Delivering the digital goods

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

Matt Prosser, Solace’s spokesperson for digital leadership and interim head of paid service at the Shadow Dorset Council, discusses the future of digital colocation between local authorities.

Sitting around a table with some of the more tech-savvy brains of local and central government, we spent a good few minutes debating whether to use the words ‘digital’ or ‘internet age’ in a document aimed at encouraging councils and partners to collaborate on technology.

We were trying to find the most inclusive term and, in the end, digital won out. But the point was clear: once upon a time, digital was the preserve of the IT department, and using it we still felt the risk of making it one person’s job. In reality, digital is now fundamental to every single challenge we face. We live in the digital-information-driven age and, as placemakers, we need to have the skills and infrastructure in place to make the most of that.

Most of our citizens don’t separate the digital side of their lives from anything else; we’re hoping that in five years’ time local government won’t need to either. We can work towards this whilst still ensuring we are accessible and delivering efficient services to the digitally excluded.

We all know this isn’t a new conversation, but faced with the ever-reducing pot of money, increasing demand on services and the problem of legacy IT systems, it’s a conversation that we’ve struggled to keep at the top of the agenda. We’ve been doing a tough job of budget prioritisation, but I think we’ve also been trying to do too much by ourselves on digital due to our belief that we’re all special and need to do things our own way. Of course, we all have different starting positions, politics and pressures, but that doesn’t mean we should keep on designing 300 different CRMs, data-sharing agreements or agile programmes every few years.

The Digital Declaration and Local Digital Collaboration Unit launched by Rishi Sunak at the LGA Conference could provide the support we need to put more common standards in place, help each other fix the basics, and to join up and share some of the risk involved in true innovation.

Linda O’Halloran, head of the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, describes the aim of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) based team as follows: “To enable cross-sector projects to happen, we want make it easy for groups of problem-solvers all over the UK to solve common digital problems once. And we want to make it easy for everyone to learn about the work of these teams, to feed into their work, and adopt their standards or best practice when it’s ready. In other words, we want to create the conditions for the sector to wiki-solve its shared local public service problems.”

The Collaboration Unit is also very clear on what they’re not trying to do, which is to build a single local government digital service or to weaken individual councils’ control over their own websites or service platforms. As the Solace lead spokesperson for digital, I was one of many local government leaders that fed into this important MHCLG initiative, and it was clear from early on that if councils were to see the value in signing up to the declaration, we should also use it as a tool to have an honest conversation with the market about public sector needs. In that respect, another core aim of the collaboration unit is to drive a more open, flexible and interoperable service market.

In terms of sharing best practice, there are plenty of councils already leading the way. Stockport began their digital programme in 2015, first developing a business case asking for £7.4m from the council’s reserves. They then spent six weeks speaking to 60 different suppliers before realising “we didn’t want to buy anything anyone was selling.” Instead, they invested in in-house digital capabilities and did most of the work themselves with the help of a couple of small consultancy firms. Steve Skelton, strategic head of policy and information services, said that he based the programme strategy on some of the work already done by the Government Digital Service.

Stockport is taking an open source and open standards approach by sharing whatever it builds with others on GitHub. It may not be right for all councils to take the in-house approach, but for Stockport it has helped to transform the design and way of working at the council, and all of that learning and design is available for others to use.

Lastly, it may not be a team of council coders or AI programmers, but at the very least we need to ensure we remain “intelligent clients.” If we do not ensure we have people with the skills who can use and understand these elegantly designed digital services and automated systems, then we won’t see the right return on our investment and we won’t get it right for our communities. Solace, alongside partners, will be looking at how to support senior local government leaders in ensuring they can be digital leaders and can build a workforce that has the right skills and knowledge for the future.

We may not be able to innovate and design as quickly as the private sector tech firms – and for good reason, as we are publicly accountable democratic organisations and have to take risk into consideration in a different way. That’s why it’s even more important to have councillors, officers and residents speaking the same language on digital.

Signing up to the Digital Declaration is a way of ensuring we don’t forget that, and that we keep digital embedded in everything we’re doing. There is so much more we could be doing together on digital. I hope as many councils and partners as possible sign-up and get involved in the conversation, so we can really make the most of our collective voice and knowledge to push transformation forward.


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