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Looking to the future: How councils can make the most of the digital revolution
For a good reminder of how far we have come in the digital age, one only has to watch a video of children trying to work out what an audio cassette tape is. The kids have no idea: the technology we all use today has put them far out of touch with the systems of yesterday. Similarly in local government, countless systems are struggling to keep up and risk becoming obsolete.
That sense of struggling to keep up is not only due to technological advances but the financial challenges. Councils are having to do more with less – much less.
Despite this, they are not looking enough to digital technology which has the potential to deliver improved services at a fraction of the existing cost. Or in the words of Dominic Campbell, chief executive of consultancy FutureGov: “We are still sat on top of deeply old fashioned and unnecessarily expensive organisations, in how they work, the technology they use, the assets they sit in.”
It need not be this way. On England’s south coast, Adur DC and Worthing BC have recruited three programmers. The councils are years into a digitalisation programme that has potentially saved countless millions of pounds, from creating forms for ordering bins online to introducing a digitally based housing repairs system. Chief executive Alex Bailey suggested other councils should start on smaller data projects and then grow them out to something bigger.
Many other councils are creating good news stories. Essex CC’s new data team has been working with predictive analytics to make forecasts on areas such as school readiness, gang crime and the likelihood of domestic violence. Hackney LBC has launched a planning system that allows residents to get immediate advice on their applications, saving hundreds of officer hours and the sanity of thousands of applicants.
A particularly easy win for many councils could lie in communications apps, similar to the messaging software WhatsApp, which help members of different public services communicate with each other more effectively. Consultants are forever speaking of the need to break down silos and technology has the potential to do that from the bottom up by increasing communication between teams.
And there is support out there. Launching off the back of the government’s Local Digital Declaration, which aims to “redesign… services around the needs of the people”, local government minister Rishi Sunak announced a digital innovation fund. From this week councils can now bid for up to £100,000 to help design and launch new digital products that will improve lives and services.
However, “digital government is more than just technology”, said Mr Campbell, as he encouraged councils to radically redesign services so they are fit for the digital age.
Technological advancements wait for nobody so one can only hope that, for the sake of future generations, council leaders and senior officers today will make the difficult decisions and empower their organisations so they will be fit to govern tomorrow.
By Robert Cusack, reporter