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Local councillors ‘not digital dinosaurs’

26/04/17

LGiU survey shows most English council members look favourably on potential of digital technology

Local government councillors in England are generally positive about the potential of digital technology, but there is a resistant minority and a view that digital exclusion remains a major issue, according to a newly published survey.

It has taken in the views of 809 councillors and from 279 English local authorities, accompanying the publication of a report from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) think tank.

Figures in the Digital leadership, transformation and governance survey show that councillors' overall attitude towards digital technology is now supportive, with 70% saying it will have a positive or very positive impact over the next 10 years.

There are also majorities of 62% who see benefits in greater automation, and 70% for the use of big data in public services. In both cases, most of the remainder are reserving judgement while only a small number say the trends would be detrimental.

In 49% of the councils a cabinet member has been a champion for digital, followed by 40% for a chief information officer or senior director, 26% for the chief executive and 20% for the mayor.

The technology is seen as having the largest impact on increasing the use of online services (83%), followed by savings (76%), information sharing (70%) and customer satisfaction (62%).

Exclusion challenge

But significant challenges remain: when asked to identify the top three 57% pointed towards digital exclusion, 47% to service design, 44% to connectivity, 38% to cyber security and 33% to keeping pace with change.

The start of the possible report – authored by Councillor Theo Blackwell, cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at the London Borough of Camden – says the survey shows that local councillors are not ‘digital dinosaurs’, and many have strong views about the benefits that technology, automation and data could bring to public services.

But the relevant effort is not usually led by the very top decision-makers and comes through a variety of processes and plans, and “for a small and vociferous cohort, digital exclusion and the fear of the digital divide is a major issue,” it says.

For the next steps, the report says councils should be ready adopt the latest technologies, pointing to the promise of intelligent or robotic processes in high volume transactional services such as HR, finance and customer service.

It also highlights early progress with internet of things technologies such as parking sensors and air quality monitors. This is feeding the concept of ‘advanced urban systems’ in developing smart places projects.

Increasing data range

Councils are also looking at how technology in their buildings and fabric can be joined up to deal with complex issues in transport and social care, and some have an eye on pulling together data from a widening range of sources. This could include location data from mobile phones, information from personal analytics devices – covering factors such as health and social connections – and open data.

“The authority’s role here will be to enable the use of this data, through new platforms and approaches, for the benefit of citizens, businesses and economy,” the report states.

All this could be used to improve public wellbeing and prevent a sharp rise in demand for costly services.

It also advocates digital transformation being a central element of devolution initiatives – suggesting that early efforts in Scotland, Manchester and London have set a good precedent – and that there should be a coalition of “willing and able” councils to speed up transformation.

Framework ideas

The report concludes with an outline of a framework for local government to reduce the fragmentation while allowing for allowing scope for local decisions. This would include: better collective buying of digital technology; the adoption of common standards in service design, coding, data and infrastructure; joint investment in innovation; more sharing of products, including business processes and codes; and setting up multi-council scrutiny investigations into digital transformation.

There is a call for more support local authorities, notably in showing how the leaders are supporting innovation and extending the Government Digital Service’s leadership programmes to local government, including elected councillors.

In addition, it advocates an outcomes-based review of central-local government spending on technology initiatives as a step towards promoting further investment.

Theo BlackwellWriting in the foreword, Blackwell (pictured) says that leadership is fundamental to all this.

“Just as we look at the capacity of senior leaders and boards in the private sector to innovate, so too we need to support our own public service leaders to be world class by being open to the digital economy developing around us,” he says.

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