What’s troubling local government digital teams in 2016? A lot

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 25, 2016
Some reflections from the first local government technology conference of the year. And it seems that digital teams have a lot on their plate over the next 12 months.

Towards the end of last year we at diginomica began focusing more of our attention towards the digital ambitions across local government, following an event which highlighted how challenging local authorities are finding this agenda.

What have we learnt? Local government is a hugely diverse set of bodies and organisations that are all at varying stages of digital development and all have different priorities. Equally, it seems that many see the challenge of ‘digital’ as at best a insurmountable and at worst folly compared to IT of days gone by.

To put it plainly, there is not a huge amount of good stuff happening when you compare it to the scale of the transformation required.

Last week I attended Civica’s annual expo up in Manchester, where I sat in a number of sessions and listened to IT and digital leaders discuss their ambitions, plans and challenges for the coming years. And once again, I found the whole experience quite disheartening.

However, that being said, this time I’ve got more empathy for these organisations, which essentially have been faced with huge cuts to their budgets, have been given little support from the centre and face a lack of skills in their respective regions.

And last week’s conference shed further light on where local authorities and councils are feeling the pain, with regards to their technology projects. Here is a list of the key areas that I picked up on and heard more than once during the sessions I attended:

Procurement is still a blocker - On a couple of occasions I heard a speaker talking about how local authorities or local bodies would *have* to implement certain things by a certain date, only to be met with dismay by the audience because they were up against blockers from their procurement teams. We have seen central government procurement undergo a bit of a refresh in recent years with innovative frameworks introduced and education programmes rolled out to explain how things can be done more quickly. However, local authorities still don’t seem to be aware of these frameworks and even if they are, they are being told by their procurement teams that they don’t meet certain requirements. Procurement still holds a lot of power in these organisations and mindsets need to change before we see any sort of progress.

Outsourcing is still seen as a problem solver - Again, on more than one occasion I heard a local authority technology leader mention something along the lines of “we are looking to outsourcing to see how we can solve these problems”. I’m not going to say that outsourcing is bad and that it doesn’t have a purpose in certain areas (for instance, I know some organisations value the cost guidance it can bring), but I’d be wary of viewing outsourcing as a solution to all your problems. The lack of agility that is inherently built into outsourcing contracts and the slow pace of change that they often lead to have no place in today’s digital environment.

The data problem - There was certainly a recognition amongst attendees that data sharing and a greater use of data could lead to greater insight of what’s happening in local areas and better delivery of services. But there was equally little idea/appetite for how to collaborate with organisations and a fear about doing so. However, to be fair, this is a problem for central government as much as it is local government. Central needs to lead the way on this agenda, establishing principles about what is appropriate and provide guidance on how to approach data sharing. But one thing I also head people call for was the use of Verify, as they feel that this at least provides them with a useful tool for identity access for citizens.

Leadership is lacking - There is evidently little leadership setting any sort of digital agenda within local government organisations (bar a few). How do I know this? There were multiple instances of technology people highlighting how they had tried to implement some change or try to roll out some new technology, but were later hit by users saying they weren’t interested and didn’t want it. In my view, it gets to a point where leadership is needed to drive effective change throughout an organisation. You can have a grassroots movement to a certain extent, but it needs the leadership for execution. But where is it coming from?

Prioritisation - “Where do we start?” Heard that a few times. From what I could tell it seemed that self-service was pretty high on the agenda for a lot of the attendees. That’s all well and good, but then what about the redesign of services and the back-end processes? There is a lot to tackle and it’s understandable that these organisations feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to prioritise. Some guidance would be helpful/welcomed I’m sure.

A local GDS - I heard a few times the mention of a local GDS and/or the idea that a

centre of excellence for local government should be created. This is nothing new, but it’s something that hasn’t seemed to have been resolved. People in local government are looking to the centre of help, whilst equally not wanting to be told what to do. It doesn’t seem that anyone is taking it upon themselves to create this centre of excellence, but it’s obvious that it would be beneficial to many a local organisation wanting to draw on ideas and skills. Who’s going to come forward?

My take

Lots to mull over and plenty to discuss in 2016. This is something I’ll be following closely throughout the year.