Digital transformation of local public services must go faster

It’s been a very busy few weeks. I was very lucky last night to receive, on behalf of everyone working for the public good in Brighton & Hove, an award from the LGIU. This evening, to my great relief, Brighton & Hove City Councillors set a budget.

This week also saw the release of SOCITM’s annual ranking of council websites and digital channels. I was really delighted to be asked to write the foreword which, combined with report’s finding that progress has been rather slow, delivers a strong call for a new way of speeding up digital transformation. I copy my foreword below while the full report and more is available from SOCITM here.

Local government will be dead by 2020 if something doesn’t change. Even if we weren’t facing greater funding cuts than any other part of government, which we are, then the relentless growth in costs and demand for our services risk finishing us off.

This isn’t because local government people aren’t working incredibly hard, they absolutely are! They are resilient, dedicated, creative and much more. But in the process of coping with all the pressures it becomes harder and harder to step back from the daily grind to rethink services from scratch. Capacity is under immense strain and investment in training staff is an easy budget to cut in the grand scheme of ugly choices politicians face at budget-setting time.

So capacity is limited and, through no fault of their own, digital capabilities in the sector are very limited. Given all that, what has been achieved so far is miraculous – there is some fabulous digital work out there, some brilliant apps, websites and more as evidenced by this report. But it’s not enough. If we continue at this pace of change then the transformation will only be ready long after our sector is dead and buried.

So what to do? Let’s keep celebrating and supporting local diversity and innovation. But if we are to have any hope of getting ahead of the scissors of doom — the relentless curves of demand growth and budget cuts bearing down on us — we also need to turbo-charge digital transformation across the sector.

My proposal is that the sector funds and backs a collective approach to digital transformation. This should be an approach which prevents reinvention of the wheel where possible (how many separate times are councils building ‘My Account’ functionality?!) and which provides collective leadership. A place to support local government, highlight best practice and to host reusable design patterns and code. In other words a Local Government Digital Service by and for local government, not a centralising force which I know many would rightly resist. We need to do this for ourselves, together — now.

The new governance structures devolution is producing, including combined authorities and city regions, should provide new momentum for driving digital transformation. These devolution negotiations give us the space to consider what ‘local’ means. From the perspective of our citizens is one local authority area the right level of ‘local’ for digital service delivery. It will depend, but I don’t think we have got it all right yet by any means.

There are great opportunities ahead to make public services more personalised, more responsive and more efficient than ever. To me the digital mantra of faster, better and cheaper seems possible not just for file sharing and email, but for whole swathes of essential public service delivery. Thank you for all the progress evidenced in this report, lets now build on that to renew local public services and beat those scissors of doom. We’re not dead yet.

The full SOCITM report ‘Better connected 2015’ is here.

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