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Scottish councils need better digital skills, report finds

Councils in Scotland still suffer from a lack of digital skills among staff despite progress during the pandemic, and the Scottish Local Government Digital Office has failed to deliver its goal of common platforms and joint procurement, according to Audit Scotland’s Accounts Commission

Audit Scotland’s Accounts Commission has called on Scottish councils to improve citizen involvement when designing digital services and ensure staff have the right skills to undertake digital transformation projects.

A report from the commission on digital progress in local government found that although councils have made great progress with digital technologies during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, there are still barriers to adoption.

Councils are all at different stages of digital transformation, and the report said the long-term focus should be on how digital technology can improve opportunities and services with citizens at the heart.

“Covid‑19 has increased the focus on service users and the awareness of the risks of digital exclusion,” the report said. “[However] digital progress and success are still mainly measured in terms of efficiencies and cost savings rather than what benefits they can bring to citizens and staff.

“To better understand the needs of citizens, councils should have a citizen and community engagement plan and ensure they have sufficient staff with the skills to carry out service design. Councils need to improve how they monitor outcomes. This could include adopting a benefits realisation approach.”

It added that most councils are focusing their investment on technology and infrastructure, buying and maintaining systems.

Another key issue is that the lack of staff capacity and digital skills is holding back progress, the report said, and called for councils to carry out surveys on digital skills to understand “what skills staff have and where the gaps are”.

There are gaps both in digital leadership, as well as essential skills in the wider workforce, it said, adding: “Councils should develop a competency framework that sets out the digital skills needed across the workforce.”

Most councils also have several legacy systems in place, which remain a barrier to transformation. The report called on councils to come up with a clear plan “to address legacy systems to create better coordinated solutions”, including common platforms.

Scottish Local Government Digital Office

The report went on to say that councils should work with the Scottish Local Government Digital Office, which was set up in 2016, to develop common standards and a data ethics approach. The digital office is working to create a step-change in the way technology is used to help deliver services to citizens across Scotland’s public sector. 

However, the report said that the digital office’s current delivery model “is not sufficient to deliver the pace of change needed”.

“The digital office has a small core team funded through council subscriptions. The delivery model relies on different councils leading on projects, with some participating more actively than others,” it said, adding that the digital office has so far not delivered its original goal of delivering common platforms and joint procurement systems, therefore “failing to meet council expectations”.

“In October 2020, the digital office announced the launch of a national asset management platform which is intended to allow councils to make informed decisions about procurement of digital technology solutions. The digital office and Scotland Excel need to work with councils in using this platform for joint procurement and collaboration,” the report added.

In October 2020, Scottish government launched a consultation on a new digital strategy for the country, aiming to renew its “full potential in a digital world”.

Accounts Commission member Andrew Cowie said it is time for “clear and decisive strategic planning with the refresh of Scotland’s national digital strategy. It is an opportunity that has to be seized to ensure there is a vision for digital transformation across all councils, with shared priorities, skills and knowledge.

“Councils have worked hard to increase the pace at which digital technology has been introduced due to Covid-19, enabling many vital services to continue. Now all councils must focus on putting all citizens at the heart of digital service design, empowering communities to thrive, not just survive,” he said.

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