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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Gigabit cities: laying the foundations for the information society

Man sitting at a desk, with stars and nebula's behind him

By Steven McGinty

According to the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), an independent think tank, London’s poor broadband infrastructure will threaten the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future.

David Brunnen, FISP member and an independent telecoms infrastructure expert, explains that although demand for broadband is growing rapidly, the capital still relies mostly on networks of copper wires, which Tech City have described as ‘not fit for purpose’.

The solution, the foundation advocates, is to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners (DfL), to ensure that London becomes a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020.

What are gigabit cities?

In simple terms, gigabit cites provide citizens, business and governments with access to gigabit internet services (1,000 megabits per second or higher). By replacing old copper cables for pure fibre infrastructure, cities can enable public services to take advantage of technology, support businesses to innovate, and improve the lives of citizens. As US President Barack Obama explains, ‘it’s like unleashing a tornado of innovation’.

In the UK, CityFibre, is the main provider of Gigabit Cities. Their network covers 40 cities, including Glasgow and Bristol, across major data centres and busy internet traffic points, and provides 260,000 businesses and 3.7 million homes with gigabit broadband.

On 22nd September 2016, Northampton became the latest UK gigabit city. In an agreement between CityFibre and dbfb, a Northampton-based business internet service provider, businesses will now receive internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than the UK’s average. Paul Griffiths, from Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, highlights that this investment will play an important role for start-up businesses competing globally.

The initiative will also help Northampton County Council achieve their target of making gigabit broadband available, countywide, by the end of 2017.

Chattanooga

In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became one of the first cities to make gigabit connectivity widely available. Its mayor, Andy Berke, has described its introduction as a significant source of the city’s economic renewal.

Gigabit broadband has allowed a tech industry to emerge from a city more commonly associated with heavy manufacturing. Tech companies and investment have been drawn by the ‘The Gig’ – the local name for the network – resulting in the conversion of former factory buildings into flats, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. In the past three years, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 4.1%. The mayor has also linked the city’s wage growth to jobs in the technology sector.

‘The Gig’ was funded by a combination of public and private investment. EPB, the city-owned utility company, borrowed $219 million and received a $111 million grant from the US Government. This government-led approach has given Chattanooga broadband speeds greater than Google Fibre, a major gigabit broadband provider. Wired magazine suggests that government involvement raises expectations, and encourages commercial providers to improve their infrastructure.

Stokab, Stockholm

The Stockholm city government have one of the oldest gigabit strategies, founding the private company, Stokab, to deploy and manage their city-wide fibre network in 1994. Stokab was created to help the city benefit from the new digital era by limiting multiple network deployments, and by stimulating the technology sector.  The end-to-end fibre broadband network serves 700 service provider businesses and connects 90% of residential premises.

The gigabit network has provided a wide variety of economic benefits, including:

  • becoming a catalyst for the technology sector (The Kista Science Park has over 1000 technology businesses, with 24,000 employees)
  • creating growth and jobs valued at €900 million
  • providing low cost broadband services to business – through increased competition – has resulted in an estimated €8.5 million worth of savings
  • increasing housing values by €200 million and rental values by €3.5 million per year

Digital inclusion

Although gigabit broadband could create limitless opportunities, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Citizens, and even small businesses, could lose out if they don’t have the skills or technologies to access the internet.

Salford Council realises the important role technology plays in creating vibrant communities. As part of their rollout of gigabit broadband services across social housing, the council are introducing a digital skills campaign to encourage more residents online. Volunteers are being recruited to assist neighbours who are less digitally savvy. As encouragement, they are being offered a free IPad and a free broadband service, if they train more than 20 people a year.

Final thoughts

To compete globally, cities will be looking to introduce gigabit broadband infrastructure. London, as a global technology hub and a key driver for growth across the UK, will need to invest in order to support businesses and meet the expectations of citizens. Government may have to provide greater leadership in order to incentivise private sector involvement. Equally, digital exclusion will need to be tackled, to ensure that everyone can participate in the information society.


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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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Housing matters: our recent publications cover issues from homelessness to housing and health

tiny houses 4

By Heather Cameron

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) annual conference and exhibition, the largest housing-focused event in Europe, takes place this week. Over the next three days the conference will examine and explore the political and policy environment, the economic outlook and the latest thinking across the sector.

A variety of topics will be addressed, including housing supply, housing policy, social housing, welfare reform, regeneration and homelessness. These topic areas feature extensively on our database, some of which we have also written about. So this is a good opportunity to highlight some of our recent publications in this area.

What we’ve published

Our most recent ‘In focus’ briefing looks at housing retrofitting, something that has been highlighted as essential for improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock. It considers the benefits of renovating domestic properties to improve energy efficiency and environmental performance and describes the features and technologies of retrofit, such as heat pumps, combined heat and power and various types of insulation. The environmental, economic and social benefits as well as the barriers are summarised. Recent developments concerning retrofit schemes introduced by the UK government and the devolved administrations are also described, and there are examples of good practice from the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Last month we published Delivering solutions to tackle homelessness (Ideas in practice), which looks at the scale of homelessness across the UK and its causes, and provides innovative examples of projects and initiatives that are tackling the problem.

The examples of innovative approaches highlighted include:

We have also written a series of blogs on the topic of homelessness. These include a look at the Christmas Dinner campaign for the homeless run by Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, while also highlighting the recent increase in homelessness in Scotland and the UK, and the shocking number of homeless children at Christmas.

Another blog post looks at the problem of the hidden homeless and its financial and human costs.

Digital inclusion and the social housing sector is the topic of another ‘In focus’ briefing. This looks at the benefits of digital inclusion, the barriers to digital inclusion for social housing tenants, and how these might be overcome. It refers to a 2012 report which found that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing, suggesting digital exclusion is a particular problem in the sector. It includes examples of good practice and highlights the importance of digital inclusion in the context of welfare reform.

We also recently blogged on this topic, highlighting one of the examples of best practice featured in our briefing: a case study of a collaboration between Reading Room – a digital consultancy which joined the Idox Group in 2015 – and Catalyst, one of the leading housing associations in London and the South East. This collaboration highlights the potential of technology for improving communications between social housing providers and their tenants, and for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of going online.

Another topic we have looked at is the integration between housing and health. Housing conditions can affect the physical and mental health of people, and can contribute to many preventable diseases and injuries. The ageing population is also putting pressure on the NHS, and growing numbers of older people have to stay in hospital longer because their homes are unsuitable for their recovery. Our briefing notes that housing associations, local authorities and healthcare providers have been working on solutions to tackle these challenges, and provides case studies from London, Tyneside and Bristol as examples of greater collaboration between housing and health services.

The challenges of an ageing population for the housing sector has also been highlighted in our briefing on meeting the housing needs of older people. It indicates that there will be a need for: adaptations to existing housing stock; mainstream rented accommodation built to accommodate wheelchair users; and newly built specialist accommodation. Examples of good practice – including case studies of extra care housing from Calderdale Council, and adapting homes for older and disabled residents in Knowsley, Merseyside – are highlighted.

This is just a flavour of what we’ve recently covered on housing-related topics, and we will inevitably produce more as the sector responds to a time of change and uncertainty.


Some of our briefings are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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Digital inclusion in practice: how Reading Room is helping social housing tenants go online

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In 2012, a Housing Technology report found that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing. The report’s contributors (including the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and Peabody housing association) argued that digital inclusion gives tenants more choice and control and better access to lower-cost, better services.

For housing associations, the impact of developing a digital strategy to engage with their tenants can be substantial. The report estimated that social housing landlords could achieve annual savings of £340m in communications costs.

The benefits of digital inclusion for social housing landlords and their tenants is explored further in the latest “In focus” briefing from The Knowledge Exchange.

Social housing: the digital revolution

Increasingly, social housing providers and tenants are connecting online through media such as Facebook, Twitter and online chat services. Other housing associations are offering interactive features on their websites, enabling tenants to check their rent accounts or to book appointments.

But, as the Housing Technology report showed, significant numbers of people don’t have online access. For some, it’s a matter of poor broadband coverage, while others have concerns about access costs and data security.

Our briefing includes examples of how social tenants and their housing providers can benefit from greater digital inclusion, and highlights ways in which the barriers to going online may be overcome.

Reading Room and Catalyst:

Among the examples of best practice featured in the briefing is a case study of a collaboration between Reading Room – a digital consultancy which joined the Idox Group in 2015 – and Catalyst, one of the leading housing associations in London and the South East.

Reading Room has worked closely with Catalyst and its customers to create a strategic framework for the housing association’s digital development. Among the themes emerging from this framework are projects for:

  • Optimising Catalyst’s web platforms for mobile devices and making them more user friendly
  • Developing a plan to implement new online services
  • Training and developing internal teams with digital best practices, including content creation and customer service through social media
  • Engaging the business and creating a team of digital champions
  • Embarking on an innovation programme towards building smart homes

Once the work is complete, Catalyst customers will be able to report and track issues directly through a new web platform, while contractors can view available jobs and location data.

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Future plans

Further down the line, Reading Room and Catalyst are working on plans to use the Internet of Things to create smarter buildings with sensors that can detect changes before they become problems, notify the repair company and update the customer automatically.

The collaboration between Reading Room and Catalyst highlights the exciting potential of technology for improving communications between social housing providers and their tenants, and for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of going online.


Members of the Idox Information Service can obtain access to the full text of the In focus briefing on digital inclusion and social housing here

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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


Further reading:

Smart Cities: recent literature

data-stream-shutterstock_croppedby Laura Dobie

Recently, smart cities have emerged as a hot research topic, with cities, national governments and businesses exploring ways to exploit the potential of ICT to improve quality of life and achieve greater efficiency in service delivery.

Our new research briefing explores recent commentary and research in this area. It considers the definition of smart cities and highlights the characteristics of smart cities, and comments on issues which are being addressed in the built environment, such as the provision of appropriate digital infrastructure, decentralised energy and district heating schemes and energy efficiency measures.

The briefing takes a closer look at the deployment of smart technologies in the key area of transport and travel and discusses the commercial opportunities that smart cities present for businesses. It also considers issues with digital inclusion in smart cities, and the application of digital technologies in the co-production of internet-enabled services within emerging smart cities.

Our briefing, Smart Cities: recent literature, can be accessed here.

For more information on our products and services, and to access research briefings across a broad range of areas of public and social policy, visit the Knowledge Exchange website.