Analysis: Top officials in all areas of local government need to lead the way in harnessing the potential of digital technology
Everybody expects a very bumpy ride for local government over the next few years. Brexit is feeding anxieties that the existing squeeze on public finances will be intensified and councils will be expected to do yet more with even less.
Many agree that a key feature of the response should be a redesign of services in a way that gets the best out of digital technology. But this needs strong leadership, not just from chief information officers and IT directors, but chief executives, heads of finance and the directors of service departments. And they have a myriad of challenges to face in developing the solutions.
This formed the basis of the recent Digital Authority Forum – staged by UKAuthority with the MJ and sponsored by IEG4, GitHub and Microsoft – in which senior officials from a number of authorities exchanged their perspectives and floated ideas on the way forward.
Everybody acknowledged the scale of the challenge, identifying a number of barriers to the momentum for change: the limits on scope for investment; cultural resistance within organisations; anxieties around sharing data between organisations, even when it can provide for more effective services; and a lack of leadership at a national level, compounded by the absence of funds for local government digital initiatives in last year’s Spending Review.
But they also pointed to opportunities in the advances of technology, the potential of new internet platforms and the emergence of a younger workforce with strong digital skills. In addition, the momentum towards the integration of health and social care and the disruption from devolution provide opportunities to tear up old models of service delivery and take the digital bull by the horns.
Nobody claimed there is anything like a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with authorities holding different responsibilities and their priorities determined by local conditions. But there was a consensus on a number of key steps to getting the most out of digital in the future of local government.
- Leadership on digital must come from the top of the organisation, and digital leaders themselves should assume a place near the top of the chain - working with other senior officials and elected members on making technology a core element of long term strategy.
- Take advantage of devolution to shake up the design of service delivery, while harnessing the flow of real time information and sharing data between partners. Early signs have emerged with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s plans for a federated data system to support cross-agency working.
- Be brave about data sharing, recognising it can be a force for supporting individuals in need. The Information Commissioner’s Office has indicated that the Data Protection Act should not be seen as a barrier to sharing information, and that it has only imposed penalties on public authorities for data breaches. There are two steps to promote good practice that should be followed: the creation of data protection teams, and carrying out privacy impact assessments before any data sharing initiatives are launched.
- Look for digital platforms that could be shared for specific processes, notably those based on open standards to support interoperability. These will help to avoid the expensive and unnecessary duplication of effort that has plagued programmes in the past, and lay the ground for ecosystems of people developing new solutions.
- Give serious consideration to agile methodologies for any large scale projects. Breaking them down into small, manageable elements provides significant protection against the risks that often emerge.
- Be ready to learn from others in approaching cultural change. There is a lot to be gained from steps such as establishing an effective narrative at the beginning, engaging with the people who influence different groups, equipping people with the right skills and resources, and celebrating the achievements.
- Keep information security near the top of the agenda. This involves paying close attention to the Data Protection Act and to cyber security. There are already tools available to help keep cyber attackers at bay, notably the 10 Steps to Cyber Security documents from the Government’s information assurance body CESG, and membership of the Cyber Security Information Sharing Partnership.
It is a big, demanding agenda that is bound to hit setbacks and require learning from short term failures. But facing up to this agenda is a necessity for local services, and it will need strong and inspirational leaders to do so successfully.
UKAuthority has published a white paper with more in-depth coverage of the issues discussed at the Digital Authority Forum. Download a copy here.
The Digital Authority Forum: Leadership & the Digital Agenda was held in May and provided a practical, interactive forum to help shape the future of digital leadership across local government. Delegates included chief executives, leaders and corporate and strategic directors and IT, customer service and data managers from across the country.