For at least the past decade, it has been an act of faith that local authorities are ahead of Whitehall in e-government and digital services. However a new report by the think tank New Local Government Network suggests that times have changed - and that innovation in local government is hindered by a climate of fear.
Despite citing some good examples, Smart People, Smart Places - Realising Digital Local Government paints an overall picture of moribund activity. It concludes that "councils currently lack the confidence and skills to invest in digital smartly and enact the culture change necessary for digital investments to be a success. This presents a significant barrier to widespread digital transformation across the sector."
By contrast, author Maia Beresford claims: "In central government much progress has been made on this agenda, through the creation of a single GOV.UK website and work on exemplar digital 'transactional services' such as visa application."
While Whitehall goes for "digital by default" a recent survey shows than only one in 10 respondents shad interacted with their local authority through the web, mobile apps or social media. "Just 2% of people surveyed reported interacting with their local council on Facebook and 1 per cent via Twitter, and of those that had, 74 per cent said they had been left frustrated by the slow response times." Local government has also been slow to adapt to mobile technology, the report, sponsored by Telefonica O2, says. "While people are increasingly using mobiles to access council websites, in 2014 only 31% of these sites meet basic standards for mobile access."
The report identifies three key barriers to progress:
- Skills and organisational culture: "The real barrier is a general fear and cultural resistance to change amongst some staff."
- Leadership at local level.
- Sector-wide leadership and coordination.
Some simple steps can change cultures, the NLGN says, for example by encouraging staff to innovate and experiment with new technology. "Trusting staff by removing 'surfing level' policies which restrict the hours staff can use social media in the office is important for developing the digital capacity of staff. Work should be done from all levels of the council to embed and encourage digital competency and awareness and promote digital skillsets as an important element of all job roles - not just those directly involving IT."
On sector-wide leadership, the report recommends a review of existing local government digital initiatives, which would decide upon the format for an overarching local government digital programme. "We know that in the current climate it is difficult to recommend the creation of a new programme needing funding and coordination from various existing bodies, but feel that this is vital if we are to drive change across the sector."
The review should comprehensively gather information about existing initiatives and their areas of overlap, and engage all stakeholders to flesh out the format that the local government digital programme should take. It proposes that the effort should be led by "an open and innovative organisation such as LocalGov Digital with the support of DCLG and research organisations".