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Moving beyond digital as we know it

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Julie Simon, head of government innovation at Nesta, explains how UK councils can learn from international authorities to think more broadly about the possibilities that digital open up – beyond automated back offices and services.

The next wave of digitisation will be less about channel shift and automating back offices and more about reimagining how councils work and what they do.  

Apart from improving online services, there are three big opportunities for councils using digital. These are often overlooked in discussions of digitisation but could help councils save upwards of £14.7bn every year, according to Nesta’s new ‘Connected Councils’ report. 

Health and care innovation 

The first is in health and care services. There are now a range of tools which enable people to better manage their own conditions: by allowing them to monitor their own blood pressure, track how much they exercise, or even remind them when to take their tablets. Other tools help people engage their friends and family in their care or connect to people with similar health conditions. Self-management, it has been shown, can improve outcomes and cut costs. 

New tools for collecting and analysing data could also improve services. Predictive algorithms could help councils intervene earlier or even solve problems before they arise. New Zealand and several US states are now developing predictive models to identify children at risk of abuse or neglect at birth to intervene strategically to save costs – and, more importantly, reduce harm. 

Enhancing place shaping 

The second big opportunity is around place shaping. More traditional approaches – such as fiscal policy and business support – could be supplemented by digital approaches, especially commissioning and providing data. 

Challenge-based procurements and one-stop portals such as Contracts Finder improve access to public contracts, especially for social enterprises and SMEs. And New York City has recently launched its Business Atlas, which maps the city’s start-up ecosystem and provides hyperlocal public information to help businesses start-up and scale.  

Testing new ways of working 

But potentially, the most transformative opportunity lies in how councils work.  Some cities are already emulating the best tech start-ups: they’re data-driven, use space creatively and have flat management structures to improve productivity and attract and retain talent. For example, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in New York City makes sure that data can be shared across city services by cleaning data and managing data-sharing agreements between different agencies. Data sharing could help councils identify problems and better target interventions and resources. 

Some cities and local councils are also trialling new ways of using public buildings: by co-locating services, opening up council buildings to residents and start-ups, and enabling remote working. Seoul even has a ‘Mobile Mayor’s Office’ which tours the city to better understand residents’ concerns and co-create solutions with them. Such measures can cut costs but they’re also a sign of a council’s willingness to be creative and embrace experimentation. 

Others are already experimenting with flat management structures that ‘Connected Councils’ endorses. Washington State has adopted ‘Holacracy’, which is based on self-organising teams and management by peers. But perhaps the most radical example is Buurtzorg, a community nursing programme in the Netherlands. 

Buurtzorg has eliminated middle management and works in decentralised, distributed cells of 10-12 nurses who are responsible for planning and managing their workloads. This model has achieved a 40% reduction in the cost of care, while improving the quality of it and retaining staff.  This model is made possible by a digital platform – buurtzorgweb – which provides nurses with the tools, resources and information they need to perform their daily activities. If the Buurtzorg model were applied to the UK, it could save up to £35.5bn. 

Breaking existing barriers 

To date, discussions about digitisation in local government have centred on automating back-office processes and moving transactional services online. But councils need to think far more broadly about the possibilities that digital open up.  

For councils, being ‘digital by default’ should mean becoming data-driven, open to the ideas and energies of people inside and outside of local government, flexible enough to organise themselves around particular problems and drivers of local growth.

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