy and inefficiency which could limit economic output, compromise social value or undermine our shared security. By failing to act together on topics such as environmental protection, educational standards, public protection and infrastructure we are all impoverished.

A decade ago I might have shared those misgivings, and I certainly believe that the strength of the UK lies in our ability to work together on common issues for common good. Today, however, with effective use of new technologies, we can ensure the necessary level of regulation, transparency and UK-wide coordination, whilst empowering communities to take decisions about their areas and individuals to take decisions about their lives. That's what 'digital' is about.

Take policing for example. We have spent more than 15 years debating the pros and cons of a national force versus the value of local policing.

'National' offers common standards, economies of scale, shared investigations and pooling of specialist police services and resources. 'Local', on other hand, is popular, allows faster adaption to local needs, interacts with related community services and makes local political alignment easier. 'Local' can also encourage a shared approach to community safety and social challenges, such as crime or 'troubled families'.

Governance models need to be put in place to support both local and central together, with IT used to collaborate – sharing systems, data and services – you can 'have your cake and eat it too'. So, for example, there can be a national police force, but with local delivery where it matters most. The same applies to other 'blue light services', local council services, schools and more. I admit it doesn't work for defence, but that really is a special case.

I would therefore see the opportunities for technology to drive devolution as:

• A safe and easy interchange of data between systems, organisations and geographies – data and information drive better services and it's critical for successful devolution, unlocked information from within proprietary or bespoke applications.

• The transparency and tracking of the value from investments made locally – addressing the worry that devolving money down the food chain will result in its dilution, waste, misuse or even abuse, let alone an inability to do the 'big stuff'.

• The use of simple, collaborative tools to join up professionals around the tiers of government – changing the culture of organisational and professional silos, by moving to preferred model of virtual teams working in areas area around individual community and citizen needs.

• Better use of information, addressing the issues of security, protective marking, privacy and the primacy citizen ownership of data. This will be essential in retaining public trust in the data held by public services, and ultimately trust in public services.

• The adoption of common standards for interoperability and open architectures, taking the plunge and challenging the proprietary lock-in of data when it restricts. This includes accepting a common architecture of digital design, such as policies and principles for high quality digital solutions. There is no reason I can see why the vision created by the GDS could not be subscribed to by devolved services without compromising local priorities and delivery – devolution does not necessarily imply an abandonment of national solutions.

So, devolution enabled by technology can empower us all to take more interest in local politics, local services and decisions which affect us all. Devolution without this is just power sharing amongst the already powerful.

Jos Creese is principal analyst for the Local Government Executive Briefing Programme at Eduserv and former CIO at Hampshire County Council.

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