Mark Whitehead 27 June 2016

Views from the top on the digital revolution

Views from the top on the digital revolution image

A new world is being constructed on the instant exchange of electronic data, and the near-universal adoption of the internet and social media means ‘digital transformation’ is now the order of the day.

‘The transformation agenda has gone right to the top of the list,’ a local authority leader attending a recent roundtable organised by BT and The MJ said. ‘It’s not a nice to have, it’s a basic necessity.’

The whole context in which local government operates has changed. As another speaker commented, the advent of the smartphone has ramped up the level of service members of the public now expect. ‘Customer expectations are set at a level where we’re finding it very difficult to compete with,’ he said. ‘Local government has to step up a gear to get in pace with it. It’s not just about cost savings and efficiency.’

As another participant put it: ‘We live in the age of click-and-collect. We need to offer that kind of service to our customers.’

The good news for local authorities is that digital technology will go a long way to helping them meet the challenges of unprecedentedly fierce budget cuts, rising customer expectations and pressure to adopt new more user-friendly ways of working.

Not that using digital technology is actually a new development, as one council leader pointed out. Like most sectors, local government has been using computers to run its services for a very long time. ‘We’ve been engaged in digital transformation for decades,’ he said.

The talk over dinner took place at London’s famous BT Tower, a well-known landmark since the 1960s when it heralded a new age of high-speed communications. Looking out as the revolving restaurant provided a 360-degree panorama of the capital’s skyline, the discussion threw light on some of today’s challenges.

The event was taking place not long after the autumn Spending Review which left a £4.1bn hole in local authority budgets which, according the Local Government Association, would not be filled if every children’s centre, library, museum and park were closed.

The review virtually abolished the government grant to councils and made them almost totally dependent on whatever they may be able to raise from the business rates they collect.

The more optimistic flipside of the review, however, was the £1.8bn announced for investment in the ‘digital transformation’ of government services. ‘A modern and reformed state,’ the review papers said, ‘is built on the understanding that higher spending does not automatically mean better services, and by harnessing today’s technological advances government can modernise public services, saving money and improving citizens’ interaction with the state’.

The deal is simple: less support from government in exchange for more encouragement to improve services by going digital.

But the The MJ/BT round table revealed wide variations in progress. Some councils, it seems, are well down the road, while others are less well advanced. ‘Everyone has a different approach,’ a senior BT manager said. ‘Some councils are doing some really interesting stuff. We need to identify the good practice and support it right across local government.’

Those councils which have been most pressed to save money have looked to digital solutions as a means of achieving greater efficiency – so they are often further ahead than their better-off neighbours which have built up their reserves and have had access to capital.

Some local authority leaders at the event voiced concerns over the basic support provided by the telecoms industry and government. As one participant pointed out, the infrastructure on which digital communications take place is sometimes lacking.

‘There is a lot more talk than reality,’ the speaker said. ‘A huge amount of progress has been made. But I worry when people start over-hyping it. It’s no good giving people mobile technology if they’re out working somewhere and they can’t get a signal. We have to get the technological infrastructure up to scratch.’

There can be legal and cultural barriers too. Integrating social care with NHS services is a flagship government project with the aim of merging all records by 2020 so that doctors, care workers, the police and other agencies can gain access to an individual’s medical and other details.

But one speaker told of having fought a two-and-a-half-year battle to get the new clinical commissioning groups in his area to provide the crucial online information.

Nevertheless, if digital transformation is made possible, it can deliver huge benefits to the public.

One way is through a ‘self-service’ approach – giving people the tools to access services and deal with any problems themselves. In the age of interactive technology this not only makes services more responsive but also leaves the customer feeling happier.

‘If we make it easy for people to do it themselves they rate the service more highly than having to phone up and try to get through to someone to deal with their problem,’ as one participant said.

Budget pressures and encouragement from the Government has put devolution and combining services at centre stage for councils and the digital revolution has helped enable this. But it means authorities working together to produce results – local authorities’ proud history of independence. One speaker warned that co-operation is vital. ‘You can’t do it on your own,’ he said. ‘You need to work with like-minded partners.’

A major theme to emerge was the sheer amount of data now available through the use of digital technologies.

‘Big data’ can be overwhelming and must be used intelligently if it is to be of any benefit. It is only as good as those who are tasked with slicing and dicing it to extract relevant and useable information.

‘Across local government we have huge amounts of data but we need to work out what we want to do with it,’ one delegate said. ‘The answers are all there, but we need to ask the right questions.

Meanwhile, the need to focus on essential services was emphasised.

‘The critical thing for me is to retain frontline services,’ a council leader said. ‘So if technology means you can save on the back office so much the better. It means we will be able to deliver better services for our residents.’

No-one underestimated the scale of the task ahead as councils continue their progress towards a fully digital world.

‘The cost of transformation is high,’ as one participant put it. ‘But the cost of not transforming is higher. We need to achieve fundamental change, and I’m confident we’re going to do it.’

Delegates attending The MJ / BT round table were:

  • Wendy Thomson, managing director, Norfolk CC
  • Philip Ruck, head of paid service, Brentwood BC
  • Andy Wells, BT
  • Robert Tinlin, chief executive & town clerk, Southend-on-Sea BC
  • Ray Morgan, chief executive, Woking BC
  • Glenn Carmichael, BT
  • David Bittleston, deputy leader, Woking BC
  • Neil Wholey, head of evaluation & performance, Westminster City Council
  • Dean Wanless, managing editor, The Municipal Year Book
  • Peter Lamb, leader of the council, Crawley BC
  • Michael White, BT
  • Michael Burton, editorial director and chair, The MJ
  • Doug Taylor, leader of the council, Enfield LBC
  • Andy Taylor, BT

Photo: Pres Panayotov/

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