A national drive is needed to help councils share best practice in digital local government, while avoiding a "one-size-fits-all" approach mandated from the centre, participants heard at a virtual debate hosted last week by centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange.
Digital technologies can help solve the most complex or "wicked" social issues such as supporting troubled families, Siobhan Coughlan, productivity programme manager at the Local Government Association, told the debate.
"The different agencies need to capture and share information to collaborate effectively and join up their support around these families. This requires a change in thinking and behaviours - it also requires an understanding of the tools at our disposal."
Chris Lindsay, head of marketing, global government and health at BT, said: "We are starting to see more and more... projects where cross public sector and health organisations are working to share information and work more closely together, [such as] integrated health and social care agendas being driven by the Better Care Fund to align resources."
However, for collaboration to be successful, new governance models will need to be developed, Lindsay said. "Because not all incentives are perfectly aligned across the public sector, [there is a] need to accept that sometimes one body might invest in something for others to benefit and vice versa takes strong leadership and vision."
Peter Wells, project lead at Labour Digital Government Review, agreed that "There may be a cultural issue of people acting in the interests of the organisation rather than the interest of the people we're all serving. Tech is one of the smallest of the issues here. Try data sharing by phone and people will hit the same problems."
However, he said there are also genuine reasons for bodies to be cautious about sharing data.
"We've got to recognise the risks when tackling this one", Wells said. "Some of those issues are currently, whether they mean to or not, probably slowing down some quite scary and unwanted data sharing scenarios. As a society it feels like we need to unpick a bit more the data sharing we want versus the data sharing we don't want; and then we make sure we put in some good oversight to check we stay the right side of the line."
Chris Lindsay of BT agreed that information governance is the key to data sharing, but he said it is also often used as the excuse for inaction. "I have seen organisations that take it very seriously, but manage to work out strategies for sharing and using data in a way that it is needed at the time it is required. It is not easy to work through, but it can be done."
Another key to digital collaboration is ensuring councils and other public bodies are using the same digital standards, said Rotherham Council corporate ICT manager Richard Copley.
"Open standards look like being the most likely way out of this tangled mess", Copley said. "I'd like to see all local authorities publishing the content of their websites as open data, to a central location."
In a tongue-in-cheek addition (indicated by use of a smiley), Copley said such standards could be "Mandated and hosted by LGDS [Local Government Digital Service], of course." He was referring to recent debate over the merits of creating a national equivalent for local government of the central Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
Phil Rumens, vice chair of the LocalGov Digital project, a network of public sector digital practitioners sharing tips, ideas and best practice in less formal way, welcomed the prospect of widespread data release. "That opens up a whole host of new opportunities, not least for citizens to create their own websites and services using council data and functionality."
However, some participants warned that central mandating of local action - if that was part of an open standards or open data project - could bring its own dangers. Councils' local democratic function means central imposition should be minimised, said Siobhan Coughlan.
"Councils are there to serve their communities and not the demands of central government departments", Coughlan said. "Councils have taken the time to understand and engage with their local communities and therefore the solutions they develop reflect the needs of their communities... a one-size-fits-all approach will not work."
The answer is to combine central guidance with local control, she said. "High level principles and standards will complement a local approach and help drive good design. Capturing and sharing good practice can also help drive improvements."
Solihull council head of ICT Steve Halliday said councils' autonomy must be preserved. "'Fragmentation' is simply the flip side of [the] democratic principle of localism", Halliday said. "If you "de-fragmented" LAs, they would simply be one central government faceless monolith. So fragmentation is not a problem to be solved - it is actually a virtue to treasure. Digital's challenge is how to work with that, not against it.
"Lots of innovative steps can be taken to drive out costs while respecting local decision making."
Phil Rumens agreed that "the ability for local people to decide the services they'd like delivered is the strength of local government. What we can do is, where councils choose to or are statutorily obliged to deliver similar digital services, join up those working on creating them to produce something better and cheaper than they would have done on their own."
Richard Copley said: "Something COULD appear from within local government if we can find the time (eg the stuff that Phil Rumens is doing). I just like the idea of creating a big(ish) team of people who don't have anything else to distract them. Certainly this would get us there faster." To which Rumens replied: "[Councils do] already have a teams working on digital stuff. The key is joining their efforts up and making collaborative working part of their day job."
Steve Halliday agreed that official backing of some kind will be needed for widespread collaboration to work. "I love what the volunteer digital enthusiasts (like your Digital Makers) are up to, but I fear for what will happen when our bosses ask us to get back to the day job. The joining up of the digital talent across local government needs to be properly managed, focused, prioritised and resourced."
NOTE: Views expressed by participants were personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employing organisations.
Policy Exchange digital local government round table: http://policybytes.org.uk/localgov/#!/local-government