Digital transformation will not happen across local government - so what's the alternative?

We often hear local government talked about as if it were a single entity. It’s particularly common in digital circles – “We need a digital transformation of local government!” being a typical clarion call.

But of course local government is not an entity – it’s 433 independent, democratically elected and often feisty and protective organisations. They each take their responsibilities for delivering local public services very seriously – as they should – and highlight the critical role they play in the community, in enabling local democracy, and supporting those in society who need the most help, such as social care and children’s services.

And every one of them is under threat as a result of ongoing austerity cuts in their budgets imposed from Westminster. Most are waiting for George Osborne’s impending spending review to find out just how tough the next five years are going to be – having already cut 30% or more of their costs in the last five.

There will be council leaders ideologically opposed to the cuts who will let their services dwindle to the point of crisis and use that as a stick to beat the government. There are others who say, with justification, that digital transformation is the only way to save local public services.

But perhaps it’s time to admit that digital transformation of local government in its entirety, as it exists now, is a pipe dream, an impossibility, and will never happen.

No precedent

There is no precedent in any sector for transforming 433 independent bodies using technology or any other means. It was notably tried in the NHS – the disastrous National Programme for IT similarly tried to impose digital transformation on the 400-plus independent organisations that make up the NHS (not to mention the 8,000-plus GP practices) and ended up wasting more than £10bn of taxpayers’ money in failing to do so.

Local authorities are no more likely to accept or respond to any such central initiative. And it’s increasingly clear that the diversity of opinion, experience and leadership across the sector means that those 433 councils are not all going to achieve digital transformation on their own.

In the past year, I’ve been fortunate to chair the three major conferences of Socitm, the local government IT managers group – the latest of which took place earlier this week in Leicester. All three events have been startlingly similar.

There are a number of standout councils and leaders doing some incredible work on digital transformation – Peterborough, Leeds, Camden, Bristol, Newham, Surrey, Edinburgh, Hampshire and others to whom I apologise if I fail to mention. But they remain in the minority of those 433. At each Socitm event, it’s the same people presenting, and the same people just listening.

For every Peterborough that is using internet of things technology to transform social care, there’s a 10-year outsourcing deal elsewhere signed with a Capita or a Serco. For every Bristol becoming a smart city, there’s a council building its own datacentre.

Fellow technology journalist Derek du Preez wrote a good overview of the issue at Diginomica, here, which is worth a read too.

Luddites vs revolutionaries

Across the sector there are as many charismatic luddites as there are digital revolutionaries – and it’s going to take a generation for that to change.

One such charismatic luddite – and proudly so – is Sevenoaks District Council leader and a leading figure in the Local Government Association (LGA), Peter Fleming, who spoke at Socitm this week. He’s a man with a huge and engaging personality, who talked passionately of his belief that every council is unique, and that the sector needs a greater decentralisation of power to serve the specific local needs of their communities. He defines local public services by place; he opposes the idea of standard platforms and systems.

At the opposite end, among the digital revolutionaries, you find the view (which I would support) that the vast majority of what every one of those 433 bodies do is the same and therefore could be standardised using technology. To them, the only unique thing about a local authority is the sense of place – place should be the local layer that sits on top of standard digital platforms for housing, transport, waste management, care services and so on.

It’s about an organisation defined by place, against public services localised by place.

I wrote here after Socitm’s April conference that the sector needs radical change – a wholesale overhaul that could reduce it to maybe 20 or 30 devolved administrative organisations with councils replaced by smaller, leaner local delivery units adding the sense of place and community to the more generic public services the 20 or 30 operations provide. Think of it as more of a hub and spoke set-up than the current arrangements. Digital makes that possible – even preferable – compared to a structure that was designed in the 19th century.

Every council has already done its salami slicing to meet austerity targets. The only way to cut further and maintain local services is to take 30% or more out of the cost of the local government sector as a whole, not from the cost of each of 433 individual, separately managed entities. That requires radical, sector-wide change, for which there is currently zero appetite.

So the digital revolutionaries will carry on, and will show what can be done. But it won’t be done – not everywhere, and not to the scale that the sector desperately needs, at least not for many years.

Start again

If you accept that argument, then it leads to an obvious question – do we need to start again? Does the delivery of local public services need to be redesigned from scratch? Should we switch funding away from every luddite to a digital revolutionary and let them build not just a new council for their region, but a new sector? Simply let those who cannot or will not change whither – but maintain services until their revolutionary counterparts can take over? That’s how it works in industry – for every Netflix there’s a Blockbuster.

The revolutionaries might like that idea, but of cours e that’s not going to happen either. Central government won’t take on the challenge of restructuring local government because it knows councillors would never accept it – so instead they are hit with more and bigger budget cuts to make them decide for themselves. Local authorities won’t come together as one to reshape the sector, because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – or at least, councillors and CEOs don’t vote themselves out of power or out of a job.

It’s not going to come from the Government Digital Service (GDS) either – their remit is firmly on central government, and their message to local authorities is primarily to encourage them to use the tools GDS has developed for Whitehall – G-Cloud,, the Crown Hosting Service, government as a platform, and so on. Besides, GDS is busy trying to protect its own budget.

A question of leadership

Peter Fleming made an interesting observation in his Socitm talk – he said he hoped one day to see heads of children’s services or other lines of business attending a Socitm conference. I’d throw that back and ask how many IT managers get invited to LGA or Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) meetings?

An interactive straw poll among Socitm delegates asked what was the biggest factor holding back their digital efforts – by far the most popular response was “leadership”, selected by half of those taking part; the implication being that executive leadership at council level is a problem.

Of course you could say – well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

But a common factor in the stories of all the successful digital revolutionaries talking at Socitm was the top-level support, backing and investment given to their initiatives from council leaders. There seems an obvious conclusion – combine digital leadership with enlightened councillors and CEOs and you see great progress being made.

These are the people who need to be driving local public services. For them to be empowered to do so beyond their strict council boundaries needs either direction and even legislation from Westminster, or unprecedented co-operation from their less forward-thinking peers. Even great leaders in such a fragmented sector need great leadership above them to allow them the space to make it happen.

Until then, let’s continue to celebrate the digital successes even if we know where they will come from and accept that their wider impact will be less than it could be. But the challenge for local government – as a sector, and in each of those 433 organisations – is not about digital or austerity cuts or local democracy or place. It’s about enlightened, 21st century leadership, at all levels, and nothing more.

And at the end of the day, the people with the power to change that are the ones who vote for them.

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