Dean Wanless 26 April 2016

Silver bullet for digital strategies

Silver bullet for digital strategies image

Establishing a single standard for data management has numerous benefits. Dean Wanless sets out the criteria for enabling common working across the sector as it fast-forwards towards devolution.

Common data standards are as close as local government will get to a silver bullet that will transform digital strategy for the sector.

It is clear central government feels the same way about its digital future.

The last Budget saw £450m being pumped into the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service to oversee this very process for the provision of central government services. The objectives of ‘digital by default’ will be well served by this decision.

The silence surrounding the issue of providing a boost to achieve something similar for local government has been deafening. The Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) Local Digital Programme ploughed a lonely furrow over the last 18 months or so, but its achievements have been remarkable and, as it disbands, there is now a good idea of how data standards can work, how they can transform services and most importantly how they can make extraordinary efficiencies.

The release of the Beta Business Case for Local Waste Services is certainly an eye-opener. The project has created a series of common data standards that can be used for the management of waste services. It covers everything ranging from what different types of bins should be called to how operatives record and tag missed collections and how citizens interact with the service online.

The benefits of the single standard aren’t just operational. In addition to a seamless service provision, procurement of waste services becomes easier as the integration time and cost is much reduced if a supplier is plugging into a known set of data labels at the start of the implementation process.

It also reports on how the data can be carried out on a far broader basis so authorities will be able to easily pool their data together to see what regional problems or opportunities exist.

Over the course of the scheme, the local digital programme engaged with over 70 local authorities and 30 suppliers to get a taxonomy written, standards agreed and technology developed to make the data available on a common platform.

A small number of authorities engaged with the data to apply it directly to their services up to and including working citizen-facing web applications.

Some of the figures involved are startling. Of most interest is the conservative estimate that adopting these standards widely would result in £500m in savings for the sector over a 14-year period – the average length of two outsourced waste contracts. Imagine the savings that could be made if local authorities managed to agree common standards across all service areas.

More worrying was the estimate that 75% of local authorities are not ‘digitally confident’. They are not in a position to meaningfully start this process.

There seems to be a pattern: the most successful digital authorities are those whose leaders fully engage with the principles involved, rather than seeing this kind of digital strategy as falling into the remit of the IT department.

The real lesson is the scheme allows local authorities to work together to create something that is transformative, not just for the individual councils involved, but for the sector as a whole.

Not only are common standards a silver bullet for the digital agenda, but as we fast-forward to devolution, they will also prove vital in enabling common working across the sector. Unfortunately the DCLG has disbanded the Local Digital Programme so it is currently not clear who will drive the agenda forward.

One possible enabler for this is the practitioner group, LocalGovDigital, whose standards have been recommended by the Cabinet Office. These include use of data standards, common government platforms and open source tools and while it is supported by and mirrors the central government aims of the Cabinet Office, there is no move to compel local authorities to use it and no funding being made available.

It feels like a pivotal moment for the future of good digital practise in local government.

Turn the way of collaboration and good leadership and we get a set of integrated, efficient and robust digital solutions that will allow us to save money while improving service efficiency.

Turn the other way and we get digital solutions on an authority-by-authority basis where systems cannot talk to each other and need to be replaced at great expense every decade. One solution for each council is where there should be and can be one solution that will fit every local authority.

Dean Wanless is managing editor of The Municipal Year Book

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