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Digital, data and the future of local government


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There is a thirst for innovation with technology among local authorities, but it needs a considered approach to produce positive results, writes Emily Douglin, director local government at Civica

Local government is under intense pressure in the UK. Demand for its services continues to increase while the squeeze on finances becomes tighter, some local authorities are effectively bankrupt and most others are struggling to balance the books.

But there is also cause for excitement as plenty of councils strive to innovate and change, using digital technology and data to do things differently, achieving more with less. This bolsters the case for investing to save, but comes up against the fact that money is tight and there has to be some smart thinking in decisions on spending and the approach to implementing solutions.

Civica has investigated the major factors – working with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) – for its The Future of Local Government report. It identifies six megatrends, each creating challenges and an opportunity: a changing workforce; emerging innovation and technology; participation and community; data and personalisation; placemaking; and changing expectations.

It also provides a maturity index on how councils can make the most of these trends. The key features are to: lead with data and technology; focus on outcomes for citizens; work with partners focused on place; and offer purpose, training and flexibility to employees.

Experts' discussion

Some of this ground was covered in a recent UKA Live discussion staged with Civica, involving myself, Solace managing director Graeme McDonald, Monica Fogarty, chief executive of Warwickshire County Council, Sarah Bullock, deputy chief executive of South Ribble and Chorley Councils, and UKAuthority publisher Helen Olsen Bedford.

It threw the spotlight on how councils can spend wisely and get the best results from technology and data.

A starting point for many has been to look at simple, high volume processes in areas such as revenues and benefits that are ripe for the deployment of robotic process automation (RPA). This raises efficiency and can give employees more time to deal with cases that are more complex and which, importantly, require a human touch to identity special factors, help people through difficult situations and build public trust.

McDonald pointed to the fact that a conversation on one subject, such as housing, can lead to identifying other pressures on an individual or family and how they can receive relevant support. This can prevent other problems arising, in areas ranging from family poverty to mental health, saving the need for extra spending later.

Such benefits are difficult to quantify but they contribute to the public good and show the importance of a human in the loop.

This will be particularly pertinent to the surge in deployments of AI in local services. Fogarty made the point that there is often a need for some warmth in an interaction with a member of the public, especially when it is related to social care, and as things stand that is not possible by relying solely on the technology.

First follower

She added that there is a significant risk of things not working as planned in the early deployments, and her council is aiming to be a ‘first follower’ rather than a pioneer. “We don’t want to be the ones to have an experience like (delivery company) DPD with a rogue chatbot that will damage your reputation and quality of interaction with your customers,” she said.

But these concerns should not be used to underplay the potential of digital and data for local government. Fogarty referred to a project using new forms of data collection and sharing, along with predictive models, to identify the risk factors facing children. This could be used to alert partner agencies of changing circumstances of individual children and the broader changes in demand for services.

“It’s about optimising the workforce profile to get the balance of automation and systemised processes along with complementary human interface and support and know where to target those to the most relevant services,” she said.

This all comes with the familiar challenges of continually monitoring and aiming to improve the quality of data, and ensuring it is used in a way that preserves public trust. Bullock made the point that local government is a political area in which one false move can be highly damaging, and that the emergence of AI is intensifying the anxieties around the use of data.

But it also relates to a positive ambition for local government to do more for citizens with the data it already holds. For example, the discussion brought up the potential for more preventative action to help individuals, and the optimisation of services ranging from school transport, provision for children with special educational needs, and health and care plans.

Control and assurance

It could also be possible to give people more control over their own personal data so they can provide assurance of its quality and make it available to councils for specific services.

There is also a desire for the stronger integration of services, especially between local authorities and the NHS, with talk about a possible resurrection of the Total Place campaign of the late 2000s, which emphasised bringing different services together into one place. Advances in technology have increased the potential, McDonald said there has been a renewal of interest, and Fogarty referred to an effort to do this in Warwickshire with the colocation of some council and NHS service teams. Sharing technology resources would also help councils cope wih their financial pressures.

But it would still require a significant investment for which there has to be a convincing business case. This is where local authorities can work more effectively with suppliers.

They need to share their problems before they think about sharing solutions, start small by focusing on a process within a process, and putting the problem statement out to suppliers, letting them play back how they can solve it. They can then monitor the results, identify and share the benefits and feed it into the case for further spending. This can be reinforced by continual engagement with the industry about developments in technology and how local government’s challenges are evolving.

It amounts to being a more intelligent client, which can foster more innovation with technology and support sustainability of the sector into the long term.

You can download the Future of Local Government report from here, and watch the recording of the UKA Live discussion here:


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