Maia Beresford, Researcher at the New Local Government Network (NLGN) discusses the government’s ‘Digital Strategy’ and how local authorities should benefit.
In the UK 82% of adults are online. Today, the average household owns not just 1, but more than 3 types of internet enabled device, and 1 in 5 households own 6 or more. We buy our groceries and bank online, we use digital technology to share content and to work on the move.
In an attempt to harness the public’s appetite for convenient digital services, and reap the substantial cost benefits from doing so, over a year ago the government published their Digital Strategy. This committed them to a programme of ‘Digital by Default’ across public services.
Since then the Government Digital Service (GDS), a special unit sitting in the Cabinet Office, has been busy driving change across central government: transforming exemplar services such as electoral registration, consolidating government websites to a single streamlined GOV.UK site, and working on procurement and digital inclusion. But what has the GDS meant for local government?
The establishment of the GDS has certainly been influential in raising the profile of ‘digital by default’ in local government. ‘Channel shift’ from face-to-face to online contacts is on the agenda for most councils, and is understandably viewed as a way to save money and improve services. Many local government websites have been transformed so that online transactions are centre stage: whilst not yet the norm, ‘Pay it’ ‘Report it’ and ‘Apply for it’ buttons are now increasingly common on their websites.
The GDS has also been important in sharing good practice and setting standards across the public sector. Their principal aim is to drive change in central government, but they do have a remit to share learning and collaborate with local bodies to encourage digital development across wider public services. In conjunction with DCLG, the GDS has run ‘Really Useful Days’ where GDS staff share learning with their local government colleagues. They have also published useful web content standards 1 and digital inclusion checklists 2 that are being picked up by local government 3.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of the GDS is that it has been stimulating debate about digital leadership across local government. Unlike all other departments, DCLG has never published their own departmental digital strategy, and there is no single cohesive ‘engine room’ driving digital transformation across England’s councils. And in blog posts4 across the web, digital leaders are now looking enviously to the GDS and asking why not.
This is unsurprising since whilst change is happening, the scale of transformation necessary for councils can seem overwhelming. They are not just dealing with transactional services, web content and digital inclusion, but with issues surrounding investment in smart city infrastructure, ICT architecture, mobile working, and integrated and open data. And they are dealing with these issues in isolation and with limited individual budgets. Furthermore, as NLGN’s forthcoming research will show, they are facing stark challenges relating to local politics and risk appetite, and with deficiencies in leadership, strategy and in-house skills.
Networks such as Local Gov Digital, NESTA’s Code for Europe and DCLG’s Local Digital campaign are attempting to overcome some of these issues by sharing good practice, building and maintaining momentum, and growing skills in the sector. But these initiatives are piecemeal and insufficiently resourced.
Councils need buy-in from the top, a clear direction, more regional and sector-wide collaboration on contracting and skills development, and more support to leaders investing their time in digital development across the sector. NLGN’s upcoming report attempts to fill part of this gap by piecing together a roadmap for the sector. But councils and chief executives in particular have to step up to support their digital leaders and seize digital as an issue at the forefront of their agendas. Will your council be one to rise to the challenge?
NLGN’s ‘Shaping the Digital Agenda’ inquiry is supported by O2 and is culminating in a report that will be launched on 20th March.
New Local Government Network (NLGN)