Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.

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From data to intelligence and improvement – what cutting edge councils are doing in the UK

Group of workers having a meeting

By Steven McGinty

Data has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of local services. Just like the private sector – where organisations such as Amazon and Facebook have leveraged user data – local councils have the opportunity to reap significant benefits from analysing their vast silos of data. Improving efficiencies, increasing levels of transparency, and providing services which better meet people’s needs, are just some of the potential benefits.

Although many councils are still at the early stages of utilising their data, some are innovating and introducing successful data initiatives.

Wise Councils

In November 2016, the charity NESTA published a report highlighting the most ‘pioneering’ uses of data in local government. The report emphasised that most local services would benefit from data analysis and that a ‘problem-oriented’ approach is required to generate insights that have an impact on services. The case studies included:

Kent County Council

Kent County Council (KCC), alongside Kent’s seven Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), have created the Kent Integrated Dataset (KID) – one of the largest health and care databases in the UK, covering the records of 1.5 million people. The core requirement of the dataset was to link data from multiple sources to a particular individual, i.e. that information held about a person in hospital, should also be linked to records held by other public bodies such as GPs or the police.

This integrated dataset has enabled the council to run sophisticated data analysis, helping them to evaluate the effectiveness of services and to inform decisions on where to locate services. For example, Kent’s Public Health team investigated the impact of home safety visits by Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) on attendances at accident and emergency services (A&E). The data suggested that home safety visits did not have a significant impact on an individual’s attendance at A&E.

Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council have focused their efforts on supporting open innovation – the concept that good ideas may come from outside an organisation. This involved the initiatives:

  • Data Mill North (DMN) – this collaborative project between the city council and private sector is the city’s open data portal (growing from 50 datasets in 2014 to over 300 data sets, in over 40 different organisations). To encourage a culture change, Leeds City Council introduced an ‘open by default’ policy in November 2015, requiring all employees to make data available to the public. A number of products have been developed from data published on DMN, including, which provides local information online, such as hospital locations, road accidents, and incidents of crime.
  • Innovation Labs – the city has introduced a series of events that bring together local developers and ‘civic enthusiasts’ to tackle public policy problems. Leeds City Council has also provided funding, allowing some ideas to be developed into prototypes. For example, the waste innovation lab created the app, Leeds Bins, which informs residents which days their bins should be put out for collection.

Newcastle City Council

Newcastle City Council have taken a data-led approach to the redesign of their children’s services. The Family Insights Programme (FIP) used data analysis to better understand the demand and expenditure patterns in the children’s social care system. Its aim was to use this insight to support the redesign of services and to reduce the city’s high re-referrals and the number of children becoming looked-after.

The FIP uses data in three different ways:

  • Grouping families by need – The council have undertaken cluster analysis to identify common grouping of concerning behaviours, such as a child’s challenging behaviour or risk of physical abuse. When a child is referred to long term social work, senior social workers analyse the concerning behaviours of the case, and then make a referral to a specialist social work unit. Since introducing this data-led approach, social work units have been organised based on needs and concerning behaviours. This has resulted in social workers becoming specialists in supporting particular needs and behaviours, providing greater expertise in the management of cases.
  • Embedding data analysts – Each social work unit has an embedded data analyst, who works alongside social workers. Their role is to test what works, as well as providing insights into common patterns for families.
  • Enabling intelligent case management – Social workers have access to ChildSat, a tool which social workers use to help manage their cases. It also has the capability to monitor the performance of individual social work units.

Investing in data

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, has suggested that councils need support from central government if they are to accelerate their use of data. He’s suggested that £4 million – just £1% of the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget – is spent on pilot schemes to embed data specialists into councils.

Mr Symons has also proposed that all combined authorities should develop Offices of Data Analytics, to support data analysis across counties. Over the past few months, Nesta has been working on this idea with the Greater London Authority, and a number of London boroughs, to tackle the problem of unlicensed HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). Early insights highlight that data analytics could be used to show that new services would provide value for money.

Final thoughts  

After successive years of cuts, there has never been a greater need for adopting a data-led approach. Although there are undoubtedly challenges in using council data – including changing a culture where data sharing is not the norm, and data protection – the above examples highlight that overcoming these challenges is achievable, and that data analysis can be used to bring benefits to local councils.

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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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Future City Glasgow: successes, challenges and legacy

By Steven McGinty

In 2013, Glasgow City Council won £24 million worth of funding from Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) that would see the city become a ‘living lab’ for smart city projects.

Although Glasgow has been more synonymous with low life expectancies (the so called ‘Glasgow Effect’) and urban deprivation, the funding was intended to transform Glasgow into a world leading smart city, with the technologies piloted by Glasgow eventually being used in other cities.

The projects proposed by Glasgow City Council were designed to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make the city ‘safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

However, three years on, with the majority of the work complete, has the programme been a success?

Managing a future city

From the beginning, Future City Glasgow set out an ambitious programme for change. However, it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the technologies or implementing them in such a short space of time which caused challenges. The programme also had an important role to play in the security of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a major international event for the city.

Just under half of the programme’s funding was spent on a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre,  integrating traffic and public safety management systems, and bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence.

Although this has required significant investment, the centre has enabled Glasgow to take a ‘proactive’ approach to traffic management and public safety. Video analytics tools, for example, provide operation centre operators with better information to help respond to emerging events. And traffic operators have control over the city’s signalling, allowing them to prioritise late-running public transport. CCTV cameras have also been upgraded to full HD, providing better images for operators and an important source of evidence for Police Scotland.

Demonstrator projects

A major part of Future City Glasgow’s work has been introducing a number of demonstrator projects. According to Gary Walker, programme director at Future City Glasgow, these focus on four main themes: energy; active travel (encouraging people to walk and cycle); public safety; and transport. Some of the most notable projects, include:

  • Intelligent street lighting – the Riverside Walkway has lighting which switches on when people walk by, and Gordon Street has lighting which provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution.
  • Sensor technology in retrofitting – low cost sensors (the BuildAx and the Eltek GC-05) have been deployed in buildings throughout Glasgow to evaluate the impact of insulation projects.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – an easy to use platform has been created to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling and to generate data that could help citizens plan journeys or highlight areas the council should target for improvement.

The challenge of data

Much of Future City Glasgow has been underpinned by data sharing – including traffic data gathered by the Operations Centre and citizen-generated data from the Glasgow Cycling App.

However, ‘freeing’ this data proved challenging, as sharing data went against the traditional working culture of local government. As Gary Walker explained to the Guardian newspaper:

“Change can be challenging – especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you’ve had drummed into you for years. Initially, organisations were nervous when we asked them to release their data because people know they must protect it. But once they realised that we were not asking for sensitive or personal data they began to relax a little and appreciate the value in creating a data hub.”

After some awareness raising and reassurance, the Glasgow Data Launchpad, a publicly available repository for the city’s data, now has over 400 datasets from 60 organisations, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life (which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council), and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Looking to the future

As Gary Walker noted at a recent Smart Cities event, Future City Glasgow has received a lot of international interest. The programme has also won a number of awards, including:

  • Winner – Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2015
  • Winner – NextGen Digital Challenge (Digital Innovation) 2015
  • Winner – Holyrood Connect ICT (Innovation) 2015

However, it’s important that the city doesn’t become complacent and continues to progress with smart city initiatives. Alan Robertson, in an article for Holyrood magazine, suggests that financial pressures facing local councils may put initiatives in jeopardy. For instance, he highlights that Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety has warned that the city faces “impossible budget cuts”.

There are, however, some positive signs that work will continue. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced Smart Cities Scotland, a new programme which aims to make Scotland’s cities more efficient and greener, and more attractive to potential investors. The programme received £10 million in European funding and will involve a collaboration between Scotland’s seven cities and the Scottish Government.

Final thoughts

Future City Glasgow has had many successes since it was launched three years ago. Although Smart Cities Scotland promises less funding, Future Cities Glasgow has provided the smart city infrastructure capable of supporting new projects.

In terms of driving growth, it will also be interesting to see how Glasgow City Council responds to new forces within future cities, including disruptive business models and technologies, such as controversial tech companies Uber and Airbnb.

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Digital Greenwich: a local council approach to smart cities

By Steven McGinty

According to research by Lucy Zodion, a leading designer and manufacturer of streetlighting equipment, smart cities are not deemed a priority for local government. The findings show that 80% of local authorities have little or no involvement with smart cities, and that only a few had specific teams managing smart city initiatives.

The research explains that the challenging financial environment was the main reason for the lack of prioritisation. However, it also finds despite funding challenges, some local councils have been successful at introducing initiatives, through working in partnership with private organisations and universities and encouraging local businesses to participate in developing solutions.

On our blog today, we’re going to look at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a local council quietly leading the way in the smart cities revolution.

Greenwich Smart City Strategy

On the 22nd October 2015, Greenwich council officials launched their smart city strategy at the Digital Greenwich hub. Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, outlined the council’s reasoning for investing in technology, explaining that:

In the face of the rapid increase in the borough’s population and in the face of globalization and technological change, we have to invest in the future and face these challenges head on, right now.”

The strategy introduces four key principles:

  • Inclusivity – the strategy will benefit all citizens, communities and neighbourhoods.
  • Citizen centric – citizen engagement will be transformed to ensure citizens are at the heart of policies and that their needs are met.
  • Transparency – citizens will be informed of changes and desired outcomes and accessible information will be provided to all citizens.
  • Standards and good practice – the Royal Borough of Greenwich will become a ‘learning organisation’, willing to listen and share ideas, and using evidence to inform decision-making.

The strategy also explains that it will transform four main areas:

  • Transforming Neighbourhoods and Communities – the council will reach out to the Boroughs diverse communities, including strengthening links with key organisations to improve the quality of life for citizens, and introducing projects to reduce digital exclusion and promote digital skills.
  • Transforming Infrastructure – the council will improve fixed and mobile connectivity in the Borough and encourage the widespread use of sensors in the built environment, to provide the building blocks for smart city projects.
  • Transforming Public Services – innovative pilot projects will be introduced to help ensure public services are co-ordinated and citizen-centric.
  • Transforming the Greenwich Economy – many jobs in Greenwich’s economy are vulnerable to automation, therefore the council will look to make businesses more resilient to technological change, as well as encourage the development of digital SMEs.

Bringing together the right team

Digital Greenwich has been established to develop and take forward Greenwich’s smart city strategy. The in-house, multidisciplinary team, provides expertise in the areas related to smart cities, such as the modern built environment, implementing Government as a Platform, and economic regeneration in the digital age.

The team will play an important role in shaping thinking, managing pilot projects to mitigate the risks of innovation, and ensuring that the council’s strategy is aligned with emerging practice.


The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme is a €25m project, which involves cities from across Europe investigating how innovative technology can be used to improve the lives of citizens. As part of this programme, Greenwich will act as a demonstrator area and trial several initiatives, including:

  • introducing 300 smart parking bays to help drivers find parking quickly and conveniently
  • developing a shared electric bicycle and car scheme to reduce the number of citizens using private cars
  • installing solar panels in local homes to improve energy efficiency
  • using the River Thames to provide affordable heating for local homes.

Digital Greenwich and Surrey University

On 27th July 2016, Digital Greenwich and the University of Surrey set up a partnership to develop smart city technologies, with a focus on creating ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon, healthy and liveable neighbourhoods’.  The Digital Greenwich team will now have access to the university’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), which will enable it to develop and trial smart city solutions. The university have highlighted that the centre’s 5G infrastructure (the next generation of communications technology) will provide the opportunity to scale solutions to a city or national level.

The university’s 5GIC is funded by a £12 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Denise Hyland, commented that the new partnership will act as a ‘valuable catalyst’ to their smart city strategy and help strength the Borough’s economy and improve services.

Involving industry

GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment)

GATEway is a collaborative project involving academia, government and industry in the field of automated vehicle research. It’s led by TRL, the UK’s transport research centre, and has several aims, including:

  • safely and efficiently integrating automated transport systems into real life smart city environments
  • inspiring industry, government and the wider public to engage with using autonomous transport technology
  • understanding the technical, legal, cultural and social barriers that impact the adoption of autonomous transport technology

One of the companies involved in the research (based at the Digital Greenwich Innovation Centre) is Phoenix Wings Ltd, who specialise in innovative mobility solutions, fleet management and autonomous vehicle technology. In 2014, they announced ‘Navia’, the first commercially available 100% driverless shuttle.

The GATEway project is funded by an £8 million grant by industry and Innovate UK.

Final thoughts

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) have highlighted that local council spending power reduced by 23.4% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. This is clearly significant, particularly when there is pressure to meet greater demands.

However, to conclude, we’ll leave you with the comments of Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert,

My argument is the more difficult the economic times, the more one is tempted to retrench, the more radical innovation becomes the only way forwards. In a discontinuous world, only radical innovation will create new wealth.”

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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, 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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Digital transformation in government: moving towards 100% digital

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, on a stage with the word 'Onwards' in the background.

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, speaking about  ‘The digital transformation of the UK Government ”  Image by gdsteam via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

On the 1st March, Companies House, the agency responsible for the UK’s register of companies, announced their intention to become a 100% digital organisation by the end of 2018/19. Over 80% of companies already submit their documents digitally, but the agency is keen to move this figure as close to 100% as possible, highlighting the cost savings and improved levels of service.

However, Companies House is not alone in its digital ambitions. ‘Digital by default’, the idea that digital services should be the most convenient option for people, has been a key policy aim of the UK government.

Digital Transformation programme

In January 2013, the government introduced its first significant venture into digital transformation. The programme, which involved the Government Digital Service (GDS) – the agency responsible for digital transformation – and eight government departments, set out to transform 25 major services in 400 days, with the aim of developing services that were simpler, clearer and faster to use.

By the end of the programme, in March 2015, twenty exemplar projects had been completed, including services as varied as enabling people to register to vote, making a claim for the Carer’s Allowance, and booking a prison visit.

“Death of the self-assessment tax return”

In the March 2015 Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a major IT project, which he described as “a revolutionary simplification of tax collection”. At the time, 12 million people were completing self-assessment tax forms every year. But by early 2016 the government expected that five million small businesses and the first ten million individuals would have personalised digital tax accounts, bringing together all their tax details. By 2020, it’s expected that over 50 million individuals and small business will benefit from personalised digital tax accounts.

Although the project has generally been praised, Jamie Morrison, private client partner at HW Fisher & Company, has warned that – apart from the most straightforward cases – automation won’t improve the self-assessment experience. Similarly, Mark Abbs, a tax partner at London-based chartered accountant Blick Rothenberg LLP, has suggested that the five-year time frame might be too ‘ambitious’.

Investment in digital transformation

As part of the 2015 November Spending Review, George Osborne provided £1.8 billion over four years to support digital transformation initiatives.  This included supporting the move towards digital tax accounts, mentioned above, and the introduction of a simple payment mechanism for all central government services.

In addition to this funding, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) – which works with businesses to ensure their success in international markets – received £24 million to simplify their online services and ensure they can interact effectively with other government services.

More surprisingly, the GDS was given a budget of £450 million over four years – an increase on its previous £58 million a year. This news was particularly positive for those connected with the GDS, as there was concern that their budget (and influence) would be greatly reduced.

Challenges of digital transformation

The biggest challenge to the goal of ‘100% digital’ is that not everyone is able to access digital services (and to a lesser degree those who have access but need support). In 2015, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that 14% of households in Great Britain had no internet access, with 31% reporting that this was due to a lack of skills. Other factors for lack of access included the cost of technology (14%) and the cost of accessing the internet (12%).

Elizabeth Rust, in a 2014 Guardian article, highlighted that often those who are digitally excluded need to access government services the most. She offered the example of a jobseeker who lost his Jobseeker’s Allowance because he struggled to access the internet to apply for jobs, particularly as limited access was available at his local library.

This highlights the challenge of achieving ‘100% digital’, and is why although HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are now moving towards digital tax accounts, there will still be an option to complete self-assessment returns in the traditional way.

In the 2016 March Budget, George Osborne also provided £71 million of extra funding to support the digital tax roll-out. These additional resources will be used to extend the opening hours of customer service offices that deal with online enquiries and tax credits.  These improved services should be in place by 2017, enabling greater levels of support for users of digital tax records.


Digital transformation provides a major opportunity for improving government services and reducing costs. It’s not a case however of simply replicating existing customer journeys within an online environment. It requires organisations to put people at the heart of their delivery approach. And in turn, this requires significant internal challenge and change.

The ambition for digital transformation will only succeed if the government invests in digital skills, provides services that encourage people to use them, and supports individuals as they adapt to new digital services.

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The Scottish budget 2016-17: what does it mean for digital?

THe Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, Edinburgh

The Scottish Parliament. Image by dun_deagh via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

Last week, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, published his budget for the next financial year. Unsurprisingly, it begins by outlining the financial challenges facing the Scottish Government. Mr Swinney highlights that the Scottish Budget will continue to fall year-on-year, and by 2020 will have fallen by 12.5% in real terms since 2010. These figures paint a very bleak picture for Scotland’s public finances.

However, with this pressure on public funds, the Scottish Government has given a clear commitment to digital. The budget states:

The Government will take steps to extend digital applications in public services, increase the use of shared services, secure further value from procurement developments, ensure effective use of assets and reduce overlap between public services. The digital agenda will both produce savings and improve the quality of our services.

What funds have been made available?

In cash terms, the funding for Scotland’s digital strategy has more than doubled to £116 million. This has been achieved by merging a number of distinct budgets, which, according to the Scottish Government, reflects the integrated nature of the strategy. The majority of the funding has been allocated to capital expenditure projects, which have increased their share to £92.2 million.

It’s expected that these resources will cover areas such as digital infrastructure, digital participation, digital public services, and the digital economy.

What digital initiatives have been introduced?  

The Budget makes a number of commitments to support digital change in Scotland, although, very few details are given about specific digital projects.

The main initiatives outlined in the report include:

  • Spending over £100 million to improve broadband services, as part of the £400 million Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme. It’s expected that by the end of 2015, 85% of premises will be connected to a next generation broadband network, rising to 95% by the end of 2017.
  • Establishing an ‘Alpha Fund’ to help improve the efficiency and quality of digital public services. It’s hoped that this can be achieved – like most digital transformation programmes – by developing common services that can be used across government.
  • Supporting the Digital Transformation Service to develop digital public services from a user perspective and to realise the benefits of digital technology.
  • Developing the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) digital services, including progressing with the ‘Data Linkage Framework’ strategy, which is expected to deliver data research projects that benefit the public. The NRS will also be preparing for the next Census, in 2021, which will mostly be delivered digitally.

What other announcements may impact digital?

For the ninth consecutive year, the Scottish Government have continued with their manifesto commitment to freeze council taxes. Councillor Michael Cook, who is vice president of COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has argued that Scottish Government cuts to local government revenues are “unprecedented”, and are coming at a time when local government are already facing massive pressures. He suggests that this could lead to job losses and changes to services.

In addition, the Scottish Government has chosen not to change the Income Tax rate for Scotland – a power recently devolved to Holyrood. Mr Swinney argues that this new power is limited, and any changes would go against the principle that taxation should be proportionate to the ability to pay.

Both of these decisions will have implications for the digital sector. For instance, companies that provide services to local government may find some new challenges as local government revenues have been cut by 3.5%.  It may mean that companies will have to further prove their value, as local government looks to reduce their costs or improve the services they provide. Yet, it could also bring opportunities, as the need for technical solutions that provide efficiencies has never been greater.

The decision not to raise Income Tax may also benefit Scotland’s digital sector. If Income Tax had risen in Scotland, recruitment might have become more challenging, or at least more expensive, as skilled staff might have been tempted by lower taxes elsewhere in the UK.

Final thoughts

The Budget has not provided any real surprises. Local government needs to make savings, and politically, increasing taxes would be difficult, especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year.

Therefore, the digital sector needs to focus on addressing the challenges highlighted in the Budget. This includes providing creative, efficient, technological solutions that support the everyday needs of both central and local government.

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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on digital policy.