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We should all expect a good quality of digital life

Tom Garrod, chairman of Norfolk County Council’s Digital Innovation and Efficiency Committee, on how the local authority is harnessing the power of technology to improve services for residents and businesses.

“I came to Norfolk for the quality of life, but I stayed for the superfast broadband.”

OK, to be honest I haven’t heard anyone say this, but it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if they had. Effective digital connections and services have become as vital to many of us as good roads, schools and healthcare, and people should be able to expect a good quality of digital life along with other, more traditional indicators of a decent standard of living.

A few years ago, it would have been fair to say that Norfolk’s digital landscape was underdeveloped. Large, rural counties with relatively sparse populations have not had the levels of investment from telecommunications companies that more metropolitan areas have benefitted from – something to do with profit, apparently...

Norfolk County Council was determined that this wouldn’t hold us back, though. We were one of the first councils in the country to secure funding from the government’s Broadband Development UK’s project, and five years after our Better Broadband for Norfolk programme got underway we’ve more than doubled access to superfast broadband in the county.

Establishing a committee of dedicated councillors charged with exploiting the opportunities new technology presents was the natural next step for the county council. We’ve achieved a lot, but we don’t just want to keep pace with change – we want to set the pace.

As the chairman of the Digital Innovation and Efficiency Committee, I see its remit as falling into two categories. The first is to further improve digital connectivity in the county and to help our residents and businesses take advantage of digital services. The second is to investigate how new and emerging technologies can help us provide better and more efficient public services.

In terms of digital connectivity, while access to fast broadband in Norfolk has vastly improved in recent years, there is still more to do. At the inaugural meeting of the committee in September, we asked officers to look into and report back on planning regulations and practices in Norfolk as members of the committee were aware that some new housing developments are being constructed without access to fibre broadband. We’re keen to work with planning authorities and developers to address this if we possibly can; it seems like there should be a solution if we can get the right people around a table.

I’m increasingly aware that physical access to digital services is only half the story. A recent report on digital inclusion estimates that around a quarter of people in Norfolk lack at least one of the five so-called ‘basic digital skills’ – using technology and the internet to manage information, communicate, carry out transactions, problem-solve and create content. Confidence in using technology is thought to be a major barrier and it strikes me that this is an area where we can make a really positive difference to people’s lives, for example by promoting and extending access to free IT training and delivering it in a way that suits people and puts them at ease. We need to understand how we could best achieve this.

Making better use of technology in the way the council runs its services is a particular interest of mine. We have recently implemented a new online customer relationship management system to improve people’s experience of using ‘self-service’ to report issues and make enquiries. As well as providing a more seamless service for our residents, the new system can provide personalised information to people based on the things we think they will find most relevant. It’s early days, but there are lots of possibilities with this technology.

All the above is really scratching the surface of what I want the Digital Innovation and Efficiency Committee to achieve. We won’t shy away from finding practical solutions to problems, from lobbying government and telecoms providers and from getting the best people involved to help us make a difference.




Christopher Pipe   27/10/2017 at 15:48

I'd like a reliable internet connection at better than 2Mb in Aylmerton, please. There's fibre optic cable up the road, but you have to live close to it if it's to make any difference. I also think it's time EE's mobile phone coverage included Aldborough, Blickling, etc.; Aylmerton; the outskirts of Cromer and Sheringham; East Runton, West Runton and the whole coast road through to Blakeney and beyond. When can we expect these improvements?

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