The digital imperative

5 Feb 14
It can be lonely out there for local government digital leaders. Is it time to invest in a Whitehall-style support network, to drive forward digital change?

By Carl Haggerty | 05 February 2014 

It can be lonely out there for local government digital leaders. Is it time to invest in a Whitehall-style support network, to drive forward digital change?

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Investment in digital technology is undoubtedly key to the future of local government. But in the constantly shifting digital landscape, ensuring our investments are fit for the future also means investing in supporting leaders with the technological and managerial skillsets needed to steer our course.

In today’s era of austerity, digital technology is often held up as a means of providing cost effective solutions to a wealth of problems dealt with by local public services. By investing in digital, councils hope to be able to integrate teams to provide person-centred preventive care, and enable mobile and flexible working so that we can make the most of our estate. We also look to digital products and services to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our communications with citizens, and to boost community capacity by enabling citizens to connect with each other.

In Devon, whilst acknowledging that digital is not the ‘magic bullet’ to our problems, we see digital products and services as a key part of our council’s commitment to be open by default, digital by design. We recognise that investment in digital products and services is necessary to secure future savings. Digital products and services are a key part of our estates strategy by which we hope to deliver a reduction of 29% in running costs and 35% in occupied floor area between 2012 and 2017. Targeted investment in digital systems is also key to both our digital content strategy and the service redesigns that will follow our upcoming reviews of council services – which together we hope will enable our citizens not just to ‘self-serve’ but also to ‘self-help’.

Yet the truth is that we need to look beyond investment in products and services. Investment in digital means investing in growing the leadership and culture needed to support an environment that enables smart adoption of digital solutions and allows them to flourish, as much as it does investment in these digital products or services themselves. 

The landscape of digital products and services is constantly changing. We need leaders who can navigate this environment, and make sure the options invested in are those that will meet our needs both now and in the future. 

A recent UKAuthority report highlighted the slow pace of digital transformation in councils and the role that legacy contracts play in hampering innovation. The problem of underperforming long contracts was also raised at a recent roundtable as part of the New Local Government Network’s ‘Shaping the Digital Agenda’ inquiry that is examining barriers to the digital transformation of public services. Here past experiences of misplaced investment in expensive IT contracts were highlighted as a key reason why senior leadership is often hesitant to make the bold investments in digital that are sometimes necessary for progress.

To dispel this fear and ensure the digital investments of today are not the obstructive legacy contracts of tomorrow it is imperative that we have leaders with the technical capabilities and know-how to ‘future proof’ our investments and champion responsive approaches to commissioning. This might mean those willing to support smaller shorter-term contracts, or contracts with a greater focus on outcomes rather than specifications. It might also mean those willing to invest time in working with small digital businesses and social entrepreneurs – who are often those at the forefront of innovation – to communicate the council’s needs and how they can become involved in the commissioning process. 

It also means investing in digital leaders who understand that the value of any digital product or service lies in the data it contains as much as it does in the applications that surround it. This is important because councils have too often commissioned digital programmes to perform functions but lost out when the data from these products does not integrate with other systems, or is only accessible for a further fee.

Investment in digital leadership is also important to make the most of our assets and staff. In Devon we are in the process of improving the content and format of our website. In the last three years we have come further than we had in perhaps the previous 10, and so far much of this has been without financial investment. However, the amount of time and support needed to unify staff who were previously disparately spread across the organisation, unlock skillsets that were only latent, and create a common purpose centred on the needs of users should not be underestimated.  

Investing in competent digital leadership does not just improve our digital solutions and strategies, and enable us to negotiate the increasingly complex ­security requirements that surround them. It can also act as a catalyst for change across all our council services. In Devon, for example, we are making sure all our web services and content are grounded in the behaviour of service users. This has challenged individual service teams to refocus around citizens’ rather than organisational needs. Our unified purpose is also making sure that the important principles of future proofing, agility and responsiveness are fanning out across the organisation. 

The problem is that councils struggle to recruit and retain digital staff with the technical and managerial skillsets needed to lead in this way. One of the reasons for this may be salaries, which often do not compete with those in the private sector. Part of it is also about mission and support. Unlike in central government where the Government Digital Service provides a unifying forum pushing for change across government departments, in local government digital leaders often struggle alone in a vacuum. 

Initiatives such as LocalGov Digital and O2’s Local Government Digital Fund and Forum are helping to push forward debate, spread good practice and build a sense of urgent optimism around the local government digital agenda. But there is no equivalent to the unified force of the central Government Digital Service. Is now the time for local government, collectively as well as individually, to invest in creating a unified vehicle to drive forward the leadership we need?

Carl Haggerty is digital communications manager at Devon County Council, chair of LocalGov Digital, and a member of the advisory group for NLGN’s ‘Shaping the Digital Agenda’ project

This opinion piece was first published in the January/February  edition of Public Finance magazine


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