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Digital exclusion still an issue in local government, says report

While local councillors are generally positive towards the benefits of digital technology, concerns include exclusion, connectivity and unsatisfactory data sharing arrangements

The digital divide and exclusion are among the top concerns for local councillors when it comes to digital transformation, a report has found.

The report entitled Start of the possible, written by Camden councillor Theo Blackwell on behalf of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), found digital exclusion was one of the top concerns.  

“Local councillors are not ‘digital dinosaurs’: whether veteran or first-term; metropolitan or district; leadership or non-executive; they hold strong and positive views about technology, automation and data, and how public services can benefit from them,” Blackwell wrote in the report.

“But for a small and vociferous cohort, digital exclusion and the fear of the digital divide is a major issue.

“For some councillors, exclusion remains a critical barrier because many services are provided through a universal obligation and a sense of moral duty – many of these services act as a safety net for the most vulnerable, who councillors are elected to serve.”

In the report, Blackwell called on local and regional government to invest in digital leadership and training to take advantage of digital systems. 

“Fear of digital exclusion in 2017 should not be a barrier for authorities adopting technology or developing strategies; mitigation should go hand-in-hand with innovation,” he wrote in the report.

Local government accounts for around 80% of the public services citizens interact with, however councils are also faced with reduced budgets and strain on services.

Councils generally have a mix of proprietary systems and legacy platforms coupled with open source systems, which the report said had “created a complex environment where hundreds of services and lines of business across local councils are operated by a diverse array of technology products which are procured or developed separately with little consideration for the need to link or coordinate operations”.

Digitising services and improving systems could have a big impact on councils, but the report said the sector was “seen as too complex and time consuming to sell to by ‘bleeding-edge’ technology providers”.

“Councils have a reputation of failing to engage well or systematically with new ideas, and scaling a successful product from one authority to the next is extremely challenging,” the report said, Blackwell added the situation was “starting to change”.

Research for the report, which surveyed 808 councillors representing 278 councils, found that there is often a lack of support from the top, with only 26% saying their chief executive was a champion of digital.

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Some councils, however, are leading the way by piloting internet of things (IoT) technologies and smart city initiatives.

“We are at the start of the possible: the question now is how we create a more permissive technology culture which is open to innovation, collaboration and experimentation across authorities, regions and nations,” said Blackwell.  

Data sharing challenges

A lack of information sharing was also apparent, which hampers collaboration. Some 46% of those surveyed disagreed that local public services shared information effectively. One non-executive councillor from a London borough said local authorities were “deeply conservative in their approach to information processing” and, as a result, were “missing opportunities for more efficient and effective working through digital transformation”.

It also found a split in opinions on sharing public data with the private sector, with only 6% agreeing that public sector data should be shared with the private sector to develop appropriate solutions for local government. While so-called digital enthusiasts, cabinet members and leaders were somewhat positive, 50% of digital sceptics “overwhelmingly feel that data should not be used in this way”.

Connectivity also remains an issue. In its industrial strategy greenpaper, the government reaffirmed previously announced commitments to invest in the funding of rural broadband roll-out and 5G mobile networks. However, the report found that lack of “connectivity and poor broadband speeds remain a concern for councillors, especially (although not exclusively) in rural areas”. 

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