Local government for local people - the case for digital

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan April 11, 2016
Local government's track record on cloud adoption lags far behind central. Will the same be the case with wider digital transformation?

Town Hall
Later this week (Thursday) we’ll be chairing the Think Cloud for Local Government in Manchester. This sister event to Think Cloud for Digital Government will be looking at the progress - or lack of progress in too many cases - of local government cloud adoption.

It’s no secret that local government lags far behind central in terms of cloud take-up. The lack of a Public Cloud First mandate doesn’t help, but neither does an inherent ‘not for us’ mindset that seems to be pervade. Of course, there are honorable exceptions - many of whom will be speaking at the Manchester event - but on the whole progress has been too slow, particularly at a time when the cost benefits of cloud should be of particular appeal to cash-strapped local authorities.

Just as with central government, there’s a growing recognition that cloud is part of the wider digital transformation agenda. A report last month from innovation foundation Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network - Connected Councils: a digital vision of local government in 2025 - makes the case that there are four main benefits to digital transformation at local level:

  • Further simplifying services by moving transactions online and automating back offices.
  • Helping labour intensive services – such as eldercare, social care, and childcare – save costs and deliver better outcomes for service users by: intervening earlier, helping people manage their own conditions, and engaging a broader social network to provide care and support.
  • Enabling councils to shape places in ways that were previously impossible, especially by engaging citizens in new, more meaningful ways and helping the local economy to grow.
  • Radically transforming the way that councils work – including how they organise internally and manage resources – to become open, innovative and collaborative organizations.

In hard cash terms, the report predicts that an average unitary council could save up to 13% of its total budget by 2025, compared to the status quo. That equates to £14.7 billion across the whole of local government, based on 2015-2016 spend of £113 billion.

The report recommends:

  • Councils become digital by default, moving all transactional services online and fully digitising their back offices by 2020.
  • The Cabinet Office should bring together key local government actors to define - and continuously update - open standards for data for the whole public sector. Leading councils should come together to create a market for new digital products in cases where local authority needs are not currently being met by off-the-peg solutions.
  • City regions should be required to establish an Office of Data Analytics (ODA) as part of devolution settlements. The ODA – modelled on the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics pioneered in New York City – should be tasked with helping city leaders and public bodies bring together and analyse data to support regional economic growth and local public sector reform.
  • Councils should invest in accessibility, by providing online and human navigation support to help people use digital services in public spaces, such as libraries and jobcentres. They should also ensure that pathways between different services are seamless, jargon free, and that people with different digital needs are appropriately ‘triaged’.
  • The Cabinet Office should review and publish detailed guidance on the ethical dimensions of data-sharing and algorithm-supported decision-making.

Working together

One subject that divides opinion is whether there should be the equivalent of a local government version of the Government Digital Service (GDS). Support for such a notion varies, with those in the anti-camp arguing that the model is not applicable at local level. Those in the pro-camp say that’s just another example of local government’s ‘my needs are different to my neighbour’s’ meme.

That said, there are examples of local government putting its own house in order.

Earlier this month, the Local Digital Coalition was launched, led by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) and the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm). This brings together a range of existing local government organisations with a remit to ‘unlock the benefits of collaborative digital services transformation’. Partners in the new coalition include LocalGovDigital, the Local CIO Council (LCIOC), iNetwork and iStand.

Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, said:

The coalition breaks new ground in collaboration between its partners to drive the shared development and adoption by councils of five digitally transformed, joined-up service designs for the future.

The five key projects for the next 12 months are:

  • Developing a Blue Badge Eligibility Checker
  • Building DVLA APIs for local government to enable councils to verify registered owners of vehicles for taxi licensing and parking permit services.
  • Extending the GOV.UK Verify to local authorities.
  • Rolling out integrated care record standards.
  • Creating common data standards for local waste.

Meanwhile, a new 15 point Local Government Digital Standard has been published, based on feedback from 60 local authorities, to provide a framework to put users at the heart of service design and to help councils to share best practices. The Standard’s 15 recommendations are:
1. Understand user needs. Research to develop deep knowledge of who the service users are and what that means for the design of the service.

2. Ensure a suitably skilled, sustainable multidisciplinary team, led by a senior service manager with decision making responsibility, can design, build and improve the service.

3. Create a service using the agile, iterative and user-centred methods set out in the Government Service Design Manual.

4. Build a service that can be iterated and improved in response to user need and make sure you have the capacity, resources and technical flexibility to do so.

5. Evaluate what tools and systems will be used to build, host, operate and measure the service, and how to procure them, looking to reuse existing technologies where possible.

6. Evaluate what user data and information the digital service will be providing or storing and address the security level, legal responsibilities, privacy issues and risks associated with the service.

7. Use open standards, existing authoritative data and registers, and where possible make source code and service data open and reusable under appropriate licenses.

8. Be able to test the end-to-end service in an environment similar to that of the live version, including all common browsers and devices.

9. Make a plan for the event of the digital service being taken temporarily offline, and regularly test.

10. Make sure that the service is simple enough that users succeed first time unaided.

11. Build a service consistent with the user experience of government digital services, including using common government platforms and the Government Service Manual design patterns.

12. Encourage maximum usage of the digital service (with assisted digital support if required).

13. Identify performance indicators for the service, incorporating existing indicators and publishing to a performance platform, if appropriate.

14. Put a process in place for ongoing user research, usability testing to continuously seek feedback from users, and collection of performance data to inform future improvement to the service.

15. Test the service from beginning to end with appropriate council member or senior manager responsible for it.

My take

Local government is on the front line of digital transformation in the public sector. This is where the taxpayer sees where his or her money is going. Massive central government programmes are too remote to be real, but when you can’t pay your council tax online or report an abandoned sofa on the street corner, that’s when it becomes all about you.

That’s why digital and cloud take-up in local government is so important. It’s the point of delivery of vital citizen-centric services. I’m sceptical about the ‘we’re all different’ argument that is heard too often in local circles. Sure, there are clearly differences between a council in the wilds of Essex and one in the heart of London. But there are also areas of commonality. Do both councils really process council tax differently? Do they complete payroll in different ways?

It’s good to see initiatives like the Local Digital Coalition and the standards framework. But there’s still an awfully long way to go. Much food for thought for this week’s event.

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