A governmental review says local authorities are lagging behind in transformation and need guidance from the centre
Welsh local authorities have some serious catching up to do in their digital transformations. They are using technologies that are 20 years out of date, few have skills such as agile working and user research, and they are too reliant on the private sector for solutions and leadership.
This unsettling picture emerges from a review of the sector, Why Local Government Must Go Digital, recently published by the Welsh Government. It says the 22 local authorities in the country need a national framework and leadership from the centre to make more of digital, but its author has said this should not be too prescriptive in its approach.
The review was compiled through conversations with chief executives, senior directors and IT leaders in Welsh authorities, the UK Government Digital Service, other organisations with an interest and input from two English councils, Camden and Devon.
A handful of shortcomings emerged, including a lack of coherent leadership, a fragmented environment in which even small local authorities have more than 100 IT systems, and a reliance on old technology. Councils were ready to emphasise new functions and redesigns of their websites, but few were making much use of mobile and only one had made a serious commitment to cloud computing.
Meanwhile, an over-reliance on the private sector for digital solutions has left councils locked into services that keep up costs and restrict the scope to change, and undermines their democratic mandate.
The review highlights three key issues that include the lack of the right technology and skills for transformational change. The others are that local government is looking to the Welsh Government to provide leadership, emphasising the importance of delivery more than the past focus on strategy, and that there is a need for collaboration in delivering digital services on a scale that can produce significant savings.
In response, it calls for the creation of a Welsh Digital Framework that draws on experience from elsewhere and has four key principles:
- Delivery that involves placing the user need first and using agile methods with an emphasis on communications such as Twitter and blogposts.
- Building the skills base with a mix of external and internal people.
- Investments based on iterative design and flexible procurement.
- Leadership, with the Welsh Government working alongside local government.
The last point raises the question of whether it should involve the creation of a Welsh GDS. David Jones, the consultant who sits on the Local Government Leadership Panel and wrote the report, says Wales could learn from the UK Government, notably in combining the executive and political leadership enjoyed by GDS.
“You can see how willingness to give air cover when executives want to do difficult things is important,” he says.
But Wales should not try to replicate the approach. Jones says that the conversations began with the idea of creating a body similar to GDS, but it became clear it would not be the right approach.
“If you go through north and west Wales, the type of frustrations you might see in the north-east of England about London imposing the digital agenda is the same in Wales. Some councils don't want to see Cardiff imposing digital on them.
“It would be better to set up a small team to help undertake existing projects that local government is driving forward. So you avoid the conflict of turning up at a council and telling them you know how to do the stuff and are likely to get short shrift.
“We proposed a small team tackling existing problems for which local government might not have the resource to drive through successfully. We need a more subtle and friendly approach for how local and central government work together.”
In other words, the body would not have the mandate that GDS has over UK central government, but it could be a resource to help with existing problems and projects.
Jones also acknowledges that the outlook is complicated by an impending reorganisation of local government in Wales. A plan is in place to reduce the number of councils to eight or nine, but the details are not settled and its progress will be dependent on the national election in May.
“I've spoken with chief executives and no surprise that high on their agenda are finances and the way in which reorganisation will change what their councils will do in the future,” Jones says. “It brings in a further complex dimension of how you will move digital change in that world.”
Whether the review will influence future strategies is unclear. The Welsh Government has published the review on its website but not issued an official response, and requests for comment from the Welsh Local Government Association have been unsuccessful.
The approach of elections for the Welsh Assembly in May is adding another element of uncertainty. It may take time after the election until it is possible for anyone to develop a clear strategy.
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