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Whitehall, GDS and town halls must back a digital revolution in local public services

About 80% of public services are delivered by local councils – but Whitehall policy, Government Digital Service strategy and devolution plans are not focusing enough on local digital needs

Technology and digital issues featured heavily in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s latest Autumn Statement, with a focus on infrastructure and productivity – but not on public service reform or emerging “govtech” systems.

As the UK markets itself as a global digital economy leader, public services continue through a decade of austerity budgets – and have to plan for a future of “Brexit budgets”. As such, the omission of digital reform in local government must be addressed in the forthcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget.

Digital transformation is making public services more effective by using technology to dynamically design services around citizen needs, enabling speedier interactions and greater adaptability. 

Organisations are able to share information, while professionals and politicians can make better informed decisions and budget more effectively. If policy-makers seize the moment, there can be a tremendous flourishing of innovation. So what needs to be done?

City and regional devolution really needs to be smart devolution, with open markets for the tech sector to work with public services to solve problems and innovate.

Cities and regions outlined in Tech City UK’s Tech Nation 2016 report should all have well advanced digital strategies linking local governing vision with the tech sector innovation that is going on across the country.

There are 30 or 40 city, county and district leaders in digital transformation – that is progress, but much more needs to be done. Central government has a real role to play here.

Read more about digital local government

In March 2015, it was announced that the Government Digital Service (GDS) would have extra responsibilities for local government, a competence that was not previously in its plans. However, since then actions from government have been mixed. 

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) ended the Local Digital Campaign in April 2016, leaving it to a “coalition of the willing”. This programme has been renamed the Local Digital Coalition and is hosted by Camden Council.

Devolution deals struck between town halls and Whitehall don’t really have a strong or coherent digital transformation proposition. From a recent analysis of digital transformation in devolution deals, we can see that it has not been on the agenda of the Treasury or DCLG at all. 

Joined-up data

But devolution – particularly around health and social care integration – presents an opportunity to establish expectations around digital transformation for city regions. Newly elected mayors and combined authorities will need to be able to join up, analyse and act upon data from across their areas to identify the problems they seek to tackle and the service demand they aim to meet.

They need to consider how work on smart cities can be progressed  – alongside better broadband infrastructure, support for high-tech businesses, workforce and broader digital skills.

About 80% of the public services that citizens receive are provided by local councils, the rest by the NHS, government agencies and departments. As GDS develops its new digital transformation strategy, we need to go beyond a crude split between Whitehall and town hall competencies and focus more seamlessly on public services delivery wherever it happens.

In January 2017, in conjunction with the Local Government Information Unit, I will be publishing research on views and opinions of frontline and senior elected councillors, based on a survey with 800 responses in England. Provisional results show overwhelming backing among councillors for digital transformation to be at the heart of devolution discussions.

A plan for reform

So here is a plan for reform:

  • Whitehall and local councils – through the Local Government Association – should set out a clear ambition for digital transformation in public services by the 2017 Budget.
  • Scale digital leadership through working with the top 30 to 40 councils that are already making a difference. Following Tech UK’s lobbying, the Cabinet Office should expand the remit of the GDS Digital Academy to include local government. This will be key to ensure there is a national co-ordination point to provide guidance and support capability building for local authorities in achieving digital transformation.
  • New digital governance through chief digital and technology officers  (and their teams) who should be empowered to develop digital transformation in more detail, setting out common standards and data-sharing agreements with other local public services and, by necessity, central government departments. The CDO/CTO should ensure the city region’s key policies and strategies are aligned with existing digital ambitions expressed elsewhere.
  • Every devolution deal and council should commit to the Open Data Charter to be open by default.
  • Discovery missions to all public services with the aim of reducing and simplifying the number of IT systems to share resources and co-ordinate procurement more effectively. A future ambition here could be shared services and a clearer route to market for tech firms.
  • All local public services should adopt the Local Government Service Standard and Local Digital Coalition Action Plan, and commit to sharing code and interfaces with other public bodies to enable them to use our development to help them improve public services. This will help put the customer’s needs and experience at the heart of how new systems will operate and work.
  • Support the digital integration of health and social care across public services. Enabled by integrated IT systems, we can remove duplication of activity and streamline casework. By joining up information and using business intelligence tools wisely, we have a better chance of spotting complex needs sooner. Councils should express clearer ambitions over connectivity and the internet of things, including how the devolved area will work with providers to shape planning policy and capital investment.

Many major authorities are establishing a track record showing they know how to innovate and adapt. The opportunity is here to accelerate and scale this change if this can be matched by political leadership in Whitehall and town halls. Action here will be good for citizens, good for public services and another success story for the UK tech sector. 

Read more about Camden Council’s digital journey here. ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 

This was last published in November 2016

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