Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.


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Now we’ve got a Local Government Digital Service Standard … what now?

By Steven McGinty

After two months of consultation and the input of more than 60 councils, the final Local Government Digital Service Standard was published in April.

The standard, introduced by practitioner network LocalGov Digital, aims to provide a ‘common approach for local authorities to deliver good quality, user centred, and value for money digital services’.

According to Phil Rumens, Vice Chair of LocalGov Digital, the new standard provides a “big step forward” for local government digital services. He also highlights that it not only helps create better services, but enables this in a more joined up way.

In total, there are fifteen standards, including:

  • Understand user needs. Research to develop deep knowledge of who the service users are and what that means for the design of the service.
  • Ensure a suitably skilled, sustainable multidisciplinary team, led by a senior service manager with decision-making responsibility, can design, build and improve the service.
  • Create a service using the agile, iterative and user-centred methods set out in the Government Service Design Manual.

Differences from the Digital by Default Service Standard

Many will have welcomed the collaboration between LocalGov Digital and the Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for digital transformation in central government. During the consultation stage, the GDS hosted a workshop with participants from over 30 local councils.

The Local Government Digital Service Standard is also heavily based on the GDS Digital by Default Service Standard, with only a few notable differences. For instance, in the local government standard, accountability for digital services lies with the appropriate council member or a senior manager responsible for the service, rather than a government minister (which is the case with the GDS standard). The local government standard also includes an additional requirement to re-use existing authoritative data and registers and to make data openly available.

 Will local councils adopt the new standards?

Local government is under no legal obligation to implement the Local Government Digital Service Standards. Gill Hitchcock, reporter at Public Technology.net, suggests that, although the standards look like a great initiative, they may lack the teeth to have any real impact.

Interestingly, in a recent interview, Phil Rumens appears to agree with this sentiment, highlighting that LocalGov Digital need to make the case for the new standards. He explains that regional peer networks will be created to allow councils to share their experiences of implementing standards and to promote their value to digital leaders. In September, a ‘standards summit’ will be held, bringing together local councils who have adopted the standards and the GDS.

TechUK view

TechUK, the industry body for the technology sector, has voiced support for the underlying principles of the new Local Government Digital Service Standard, and said it’s been encouraged by the involvement of GDS in the initiative.

However, techUK have highlighted their concerns over the wording of one particular standard:

Where possible, use or buy open source tools and consider making source code open and reusable, publishing it under appropriate licences

They contend that this goes against the government’s policy of creating a level playing field, and could lead to unintended consequences for SMEs trying to work with local government.

Jos Creese’s view

Jos Creese, an independent IT consultant and the man described as the ‘most influential and innovative UK Chief Information Officer’ by CIO UK, has written a briefing on the need for local GDS standards.

Similarly to techUK, Jos Creese welcomes the new local government digital service standards. Yet, he also highlights their limitations, noting that they are primarily focused on on-line transactions and channel shift (encouraging people to make use of digital services) and that they don’t consider the difficult issue of information flows across local public services.

For him, standards need to be accompanied by some form of practical guidance, and they must address ‘digital by design’ challenges, including digitising the high cost, high value, ‘relational services’, such as adult care, safeguarding, and adoption services.

In his concluding comments, he states that introducing standards may not be enough to transform services and that local government must consider outcomes, rather than just the methods used to develop services. He provides examples of suggested outcomes, including:

  • take up of digital services relevant to target user base
  • satisfaction of service users and reduced complaints
  • lower operating costs and greater measurable efficiency of operation
  • integration and linkage of related transactions, services and information

‘Digital Council of the Year’ – Wigan Council

This year, Wigan Council has been recognised by the Digital Leaders’ 2016 Awards for their successful digital transformation. Their new website provides a seamless user experience and services such as the Report It app and MyAccount have revolutionised the way residents interact with the council.

They have also been commended for their attempts to tackle digital exclusion by helping hundreds of residents, including the elderly, access the internet.

Additionally, the council’s strategy has focused on supporting business through introducing superfast broadband, encouraging businesses to build efficient websites, and funding digital apprenticeships.

Final thoughts

The new Local Government Digital Service Standard is a step in the right direction and provides a basis for developing good quality, cost-effective and user-centred digital services. There are, however, still many challenges that local government needs to face as they progress with their digital transformation journeys.

Wigan Council shows that when you put the ideas of the new standard into practice, it is possible to create excellent digital services that benefit residents and business.


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