2017: looking ahead for digital transformation in local government

From new central government strategy, digital leadership initiatives in local government, new infrastructure, devolution and GovTech: 2017 promises to be a crucial year for local public service delivery.

Here are some January thoughts on why, how and what should be.

Government and GDS strategy: digital transformation for Whitehall or for public service delivery?

A big strategic decision for the May government is how it sees digital transformation — supporting reform in Whitehall departments or a more expansive view taking on local public services as well?

So far extending thinking about digital transformation has not been on the agenda of HM Treasury and Communities and Local Government in Whitehall — neither through devolution deals nor by support, following the axing of the CLG’s Local Digital Campaign in March 2016. This is something which should be remedied in the GDS Strategy in development (now expected next year) and the Government’s rebooted Digital Strategy.

One scenario is a ‘core GDS’ focusing on further still on departmental/agency customer services, transformation of back-office functions and joining up central government/national agency digital services — this direction of travel was present in November’s leaked Government Digital Transformation Strategy which appears to view government services almost exclusively as central government-provided.

Another scenario focuses less on Whitehall and more on where the delivery happens. 80% of public services citizen use are delivered at a local level yet there is currently no unifying vision or vehicle for digital transformation across public services and hitherto little strategic co-ordination with central government/national agency digital initiatives, such as GDS.

In this (preferred) scenario more directly aligning GDS, Whitehall and local government thinking to look across local public service delivery and scaling transformation should be a strategic priority for Number 10 and the £450m investment announced in November 2015. As a first step this would require more formal understanding between relevant Whitehall departments (HM Treasury, CLG, DCMS, BEIS) and local government (combined authorities, LGA, SOLACE) on aims and aspirations, presumably before the publication of the Digital Strategy.

A ‘coalition of the willing’ in local government

What speed does reform in local government take — is it pitched at lowest common denominator or support the 30 or so councils around the counrty already establishing themselves as leaders in this field?

Work already undertaken in 2016 by the local government family — SOLACE (Chief Executives); LGA (local councillor leadership); SOCITM and Local Digital Coalition — moved the dial significantly in 2016. This recognised that councils are typically not endowed with capabilities or funds to fully exploit digital technology or data they gather. Good practice in one authority is rarely developed elsewhere and it is hard to see how the most effective projects scale. Therefore, developing more approaches that are open and collaborative are much needed and should be progressed both across local government as a whole and between those councils already driving this agenda.

Of course it is not considered realistic (nor desirable) to expect all local partners to implement the same systems, nor all authorities to commit to the same pace of change. Over 2017 more councils will sign up to initiatives like the Local Government Digital Service Standard, developed over 2016 by technology officers as a response to the Government Digital Service Standard for Whitehall departments. Should this be universally adopted, local government will have taken a great step forward in delivering good quality, user-centred, value-for-money digital services.

In 2017 transformation can be accelerated across the ‘coalition of the willing’ in practical terms by exploiting existing resources. The LGA is making weather here citing more advanced tech-friendly procurement systems: better use of current infrastructure and networks; finding better ways of identifying citizens focusing on a common identifier (such as the NHS number); more effective system interoperability; developing greater shared technical expertise across the public services; and promoting a better senior leadership understanding and flexibility of the issues around data sharing and in the practical application of already agreed principles.

Digital infrastructure

Wireless and broadband is now seen by citizens, businesses and government as the ‘fifth utility.’ Councils are expected to support growth in their area by working closely with providers to eradicate mobile signal ‘blackspots’ and boost internet speeds.

Local authorities will have a role in enhancing capacity as rooftops on public and private buildings will be leased to companies providing more competition and choice to mobile and internet service customers — and prepare the ground for 5G.

More prosaically, the look of high streets will begin to change as phone boxes will start to be replaced with multi-functional internet kiosks providing free wifi, funded by digital screens. Digital advertising sites on public and private land, bus stops, trucks etc. will become more common as councils and companies seek to maximise assets in prime locations to generate revenues. (Needless to say these will create planning challenges where it conflicts policy on public realm or where policy is not flexible enough to adapt to innovation, as well as competition between public and private sectors for the most lucrative sites).

Next steps in digital devolution

Directly-elected Mayoral elections in new combined authorities in May 2017 are almost certain to give further expression to the digital transformation agenda as the competing candidates position themselves as champions of the new economy and more effective regional public services.

For incoming Mayors fulfilling promises around public service reform may be easier said than done. In 2016 the Mayor of London has proposed a Chief Digital Officer for City Hall to co-ordinate the digital governance across 32 London boroughs who are responsible for the delivery of services. 9 months on, the question remains how exactly this will be joined up and what the scope of work will be.

In London and the combined authorities, a ‘digital devolution’ programme of work starting with discovery missions around existing tech procurement, legacy systems, common and open data standards will begin to assist a new generation of regional Chief Digital Officers (and teams) in their work. In the alternative, not moving forward purposefully may diminish the nation’s ability to attract international governmental and city-to-city co-operation from which we can learn.

From IT to Govtech

Finally, 2017 will be the year whereGovTech’ not just than ‘IT’ will subtly but usefully change the discourse around transformation. IT is already one of the biggest spend categories in local government -collectively, local government spends around £3bn per annum on IT, with £1bn of this spent on sourcing and supporting software applications. GovTech, by contrast, describes the broader advance of digital technology into smart infrastructure and service-delivery and procurement.

This vastly broadens the scope of digital spend. Pure ‘IT spend’ for Camden in 2016 was approximately £11m out of a procurement budget of £460m and a total (non-welfare) budget in excess of £640m. If it isn’t already, then understanding digital technology and the culture which enables will be unavoidable for local government leaders.

Local government IT historically has been dominated by many buyers and (in effect) a handful of big providers. There is a recognised need to change the balance so that local councils co-ordinate and collaborate on their requirements to ensure that they take the lead role in the relationship with the tech sector. Fundamentally successful public service digital transformation will require a more mature GovTech sector to facilitate redesign and reengineering on every level — workforce, customer service, process, technology, infrastructure and governance — to make our public services faster at doing things, more adaptable, able to share information better and do so more securely.

Conclusion

In conclusion, 2017 is a year of big decisions for local public services — by the local government family itself and by SW1. The buzzwords are co-ordination and leadership.

In the context of Brexit/Industrial Strategy, the longer central and local government remains uncoordinated around digital, the less innovation will be captured and greater the risk that the markets will look less positively on the UK (specifically, England’s) broader virtues as an economic power, tech hub, and magnet for foreign direct investment.

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Theo Blackwell is Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden. Theo was 2014 LGIU Digital Champion of the Year and winner of the Sandy-Bruce Lockhart scholarship in 2015. Camden’s Digital Strategy won the borough the MJ Digital City of the Year in 2015. He is a technology and public policy consultant and sits on the Advisory Board of Digital Leaders.