A new briefing for local politicians and decision-makers on what will be required to deliver local digital public services was the centre of attention at this week's Society of IT Management (Socitm) annual conference.
The briefing "describes ecosystems to deliver open by default, digital by design", Socitm President Nick Roberts said in his opening address to conference, held at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground (cue a flurry of football jokes, for an example of which see the end of this piece).
For an audience not too long adjusting to the concept of "digital by default", it seemed a bit mean to introduce "open by default, digital by design". But at least the briefing deigns to define what is now being described everywhere as simply "digital" - usually, with no acknowledgement that this word was until recently a mere adjective, and is close to meaningless as a noun on its own.
Socitm's reasonable definition - though by no means the only one possible - is: "The word 'digital'... has become a widely used shorthand description to summarise the improved use of technology, digital resources and better information management."
As such the potential benefits of "digital" are "enormously persuasive", it says: "They have the potential to reduce costs, increase efficiency and deliver better outcomes. They can also stimulate innovation, enable new ways of working, and help to re-shape relationships between citizens, communities and local government."
The key to understanding "digital by design" is to grasp that this is a huge and fundamental change, the briefing says: "Adapting to digital is about taking the opportunity to open up and redesign services to achieve different and better outcomes in ways that were previously unimaginable."
Further in, it says of the business changes that will be required: "Information and technology are necessary but not sufficient for the scale of change required of local public service. Organisational change will need to be systemic, addressing people, process, information and technology dimensions and often be delivered across organisational boundaries... New approaches to risk and value management and to governance of multi-partner change programmes should be explored and shared widely."
Bold statements such as these have been made by Socitm and others many times over the past decade, but as councils adjust painfully to the ever-tightening vice of austerity, they are starting to sound more feasible.
Because while the current environment of cuts may make it hard to invest in "digital", Roberts told delegates, the same tough backdrop "gives an environment to make radical change essential".
Paradoxically, however, digitally-enabled services that are easier for citizens to use directly can also increase demand, "and local authorities cannot afford to deal with that increase in demand", Roberts said.
"So if a pothole reporting service makes it very simple, then you get a lot of reported potholes, and the expectation you are going to repair them - and that pushes highways maintenance through the roof". This could create a kickback against digitising services, so it is important for chief information officers to explain to their colleagues and partners in central government and elsewhere that improving services "is not a good reason not to do digital", he said. Instead, the answer is to adjust your planning: "You need to decide on policy and thresholds for service delivery."
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Chi Onwurah, who hopes in a few months' time to be the government minister overseeing public sector technology policy, offered some interesting early signals in her perception of what councils needed to do to boost their digital activities.
Cleverly using Socitm's own survey statistics to highlight gaps in good practice, Onwurah noted that "Fewer than 10% of councils received 4-star reviews in Socitm's better connected survey" this year, with most also failing mobile access tests. But she said "it is clear that many local authorities are too small to tackle all these digital problems on their own, and it is not fair to expect them to do what many large central government departments haven't managed."
In an answer that may hint at support for replication of some kind of Government Digital Service for local bodies, she said: "So we need to achieve collaboration and reuse to enable all authorities and the people and communities in them to benefit from scale of public sector."
Such a move would raises issues of leadership and culture, she acknowledged, but a forthcoming Labour Party report on digital public services - due out "in a few weeks' time - will add detail to the message, she said.
One theme that will emerge from the report will be a "need to make sure local and national government has the right skills to be an intelligent contractor", she said, again referencing GDS as "a great example of a pool of skills in government".
When pushed by one delegate to answer directly is Labour would pledge now to retain even the existing GDS if it is elected next May, Onwurah showed her top political credentials by refusing to commit her party's leadership even to keep the Cabinet Office.
And the best football-themed joke of the day? This came from conference chair Bryan Glick, editor of Computer Weekly, who suggested the windy conditions outside the hall - widely attributed to the tail-end of hurricane Gonzalo - might have another source at this particular venue, festooned as it was with photos of Sir Alex Ferguson. "Perhaps it's not so much hurricane as hairdryer", he said.
Pictured: Old Trafford Football Ground in Manchester, venue for Socitm 2014. Photo by Steven Clift/e-democracy.org
"Digital: Vision to Value: embracing locally designed, digital public services" is available for free download from: www.socitm.net
Socitm 2014: www.socitm.net/events/socitm-2014