Interview: Martin Reeves, digital lead for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, talks about transformation, funding and the need to avoid the 'vanilla' approach
Ice cream isn't usually mentioned when discussing public sector IT, but Martin Reeves finds it a useful analogy when talking about what a collaboration between central and local government could achieve.
“It's not vanilla but a kind of choc-chip, rum and raisin stuff, about brilliant things that are happening in very different ways up and down the country,” he says.
It reflects his desire to see digital technology meeting the specific demands of localities and regions, while drawing on the work done at the centre, and sharing the solutions when they work for other organisations.
As digital lead for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), Reeves is thinking hard about the relationship between central and local government. Speaking to UKAuthority at the Civica Expo conference, he acknowledges that he would have liked to see money for councils' digital work in last November's Spending Review, but he is not writing off the prospect of support in some form.
“If there are propositions to transform our organisations and places, and a sensible idea on how to invest to return on the outcomes we want to achieve, you bet your life there are opportunities and propositions,” he says. “The maturity of this is that it's no longer about the notion of 'Give us the money and we will deliver on this'. It's about co-design and co-funding.
“On digital some of the infrastructure – think about gigabit capability and the broadband layer – will require national support as well as local delivery. It has to be a proposition that is strong, coherent and a new relationship between the centre and localities.”
It is all part of a dynamic that involves widespread agreement that local government has to do a lot more with digital to maintain services in the face of a squeeze on its revenues, while no money has been made available specifically to support the efforts. Reeves says some councils have already done impressive work in the field, but that local government as a whole has not done enough, and many councils have lost highly capable IT professionals.
He talks of the Government Digital Service's contribution and exploring how its work can be used by councils, without expressly calling for it to devote more attention on local government – a course for which there has been no indication so far.
He also finds reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects: the need for digital innovation is seeping into the mindset of local government; most councils have a number of younger employees who are digitally savvy and can see the potential in emerging technologies; and the Government's push for regional devolution could provide the scope for some investment in digital solutions.
“I think there are loads of opportunities for us to think more innovatively with the Government about how we fund and share risk on this and how we lead the change,” he says.
It also needs a change in the traditional thinking that authorities have all the answers to problems, which throws the focus on open data. Reeves is an enthusiast for giving people and businesses the chance to design solutions using public sector data, and for digital providing a platform to crowdsource ideas for services. This ties in with the scope to boost local economies, especially small to medium sized businesses, and to revitalise city and town centres.
But to do this, councils have to show some bravery both in opening up and sharing data; and he suggests that concerns about data security and privacy may sometimes impose an unnecessary restraint.
“We need to respect fears about data integrity, security, who owns the data and the protocols, which at scale can be quite scary when you think about the type of datasets. What I'd want to see is a lot more pioneering at local level on how we bring a lot of datasets in the purview of organisations and lay them out in a way that is led by local agencies, understanding the risks but also the benefits.
“The answer is to not necessarily go national and big scale on this, but to think about how local places can come together and be brave enough to try it. We are behind a number of Scandinavian countries, and North America, in our ability to unleash the power of that data in a more open way.
“I think government is saying the right things, the policy framework is right, but we mustn't get held back – which we have been for too long – by over-preciousness about data integrity and security, which is preventing some great vision on how we can re-use data and information sharing.”
He sees Solace as playing a role in this, working with the Local Government Association in encouraging councils to be bold but mindful of the risks, and showing where some have opened up or shared data to good effect.
On the technologies with potential, he talks about those that bring together legacy data systems, and new types of hardware that can be harnessed for remote working. It would be no surprise to him if this goes beyond the existing use of tablets and smartphones to devices that do not yet have big consumer markets, but which could be highly valuable in delivering services.
“Why shouldn't we be thinking of continued advances of augmented reality and other ways in which we can bring another dimension into the work that frontline practitioners do,” he adds.
Coventry on the Move
So what is an example of good practice? Reeves happily points to an initiative at Coventry City Council, for which he is the chief executive. Under its Coventry on the Move programme some of its social workers and health visitors have been setting up and steering people towards online networks designed to encourage them to use local facilities to become more physically active, with the aim of reducing obesity and cutting demand on local health services.
Over three years it has pushed up physical participation rates by 3%, a rate which could sound modest but which Reeves says has bucked a national trend and has made a start on reducing obesity in the city – at a cost of less than £250,000.
“This is multi-millions of pounds out of the acute sector in Coventry and that money is needed to be recycled into digital transformation or to be saved,” he says.
Projects such as this can show a return on investment over time, and push the mindset of local government further towards digital being an intrinsic part of its thinking. Reeves says this is exactly what he expects.
“If you ask me the question in five years time I'd expect all public services to be completely digitally savvy, understand the relationships they've got in digital terms with the people we serve, and where it's almost not talked about because it is all routine.”