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Councillor calls for stronger Whitehall role in local digital


Camden’s member for technology Theo Blackwell points to need for new thinking council’s digital strategies

One of local government’s leading advocates of digital transformation has called for closer working between Whitehall and local authorities on the latter’s efforts in the field.

Councillor Theo Blackwell (pictured), cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at the London Borough of Camden, has also urged councils to change their thinking on how they approach digital transformation, especially in aligning it with wider corporate strategies.

Writing in a personal blogpost, Blackwell says the Government Digital Service (GDS) should have a role working with councils to help them deal with significant regulatory change such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

He points out that, while there have been earlier indications of the GDS remit extending to local government, some momentum was lost with the termination of the Department of Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital Campaign in March of this year. Also, he claims there has been no “extended thinking” on digital by HM Treasury, and that pre-publication reports on leaks of the new GDS strategy suggest it is not dealing with the issue.

“Whitehall and local councils – whether through combined authorities, London government or in local alliances – should be prepared to invest in digital leadership capacity building on a grander scale,” Blackwell says.

Unifying vision

This relates to his call for more collaboration, and the need for a “unifying vision or vehicle for digital transformation in local government”. While he says this is not currently in place, he points out that groups such as public sector IT association Socitm, the Local Digital Coalition and the Local Government Authority are developing thinking in the area.

Among his other recommendations is that councils need to ensure that digital is integrated into everything they do and weave it into the next iterations of their corporate plans and financial strategies. This would involve not just their own work, but building coalitions with like-minded partners.

Blackwell points to Bournemouth Borough Council’s Ambition 2020 document as an example of how this could be done.

Resource challenge

He also acknowledges that there is a big challenge in finding the resources to deal with the legacy technology issues that often hold back transformation plans. Councils have to look across their systems and automate transactions wherever possible, but often they have not identified adequate capital or revenue resources.

Among his other observations are that:

  • So far many councils appear reticent to express their digital ambitions.
  • They should go further than channel shift, especially in looking to the more in-depth use of data.
  • Many are recognising that technology platforms can be used to make decision-making faster and more adaptable with solutions that are easy to share.
  • Digital has to be brought into discussions on devolution, although there are signs of progress here with the plans for the Greater Manchester Authority.
  • Councils have to harness innovation better. Keeping an eye on developments around smart places will play an important part in this.

Blackwell also emphasises that ‘digital’ is about more than technology, and should be considered as a broader term for corporate values and practices that capitalise on the opportunities presented by the internet.

“Successful digital organisations tend to develop operating models clustered around speed, adaptability and sharing,” he says.

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