Stephen Baker, chief executive, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils
Digital services are now the ‘default setting’ for many in our communities. The use of online services, whether for shopping, banking, entertainment or advice is now a natural choice for many of our residents.
We have also played our part in encouraging this; not only have the retail and finance sectors recognised how services can be more efficient and accessible if provided online, but so have the public sector. Providers such as the DVLA have surged ahead with online services whilst others, such as local councils, have also provided a myriad of local services through digital applications and online access, driven by an ambition to improve accessibility to, and responsiveness of, services and to reduce costs.
However, with this new innovative, digitised, approach comes a range of new challenges and responsibilities. As communities and residents become more reliant on such services, and as the new level of instant access becomes the norm, we need to ensure that these services are resilient. This aspect of ‘community resilience’ is a new issue to address, and needs new thinking.
The term ‘digital divide’ is heard less often these days. Previously it referred to the gulf between the users and non-users of digital services. There is no doubt that such a gap still remains, but now the term can be applied to a new, extended, definition: namely the difference, in terms of access, between those with superfast broadband and 4G mobile, and those who still measure their broadband speed in kilobytes per second and are plagued by ‘not spots’ in their mobile signal. To deliver community resilience these issues concerning the access to adequate networks and minimising the fragility of those networks, must be addressed.
For some residents and communities the speed of the network is irrelevant because they lack the skills to exploit its potential. This is another aspect of community resilience that must be addressed. Digital services can be life changing for some of the most vulnerable in our communities, those who rely on more support than others, yet a lack of skills constrains their engagement, and reduces the potential benefit considerably. Beyond skills lies the issue of ‘confidence’.
Users of digital services, especially of those services that are critical to their well-being and involve personal data, must be confident that the online service will be delivered, and that their data is secure. Too often users still prefer to submit a claim form as hard copy, as this provides them with a degree of comfort that an online submission does not. However, if that claim is for a benefit that puts food on the table then one can understand why that is more important than, perhaps, a DVD being delivered by an online retailer.
What is the role of government in ensuring community resilience? Perhaps we need to act as advocates for local communities, such as when a broadband service is lost and a repair is expected to take weeks, rather than days (or better still, hours).
Certainly we should provide leadership to local communities, giving them the confidence they need to become resilient, providing the support they need to address local issues, and offering the encouragement that may be the difference between collaborative and networked communities, and those that are disconnected and not recognising the full potential of digital services.
With some support communities can develop the skills base, and level of confidence, for themselves. Indeed, a local approach will have the advantages of providing a local focus, with local reference points within the community. With support, local community leadership can help to address the issue of community resilience, and a community that is self sustaining will always be more resilient.
However, where communities are likely to require support and guidance is with addressing the issue of cyber security. A reliable source of advice and guidance on how to safeguard against cyber threats will become more and more critical. Whether it’s a local community group trying to provide information online or a local resident trying to access services, cyber security is important to both the continuity of service provision, and confidence in ongoing service use and access.
Government, whether national or local, is ideally placed to provide a source of trusted and reliable support for communities as they become more aware of, and respond to, the need for greater cyber security.
This article was first published in Local Leadership in a Cyber Society: Understanding the Challenges by the DCLG led National Cyber Security Programme - Local and iNetwork. Read the other featured articles.