There is no doubt that for a sector facing eye-watering budget cuts, headlines like “Local authorities could save £5bn by switching to digital” - which accompanied the release of the Local Digital Today report from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in February - are truly eye-catching.
The extent to which the yearly savings of £5 billion over ten years quoted in the research is achievable, may be up for debate, but the absolute imperative for councils to be looking for dramatic cost savings is not.
This is particularly the case among unitary councils who, in a recent report by Grant Thornton which looked at financial stability in local government, were seen to face the biggest challenges ahead.
So what should councils be doing in order to harness the potential of digital in local government?
The first priority is for every council to clarify its vision for digital transformation. With the DCLG research finding less than half (48%) of councils have such a plan in place, there is a clear strategic void which needs to be filled quickly. Without a crystal clear picture of what the future of the council and its service delivery looks like, organisations will find it virtually impossible to change the direction and pace required.
The second priority is to for councils to create a culture which is ready to change. Here, the DCLG survey provides some good news. There is near universal support for councils to use digital channels to work more efficiently, improve services and collaborate with external partners for service delivery. Digital transformation may be enabled by technology but it is achieved by people. Having the right culture will be critical for the future.
The third priority is for councils to prioritise the process of digital transformation. Here local government leaders and managers need to focus on the three areas where they can drive value.
The first of these is in the infrastructure that underpins their day-to-day operations. Here organisations need to provide greater flexibility in the way people work, improving the mobility and access to the data and systems necessary for their jobs.
2) Digital services
The second of these is in digitising service delivery. The DCLG report shows we are still at a place where the level of transactions (37.8%) and services (27.7%) which are digital by default is relatively low. And even here, in my experience, it is not uncommon for digital services to use systems which rely on people and paper to work effectively.
Linked to the first two areas is the third area of driving innovation and using digital technology to invent new ways of working. This means going beyond simply digitising existing services and thinking about how councils can use technology to break down silos internally and work more effectively with external partners in the health and charity sectors – a need which is likely to grow in the future.
A final area for councils to consider is the importance of making the right investments to enable digital transformation. While it is possible to make some progress with incremental changes the big improvements in services and cost reduction can only be achieved with the right IT infrastructure in place and people to support it.
About the author
Andrew Hawkins is the Public Sector Director at Eduserv - the not-for-profit IT services company - where he’s responsible for working with clients in central government, local government, education and the third sector.