Georgina Maratheftis, programme manager for local government at techUK, looks at how councils are embracing digital devolution to deliver more efficient services
A well-rehearsed narrative for local government is that it is increasingly fragmented and hard to navigate. While this is true, local government is unique in the number of lines of business it operates - from zoo licenses to local planning to waste collection. Managing demand and rising expectations at a continued time of financial constraints is no easy feat and, as such, councils are embracing digital technology as an enabler to do things differently and to deliver more efficient, improved services.
It has been a year of firsts for local government transformation: the advent of the metro mayors in May; the appointment of the first London Chief Digital Officer; and the first Chief Digital Officer in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It hasn’t stopped there – we’ve had the Secretary of State for Local Government acknowledge the potential of tech to transform public service outcomes and call for digital leadership across the council in his speech at the Urban Tech Summit.
Placed-based approach becoming the norm
As councils grapple with continued financial constraints and the onset of devolution, there is a need for greater cross-public service and council working. The focus on place-based approach is not a new one but now, with the advent of devolution, there are the mechanisms in place to deliver place-based transformation.
A number of the metro mayors have made encouraging commitments towards digital devolution, a move which techUK called for in its Digital Devolution: A Guide for Mayors. Digital is instinctively designed to assist collaboration and, by putting digital at the forefront of city region plans, mayors can reshape and integrate services, creating better places to live and driving regional growth. The mayors can be the figureheads and champions that can improve coordination by convening stakeholders across the city-region to accelerate the pace of transformation.
Digital devolution and future service delivery
Both Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester Mayor, and Andy Street, West Midlands Mayor, outlined their digital ambitions for the city region early on in their tenure, seeing the enabling role it can play in transforming service outcomes whilst creating smarter places where citizens want to live, work and thrive. Most recently, Andy Street set out the West Midlands Combined Authorities Urban Challenge asking how technology can solve local public service problems, which include well-being, homelessness, youth unemployment and digital citizenship.
Furthermore, the West Midlands second devolution deal paves the way for future deals to commit digital capability at the heart of them, something which techUK has called for. The West Midlands will have a regional Office for Data Analytics under its new devolution deal, accompanied by plans for a Digital Capability Framework and a new technology hub.
As the landscape for local government is changing, from funding to models of working, there is a growing recognition that councils can’t continue to ‘salami slice’ but instead rethink what services will be delivered in future and how. We are seeing councils, such as Aylesbury Vale, adopt a more commercially-orientated business model with greater self-service functions for users, reimagining the future public service delivery and outcomes. All this is only possible because these councils have the leadership in place to drive the vision as well as the digital innovation.
Before we look at the technologies revolutionising public service outcomes we can’t forget that a key component in creating the environment to enable successful transformation is leadership and culture. Having the leadership in place that recognises how council services can be transformed by new technologies is pivotal. Without the buy-in from the top, the digital ambition can fall by the wayside.
At techUK’s flagship public sector conference this year, PS2030, the local government panel explored the ‘art of the possible’ is for local government in 2030. One of the key points raised was the phrase ‘digital leadership’ will be redundant by that time as there will be a ‘digital mindset’ across the organisation with leaders having the clarity and vision of what tech can do to enable successful transformation. We will also see Chief Digital and Information Officers supporting multiple regions, not just a single council. This is already happening in some areas - Leeds and London have appointed Chief Digital Officers.
The Secretary of State in Local Government, Sajid Javid, summed it up well at the West Midland Urban Tech Summit when he said: “We need the right leadership, with the right attitude. An understanding and embracing of digital is no longer something that can be safely left to a local authority’s IT department. It doesn’t belong in the basement, it belongs in the boardroom.”
Data enriched places and AI
Local government have the potential to lead the way in data revolution. The possibilities are endless when it comes to unlocking, exploring and harnessing the insights and knowledge contained within data more effectively. Insights from data can lead to better policy making and provide increasingly personalised, predictive and customised citizen services. Data Mill North is a perfect example of this. It is a platform to which anyone can publish open data to create the core infrastructure for open innovation in the region. Leeds has created a culture of collaboration for solving challenges and its driven competition in the market by prompting developers and companies to create apps/products needed by citizens.
This year also saw the launch of the Worcestershire Office of Data Analytics. It brings together partners across the local government public service landscape to introduce innovative ways to address the challenges of the place and use data to bring frontline insights that will create a data-driven culture and drive digital transformation. As councils move towards a place-based approach, many are opening an office of data analytics - West Midlands secured one as part of its new devolution deal – to overcome obstacles to data sharing and use analytics to better manage demand.
Even though artificial intelligence is still a rather nascent market for public sector, local government is leading the way in its adoption and understanding its value in transforming services for citizens. Last year, Enfield Council introduced an AI-based chatbot to simplify internal processes and help residents complete standard applications. Aylesbury Vale District Council has also turned to AI to boost customer service. It has introduced a service that learns from previous council residents’ conversations and can improve council response time to resident queries on services, such as council tax, benefit and bin collection.
Technologies such as sensors can also enable greater self-service and empower citizens to manage their own situations. This is particularly relevant in transforming health and social care services to deal with an ageing population.
We are also seeing councils using smart road sensors to cut down the costs of monitoring car parking and making the lives of residents easier by finding a parking space much quicker. At the start of the year, Cardiff City Council began its rollout of infrared sensors on its parking bays and an app to help drivers find vacant spaces. The council is also planning to make more use of automatic number plate recognition technology in off-street car parks and place variable message signage around the city to direct motorists to available parking. The council will also obtain better intelligence on its parking facilities as a result helping to radically change the way cities operate and create smart places.
When thinking about what is the purpose of local government, is it not about supporting and helping the most vulnerable in our society? Technology can help achieve efficiency savings and deliver services better but the ultimate goal is to improve social outcomes. A good example of where technology can assist is helping to prevent homelessness, and this is one of the biggest challenges facing local government. The latest official figures show an estimated 4,134 people in England were forced to sleep outside in 2016, up 16 per cent on the previous year.
The government’s new Homelessness Reduction Act, will place more responsibility on local government to prevent homelessness when it comes into force in April 2018. By unlocking the potential of their existing data, local authorities strategically predict and prevent homelessness by identifying households at risk of losing their home. Councils, such as Redditch, are using apps to enable the public to alert the local authority about people sleeping rough on the streets.
The pressures on local government can’t be underestimated. With growing citizen expectations and increasing demand, councils are reengineering their approaches to provide improved citizen outcomes. Technologies such as AI, data analytics, personal apps and virtual reality offer enormous potential for councils to rethink how and what services are delivered, with the goal of bringing the most value to the citizen.
Technology can also act as the enabler in reinvigorating local democracy, bringing communities together and allowing genuine collaboration. This momentum must not be lost - councils must continue to share best practice and case studies on the adoption of new technologies.
It is an exciting time for local government innovation. 2017 saw some great examples of local government transformation but there is still so much untapped potential tech can bring, let’s see what 2018 has in store.
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