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Councils and Whitehall ‘need new digital settlement’


Local authority digital evangelist Theo Blackwell calls for it to look closely at the principles of the new Government Transformation Strategy

Local government and Whitehall need a new “digital settlement” to promote transformation in councils, using the recently published Government Transformation Strategy as a starting point, one of the leading figures in the field has claimed.

Councillor Theo Blackwell (pictured), member for finance, technology and growth at the London Borough of Camden, has outlined the idea in a new personal blogpost that focuses on the local elements of the national strategy.

He says that, while there is not enough support for a local version of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the new strategy “leaves the door open” for a settlement between central and local government to be developed in relatively quick time.

The prospects are helped by the presence of several elected mayors and the emergence of combined authorities, and by groundwork of the past two years.

Blackwell outlines three considerations to make it possible. Firstly, to support a “coalition of the willing”, the 30-40 councils that are pushing ahead with their own transformation strategies and ready to take an ambitious approach to using digital technology.

There is also a case for supporting those authorities that are sceptical or feel they lack the capacity, but this would have to take a different form.

Platforms and start-ups

Secondly, there should be a readiness to use open platforms and start-up businesses that could provide solutions. This might need a change in procurement rules and more use of common standards, but some chief information officers are looking at ways to do this by plugging for a portfolio of risk.

Blackwell points to the Open Digital Platform Challenge in which a minimum of 1% of funds earmarked for NHS transformation would be used for open platform applications.

Thirdly, there should be more sharing of resources between councils and with Whitehall, with the funding for reform initiatives coming through joint investment. There should be more regional collaboration and use of cross-cutting initiatives such as the CLG Local Growth Fund.

“A substantial amount of funding is current or planned to be spent — but needs to be invested more strategically and in an outcomes-based approach: the final product of a new settlement,” Blackwell says.

CDO appointments

He also urges councils to think about appointing a chief digital officer if they do not have one in place, and urges that local government make use of the Digital Academy that is being transferred from the Department of Work and Pensions to GDS as part of the new strategy.

This could equip chief executives, directors, mayors, council leaders and cabinet members with a better understanding of digital and how it could be used in policy development and service design.

“This is a proposition that should be grasped by the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives immediately,” he says.

Blackwell’s overall conclusion is that, despite the main focus of the strategy being on central government, it has plenty for local authorities and that they should be looking closely at its principles for their own digital strategies.

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