I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.
I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.
Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:
As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training. It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site
powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door
‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.