For residents of Tower Hamlets, the chances are they access the internet via a smartphone.
Research by the council in 2014 showed that two-thirds of citizens in the east London borough used their mobile phone to get online. Yet when it came to accessing the council, they were more likely to use their phone to make a call than visit the council’s website.
According to Shazia Hussain, divisional director of customer services at Tower Hamlets LBC: “We know that lots of our community, while deprived, do have the means [to access us digitally], but they don’t know how to do it and we don’t provide the transaction to be able to do it. So their experiences are still quite archaic with us, very reliant on us, and everything directs them to us.”
Many councils will be able to identify with this situation, and it feels like a long way from the vision outlined in the UK’s digital strategy. The ambitious document, published at the beginning of March, speaks of developing “a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. One chapter is devoted entirely to digital government.
So what role does local government have to play in delivering that vision? This was the question on the agenda for LGC’s latest roundtable event, run in association with Agilisys. A panel of experts from across the country gathered to discuss their experiences of creating more digitally savvy councils, and the obstacles along the way.
Theo Blackwell (Lab), cabinet member for finance, technology and growth, Camden LBC
Jonathan Bradshaw, director of technology, Agilisys
Nadira Hussain, ICT director, Enfield LBC
Shazia Hussain, divisional director – customer services, Tower Hamlets LBC
Priya Javeri, head of digital transformation and information services, oneSource
Paul Knight, transformation consultant, Agilisys
Vicki Palazon, head of finance (business operations and development), Peterborough City Council
Richard Penska, assistant director of corporate services, North Somerset Council
Andrew Rogers, advisory director, Socitm Advisory
Phil Rumens, digital services manager, West Berkshire Council
Tom Symons, local government digital research lead, Nesta
For Tom Symons, local government digital research lead at innovation charity Nesta, the challenges begin with how councils are approaching the journey. He suggested the tendency was to focus on going digital in and of itself, rather than viewing it as an enabler of deeper transformation.
“Too often digital is seen as a way of creating a digital replica of existing services, rather than as a way of fundamentally changing how a service is delivered,” Mr Symons said.
Andrew Rogers, director at Socitm Advisory, added: “I think digital is still seen as an IT problem. We’re not engaging in terms of seeing it as a transformational opportunity.”
Nadira Hussain, who has recently joined Enfield LBC as head of ICT, agreed: “What I’m finding at the moment is that unless we find that intrinsic link in terms of digital being the enabler to help transformation, we are just working in silos.”
Agilisys transformation consultant Paul Knight suggested equating digital with transformation may involve a leap of faith for councils. “I think the biggest challenge for us collectively is dealing with a new level of transformation that has more unknowns than knowns,” he said.
“So we understand the theory of how digital tools and digital provision can genuinely enable better outcomes at lower costs, but it requires behavioural change to work, and that’s not often quick. It feels less tangible than what might be a traditional transformation business case of ‘1+1=2’.
“We’re dealing in an environment where we have the need for short-term gains but long-term visioning. Digital has a critical role within that but it requires a mindset and a comfortableness to work within an environment with plenty of unknowns.”
Many on the panel emphasised that this comfort with digital will need to be embedded throughout a council. Vicky Palazon, head of finance (business operations and development) at Peterborough City Council, argued it wasn’t only members of the public who could be nervous about managing interactions with an authority via online means.
“Even the internal digital skills across a unitary authority are quite different, depending on which service you’re providing,” said Ms Palazon. “So we’ve looked at how we can do that whole behavioural change internally so we can lead by example.”
Richard Penska, assistant director of corporate services at North Somerset Council, agreed that strong digital leadership was needed if councils were to progress the digital agenda.
“There are pockets in our organisation where it’s very well developed, but it isn’t [replicated] across the whole council,” said Mr Penska.
At Camden LBC there has been a very conscious effort to share responsibility for digital across the executive team. Theo Blackwell (Lab), cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at the borough, explained: “What we’ve done is not see technology as something which reports into the finance and performance function of the council but thought: ‘Who at executive director level is championing data?’
“It’s not just all put on one person at senior officer level, who might have a hobbyist or professional interest in it. It’s sharing the responsibility for digital transformation.”
Mr Rogers said very senior involvement was crucial to improving councils’ ease with technology. “There needs to be more digital leadership coming from the top,” he said. “We need chief executives and directors to walk the talk. I still go into some organisations, which I won’t name, where individuals print off their emails.
“We need to actually have the right behaviours in place to tell staff there’s a new way of working and there’s a new way of doing business in local government, and that leadership needs to start from the top.”
That might not always be easy, said Mr Symons. “It can be very difficult to get directors and chief executives who aren’t part of this agenda to buy into it,” he said. “That links in some ways to it being quite difficult to make a business case for a lot of this. The only real currency in government at the moment is cashable savings and whether they can be delivered.”
It was also problematic to understand exactly what better digital leadership would look like, Cllr Blackwell suggested. “The challenge that’s faced politicians locally and also the Local Government Association and all these other bodies to drive this agenda forward is that when we talk about ‘let’s improve digital leadership,’ the next question is ‘then what?’ What does that constitute?
“Sometimes we say: ‘Right, there’s lots of stuff going on in the private sector. We need more of that.’ But let’s remember that the private sector itself, outside of the technology sector, is facing the same challenges and is pretty patchy on digital transformation.
“Usually what happens is if people are not transforming they just go out of business. That’s not going to happen to local authorities, but we’ll just have a broader spectrum of people who are really going ahead and doing things and those people who are not.”
Could finding ways to more effectively share experiences reduce the scale of the disparities between those two groups? Certainly our panelists felt that councils ploughing their own furrow was not conducive to rapid progress on digitisation.
“What we’re finding is that the larger councils are not really knowing where to start and the smaller councils don’t have the resources they need to deliver digital,” said Mr Rogers.
“[But] there are some common themes, actually, and there’s a lack of joining up of ideas. What we’re trying to do is bring that knowledge together in a way that the councils can carry out these activities together, rather than being the first to do things all the time.”
It was a point that rang true with Jonathan Bradshaw, director of technology at Agilisys. “One of the things I see is that there are lots of local authorities reinventing the wheel, but there’s no consistent way of actually sharing those experiences,” he said.
For Ms Hussain at Tower Hamlets there was a need for that shared information to include reflections on potential commercial partners. “On a very practical level, I’ve got an inbox of providers who are pitching to me, and I’ve no idea who’s good, who’s bad, who’s going to come in and just pull the wool over our eyes. That technical information, that technical skill, doesn’t [currently] sit in my organisation.”
The central G-Cloud service, which includes the Digital Marketplace, by which users can find technology or people for public sector digital projects, is an attempt to fulfil that kind of need. But Mr Knight suggested there was a requirement for something more.
“No single supplier can meet the needs of an organisation’s transformation programme; the scope, scale and ambition are simply too much for a single entity. Success requires suppliers to work in partnership, with councils, to provide a mixed economy of skills and experience.”
The extent to which answers to those questions could or should be provided by a central body was a matter of significant debate. Mr Bradshaw suggested there was a strong case “to develop a central organisation to coordinate local government digital initiatives across the country”.
He suggested such a body could encourage the development of common standards so data sharing was improved within and between bodies, help build digital leadership, and share lessons learnt locally on a wider scale.
Phil Rumens, digital services manager at West Berkshire Council, had a very clear answer to the question of whether this type of organisation should be formed – no. “We already have enough central bodies,” he argued.
But what he did feel was needed was a better examination of which digital services could be delivered centrally or regionally but administered locally. He gave the example of voter registration, which is managed via gov.uk but which filters down to each council.
“In our individual organisations we’re looking at redesigning processes, but we haven’t looked at redesigning processes on a wider scale,” he said. “Digital services don’t have to be delivered locally; they could be delivered by the Government Digital Service.”
Alternatively, he suggested, “an individual council or collection of councils could bid to take on a particular service for the whole country”.
It was a point endorsed by Priya Javeri, head of digital transformation and information services at oneSource, which provides back office support for Havering, Newham and Bexley LBCs.
“We need to accept that there are going to be some common things, but there are going to be differences on a local level as well,” said Ms Javeri. “It’s allowing those differences at the local level to be managed locally while working on central things [as well].”
Ms Palazon was even sceptical that central funding would assist local authorities in going digital. “Every council is at a different pace of change within their digital strategies,” she said. “If you put central funding in, one, how would you utilise that and two, how would you ensure that you get the best outcomes and represent the people you’re serving?”
The simple reality is that local government is highly fragmented, said Cllr Blackwell, and that represents a significant challenge when it comes to creating and delivering a national digital vision.
“Fragmentation can have benefits in that you can experiment in doing things, and develop and adapt, and modify products, and it can be an advantage. But too much of it can be a challenge,” he said.
“The public policy challenge for the government is there’s too much fragmentation, and setting a strategic framework which we can all sign up to and understand is the responsibility of the departments for Culture, Media & Sport and Communities & Local Government. But hitherto, the government transformation strategy and the digital strategy have had missing chapters on local government reform.”
The discussion addressed a number of key questions for digital local government. Although the jury was out on whether a central funded body for digital transformation across councils would help, it is clear that digitisation is fragmented across local government and there is appetite for peer learning. Certainly on councils’ use of data to better target and tailor services, there is a desire to proliferate best practice – and part of the challenge there is to address the skills gap still seen in so many organisations.
Digital leadership – turning words into actions
It is always a pleasure to join roundtable discussions and fascinating to listen to the way the conversation evolves and the major themes that come out. This was particularly the case given the diverse backgrounds of the attendees, from technology and customer service heads to commercial leads and elected members.
The importance of digital leadership was a constant thread throughout, and three major themes emerged from the conversation, which demonstrated how local authority leaders are helping to create effective environments for digital transformation.
Firstly, having a clear digital vision is one thing but it is also important to sell it to stakeholders and secure funding to deliver it. In a world where the only currency is often cashable savings, leaders need to build trust that they can take the organisation to the destination, even if details of the journey to get there are not fully understood at the outset.
Leadership is important in any major transformation but is particularly so with digital transformation, which impacts every dimension of an organisation from processes and technology through to its people and culture.
Secondly, leaders have the potential to inspire everyone in an organisation to embrace digital by encouraging them to think personally about what they can do differently and how the services they provide can be improved through the power of technology. While there was recognition of a digital skills gap amongst local government staff, the gap itself is naturally closing as workers of all ages are increasingly using technology in their personal and professional lives. In an age of unrelenting cuts, the apprenticeship levy is a good way to help create a digital culture by funding opportunities for ‘digital natives’ to join local authority workforces.
Thirdly, leaders are also looking to set outcomes-based targets where quantifiable operational and service improvements are delivered against budgeted expenditure. Our participants reported how this shift has created a thirst for data helping organisations to get ever closer towards a data driven culture.
Leadership is important at many levels, not just at the top, if local authorities are to make the most of the benefits that digital can deliver. With many local authorities now having prepared or in the process of preparing their digital strategies, this roundtable highlighted once again the need to ensure that leadership and the development of leaders is at the heart of the strategy.