Is local government capable of the radical change it needs?

Local government IT leaders have spent the last five years of austerity implementing the most dramatic cost cuts the sector has ever seen. Yet they await a new government after the UK general election that is likely to expect even greater cuts, regardless of who is in power in Westminster.

This was the context in which council IT chiefs came together for last week’s conference for Socitm, the local government user group. I was privileged to be invited to chair the event, and listen to the debate about the challenges facing councils in the coming years.

You could summarise the day as follows: Radical change is needed in the delivery of local public services, but is local government capable of being radical enough?

Digital collaboration

Among the more enlightened council IT leaders, there is recognition of the opportunity that going digital offers to deliver that radical change. They know that the key to achieving this is widespread collaboration to share ideas, resources, software, experiences and best practices. But they also privately admit that, while individual councils may understand, far too many authorities simply don’t get it.

One IT chief told me he had sat in on meetings with council CEOs where it was abundantly clear they had no idea about digital and what it means – its potential to reshape public service delivery at much lower cost.

The reality is that councils have delivered austerity cuts predominantly by reducing costs of the way they have always done things – and not by changing how they do things. Costs have been salami-sliced, reducing bureaucracy (a good thing) but often cutting back on frontline services (a bad thing).

The most radical move by many councils has been merging functions with neighbouring authorities – still running services the same way, but using economies of scale to cut the resources needed to run them. Or they have done what they believe to be something radical and outsourced huge chunks of service delivery to the private sector.

As Mark Thompson, author of Digitizing Government and a keynote speaker at Socitm, said: “Renewal of multi-year outsourced IT contracts constitutes a failure of public services”, and you could easily take out the letters “IT” from that sentence and find it to be true in many cases.

Lack of radical thinking

There is still little evidence that anyone is doing the necessary level of radical thinking to completely reshape the sector. The question to address, surely, is not how to make the existing local government system cheaper to run, but what is the most efficient way to deliver local public services nationwide? Instead of cutting costs by slicing back on resources in the existing administrative structure, why aren’t we asking how much cheaper could local services be delivered using a radically different structure?

Local government is simply a system of administration – a historic form of bureaucracy designed in a pre-technology time as the best way to deliver analogue services. If you were setting up a system of local public services from scratch, you would never establish it the way it runs today.

There are 433 local authorities of some form across the UK. Do we really need that many?

The biggest unitary council is Birmingham, covering about a million people. On that basis, why don’t we have 60 local authorities of similar size? Frankly, I’d wager that we could operate comfortably with half that amount – 30 back-office management and administration operations, supported by a few hundred frontline local service delivery hubs.

Citizens don’t care where the council office is – they just want somewhere local to go if they need to talk to someone. And as more public services are delivered digitally, so the volume of local face-to-face transactions will shrink. Remember – most public services are delivered by local authorities, not by central government.

Instead, we’re on the brink of having 433 councils, most of which will build their own digital services, duplicating effort, buying from a dwindling number of unresponsive software suppliers that dominate the market, trying to maintain their local administrative power base, delivering services in essentially the same way as ever, just at slightly lower cost. And often, reducing service levels to meet their austerity budget.

The problem is that asking for the sort of radical changes needed is, to use the obvious cliché, like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. How do you convince 433 council CEOs to agree to put 400 of them out of a job? Not to mention the number of back-office managers that would go the same way – albeit to preserve frontline services.

Of those 433 councils, 326 collect council tax and business rates. Do we really need 326 different IT systems to collect council tax and rates? Surely a tenth that number would collect cash more efficiently. You can apply the same logic to every IT system used by councils.

If a group of councils band together to develop new digital services – and those services work – why wouldn’t they make the system available either on a shared basis or as open source for other councils to use?

Local interest over local services

Another speaker at Socitm told a story that summarises the problem neatly. Eddie Copeland is head of the technology policy unit at think-tank Policy Exchange; he cited the developer of a mobile app called AppyParking, which uses open data published by councils to guide London drivers to available parking zones. Of course, not all that data is actually published as open data, and the developer wrote to every London council asking for the relevant information. Having received positive responses from most, he set about sourcing £250,000 of private investment to develop the app.

That was until two London boroughs decided not to release the data, because they might want to use it for a similar app themselves.

The lack of logic – and absence of understanding of radical digital change – embodied by those two councils is a warning bell for the future of all local government. They put their own local interest over that of local services. Instead of allowing public data to be used by a private entrepreneur for the benefit of all London citizens – at zero cost to the council – those boroughs would prefer to spend citizens’ taxes on building an app that serves only those drivers in their own area. And bear in mind this is London – where most people live in one borough and work in another, so the use potential of a council-specific app is limited.

It’s an example only of a radical lack of thought.

A sense of place

But it also demonstrates one reason most council chiefs will give to justify the 433 administrative bodies – the importance of place, and local democracy. Rightly, councils see themselves as bearing responsibility for the maintenance of local culture, history and that sense of place; they stay close to citize ns to ensure everyone has a voice in how their district is run. How can you continue that role without local organisations working close to local people, they say?

The easy answer for a digital thinker is – “digitally”. But perhaps here, realistically, we’re touching on a much wider issue about the organisation of politics nationally. Surely the devolution debate needs to be informed by digital thinkers too – if those 30 new administrative bodies had greater powers devolved to them, then there’s a radical compromise. New local government bodies may be bigger and not so physically close to citizens, but with extra powers they become more accountable to them. And by the way – digital can help here too, as a means of bringing disparate citizens’ opinions to council leaders.

You could also add that representatives of those slimmed-down, digitally-enabled, devolved authorities might make for a more democratic upper chamber in Parliament than the current House of Lords, but perhaps that’s thinking too far for a mere technology publication.

Local government is the most protected sector there is. Without a political mandate and a huge majority, Westminster is never going to tell councils to undergo such a radical reshaping of local services. The structure of local government has not featured once as a general election issue. So those authorities take the swingeing budget cuts imposed upon them, slice off a few more resources, squeeze down on service levels, and do everything they can to sustain the structure of local government essentially as it has existed for decades.

Radical change is needed

The only way radical change is going to take place is from the bottom up; from councils themselves realising the need and the opportunity to use digital to dramatically cut costs and improve service levels in a completely new-look administrative structure.

Another Socitm speaker, Peter Wells – who project managed the Labour Party review of digital government last year – gave a warmly received talk about the many good things about local government. “We need to celebrate the public sector as a great place to work – a place to do fantastic things and improve lives,” he said. And he’s right, and that needs to be protected. But without radical change, all those fantastic things are at risk.

I got the sense last week that there’s a core of digital leaders in councils who absolutely get this. But will that be enough? Is local government capable of radical change? Eventually it must – or else it starts to lose its relevance and ability to deliver, with every attempt to reduce the cost of maintaining the status quo.