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How might local government build a positive digital legacy after Covid-19?


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Eddie Copeland, director of the London Office of Technology and Innovation, looks at how some emergency initiatives could lay the ground for long term change

Local authorities have been at the coalface of the Covid-19 response, and here in London digital and IT teams have been fundamental in enabling remote working, deploying tools to triage and handle cases of need, analysing data and designing new services to support the vulnerable.

The London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) recently held a call with borough digital teams and their partners, which highlighted some inspirational work. You can view the slides here.

It provided a chance to reflect on the aspiration that these measures could be designed to leave a lasting legacy on a number of the functions of local government.

Supporting local democracy

Almost overnight staff and politicians have had to gain a level of comfort with online collaboration and video conferencing tools that previously seemed years away. That’s likely to leave a lasting impact.

Adur and Worthing Councils have done brilliant work to sketch out and rehearse a means of doing this using Zoom. At LOTI, we’ve put together similar guidance on using products from Microsoft (MS Teams plus MS Live Events) and Google (Google Hangouts plus YouTube connected via Wirecast).

What’s clear is that shifting a process online is not a matter of simply doing the same thing but through a browser: it also requires changes to policies, processes and practices.

For more inspiration on the art of the possible, check out Nesta’s Tools for Transforming Political Engagement.

Meeting needs quickly

Local government’s dominant model for addressing needs has been to deliver or commission a top-down service, and while some councils are known for innovation on service design, it's more common for them to make incremental improvements. But in recent weeks we’ve seen new trends emerging. These include:

  • Rapid (re)connection with the local voluntary and community sector (VCS), quickly building or strengthening relationships into solid delivery partnerships for meeting the needs of vulnerable people.

  • Mass citizen participation in community responses, notably in councils and local VCS organisations rapidly recruiting and deploying thousands of volunteers.

  • Extensive development and use of matchmaking platforms to connect vulnerable people with those able to help.

  • Re-evaluation of vulnerability and need. Some groups are becoming vulnerable for the first time and others are now vulnerable in new ways. Local authorities are now quickly trying to ascertain who may need help (see Hackney’s great data analysis) and how best to reach them.

  • Different demographics experience inadequacies in some service models. This can be seen among new groups of people having to apply for universal credit.

  • Rapid adaptation of existing or development of new services to meet new needs. Check out the excellent work coming out of Camden and Hackney with their partners at FutureGov.

  • Challenges launched to invite responses to specific needs. Some councils and organisations like NHSX and Public are stating the challenges they are facing and inviting offers of help that directly meet those needs.

What might be the long term shifts that result from these crisis responses? I hope the following.

First, we should see more serious consideration of alternative operating models based on a recognition that councils can go beyond delivering or commissioning services. Over the past weeks, there’s been plentiful evidence that local government can effectively act as matchmaker, incentiviser and convenor.

Previously, the adoption of alternative operating models was hindered by the cost and risk of testing them, together with a lack of evidence on how to transition from one model to another. But Covid-19 has temporarily shifted the balance of risk and reward, and soon the sector will have dozens of examples of these models to learn from and hopefully embed.

Third, the growing familiarity with ad hoc challenges should lead to their wider adoption for addressing community needs. If councils can learn to effectively articulate the challenges to solve rather than specifying in detail the solutions they believe they need, it could also open the door to more outcomes based procurement. That would help local government engage with a broader range of more innovative suppliers in future.

Finally, the crisis might lead to fundamental reform of some services, such as universal credit. And at a local level, as councils reconsider the nature of vulnerability in their communities, they’re likely to put in place structures that outlast the crisis, such as provisions to help the homeless and those in gig economy jobs.

Making, buying, sharing and re-using

Recent weeks have brought additional attention to the different approaches councils take towards technology, although many will use a combination:

  • Buy it, with an emphasis on re-purposing off-the-shelf tools to meet new needs.

  • Low code it, using software that can rapidly create new forms, services, apps and systems without coding.

  • Build it, showing a preference for coding new solutions from scratch or forking and developing code from others.

Some make impassioned pleas for one of these models over the rest. My preference is for a pragmatic approach, which considers the merits of each depending on what you’re trying to do.

What I think matters more is how councils combine their approach to technology with their wider digital approach. Put simply, those councils who are set up with truly digital capabilities taking in culture, practices, processes and technologies seem much better equipped than those that still have traditional IT departments.

Lastly, I hope Covid will highlight the importance of collaboration and working in the open. In a crisis, it’s understandable that organisations initially need to get their heads down to put in place whatever provisions are necessary. But as we transition to thinking further ahead, far more can be gained if councils share the challenges they see on the horizon, divvy up the workload of developing solutions and design things in a way that can be shared and scaled.

Using data better

During the pandemic, the negative consequences of data silos, the lack of data standards and other barriers have gained widespread attention. The Covid response is creating an environment in which breaking down those barriers has become a political priority and organisations can see first-hand what can be done at speed. For example, based on a request from boroughs, the Information Governance Group for London has been able to create a data sharing agreement for boroughs to share data between themselves on vulnerable children who depend on free school meals in less than a week.

The lasting positive potential of Covid should be an enduring commitment to rapid data collaboration. The opportunity is for cities to finally put in place helpful data standards, to invest in common approaches and tools for information government, and for forums for local government data analysts to become well used.

I realise that many of these suggestions sound like mundane items we’ve discussed for years, but that might be the point. Perhaps the single most important change will be that leaders, national government and local authorities are finally able to take the steps which many digital teams have long been advocating.

Now is the time for thinking big, and at LOTI it’s likely we’ll shortly commission some research on boroughs’ behalf on the future of public services post-Covid.

This is an edited version of a blogpost first published by LOTI on the Medium platform. You can read the full article here.

Image by CreditScoreGeek, CC BY 2.0

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