General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): what the public sector needs to consider

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

By Steven McGinty

In March, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published the results of a survey into local government information governance as part of their preparations for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May 2018.

Although the ICO notes that many local authorities have good data protection policies, there are still councils where work needs to be done. The survey findings include:

  • A third of councils do not undertake Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs)
  • 26% of councils do not have a data protection officer
  • 50% do not require data protection training before accessing systems

Under the new GDPR the above findings could constitute a breach, and result in the ICO taking action against the offending council. Recently, the ICO fined Norfolk County Council £60,000 (under the Data Protection Act) for failing to dispose of social work case files appropriately.

What impact will Brexit have on the GDPR?

The UK Government has finally triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the process for leaving the European Union (EU). However, this does not mean that the UK will escape the European Commission’s GDPR. Digital minister, Matt Hancock, has confirmed that it is in the UK’s best interests to ensure the ‘uninterrupted and unhindered flow of data’, stating that the GDPR would be fully implemented into UK law, even after we leave the EU.

Is the public sector exempt from the GDPR?

There have been reports that some public sector bodies believe that they are exempt from the GDPR. This assumption is based on the regulation’s special conditions and derogations, which allow member states to restrict the GDPR’s scope to safeguard the public interest (some countries, such as Denmark, already have exemptions for public sector bodies). Additionally, fining a public sector body has also been viewed as making little sense – taking from one public sector budget and placing it in another.

However, both of these assumptions are flawed. As the GDPR has been designed to enhance the rights of EU citizens, it would be against the spirit of the regulation to introduce blanket exemptions for the public sector. And it is certainly not unheard of for regulators to fine public bodies, such as the recent Norfolk County Council case, or the Hampshire County Council case in August 2016, where the council was fined £100,000 by the ICO for leaving social care case files in a disused building.

How does the GDPR differ from the Data Protection Act?

The GDPR has been described ‘as the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years’, providing greater rights to citizens and harmonising data privacy laws across Europe. However, to achieve this, new requirements have been placed on organisations. These include:

  • Personal dataArticle 4(1) of the GDPR includes a broader definition of ‘personal data’ than previous legislation. It states that any information relating to an individual which can be directly or indirectly used to identify them is personal data. Specifically, it refers to ‘online identifiers’, which suggests that IP addresses and cookies may be considered personal data if they can be easily linked back to the person.
  • Privacy by designThe concept of ‘privacy by design’ is not new, but Article 23 of the GDPR makes this a legal requirement. In essence, it means that public sector bodies will have to consider data protection at the initial design stage of product development. This could involve adopting technical measures such as pseudonymisation – the technique of processing personal data in such a way that it can no longer identify a particular person.
  • Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) – As the ICO’s research highlights, a third of councils do not undertake any form of privacy impact assessment. From May 2018, public sector organisations will have to carry out DPIA’s for certain activities such as introducing new technologies and when processing presents a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals. In the latter case, organisations will need to consult the ICO to confirm they comply with the GDPR.
  • Appointment of a Data Protection Officer (DPO)Article 35 of the GDPR states that public bodies must have a designated Data Protection Officer. This can be an existing employee, as long as there is no conflict of interest, or a single DPO can represent a group of public sector bodies. As the ICO research suggests (26% of councils do not have a DPO), this is one of the main areas where councils need to improve.
  • Data portability– Public sector organisations must ensure that personal data is stored in a ‘structured, commonly used and machine readable form’, so that individuals can transfer data easily to other organisations. For instance, suitable formats would include CSV files.
  • Strengthening subject access rights– Individuals can now request access to their data for no cost and must be responded to within 30 days (this is a change from the Data Protection Act which requires a £10 fee and there is 40 days to respond). For complex cases, this can be extended by two months. However, individuals must be notified within one month and be provided with an explanation. These requests could prove time consuming and costly for public sector bodies, and as such, supports the case for introducing digital services that allow individuals access to their data.
  • Right to be forgotten – The right to erasure (its official name) allows individuals to ask an organisation to delete all the information held on them – although this would not apply if there was a valid reason to hold that data. This principle was established in the high profile case involving technology giant Google.
  • Failing to comply and breaching the GDPR – When there is a breach, public sector bodies will have an obligation to inform their national regulator (the ICO in England) “without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it.” These requirements could present challenges for public sector bodies, who are often engaged in providing vital public services with limited resources. However, policies will have to be introduced to ensure breaches can be reported promptly, particularly as the new penalties for data breaches are significant, with public sector bodies liable for fines of up to €10,000,000. In addition, individuals also have the right of redress and may seek compensation if they feel their rights have been breached.

What should public sector bodies be focusing on?

Although May 2018 may seem a long time away, the ICO research suggests some local councils (and the wider public sector) need to make several changes to ensure compliance with the GDPR.

Most importantly, organisations need to start reviewing the new regulation and considering how it applies to them. Evidence of a clear strategy – including the appointment of a Data Protection Officer, the use of privacy impact assessments, and staff training – will go a long way towards demonstrating an organisation’s intent to comply with the GDPR.


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Local authority housing companies: getting back into building

Last December, research by Inside Housing magazine found that more than a third of English local authorities have already – or are planning to – set up their own housing companies.

The research showed that 98 out of 252 councils were considering the establishment of a private housing development company, or had already established one.  That’s a significant increase on the seven housing companies that existed in 2014.

The factors driving council housing companies

The 2011 Localism Act gave local councils the powers to establish their own private companies, enabling them to borrow money more cheaply and avoid government-imposed restrictions. A mixture of motives is now prompting local authorities to enter the housebuilding business. Some see the new companies as sources of additional revenue. In addition, homes built by these private companies are not liable to right-to-buy. The Inside Housing research also found that a number of councils want to target income generated on tackling homelessness in their area.

At the same time, councils are facing funding pressures. “Local authority budgets are biting more and more,” Croydon Council’s director of development Colm Lacey explained to The Architects’ Journal in February.

“For example, in Croydon we’ve lost more than half of our central government budget since 2010. That’s a slow drip-drip of a loss of resource. Quite quickly, you come to realise that you need to throw something else in to meet the gap.”

Most companies are being established as wholly owned subsidiaries of councils, while some are solely management companies, letting stock built by their parent local authority. Many are funded by councils borrowing money from the Public Works Loan Board at low rates and then lending it to the company at a market rate.

Early adopters

The types of councils establishing housing companies are very varied, from rural to urban, and across the political spectrum. There is also a wide geographical spread, with a growing number located in London.

Among the councils pioneering their own housing companies is Newham Council in east London, which established its Red Door Ventures company in 2014 to provide homes at market rents, with a third of profits to be invested in social or affordable housing. The company’s properties are built on land bought from the council by the company using a local authority loan. Already, three developments have been built, and planning permission has been given for two more.

Another council-established private development company is Brick by Brick, set up by the London Borough of Croydon Council in 2016. The borough owns a significant amount of land, but has found that procuring agreements with developers has rarely generated benefits to the council in terms of increased land values or development returns. In an interview with Local Government Chronicle, Croydon’s Colm Lacey explained the reasoning behind Brick by Brick:

“The model allows the council as land-owner, sometime finance provider and sole shareholder to extract value from the core components of development activity – funding, building and selling. It maximises both affordable housing supply and return from development activity to Croydon residents, and allows the council to reinvest in core services.”

 Learning from the pioneers: the upside and the downside

As more local authorities move towards establishing their own housing companies, they can learn from the experiences of early adopters, who can advise them on what to watch out for. This includes analysing council powers in relation to the establishment of a company, provision of funding, transfer of land, decision-making arrangements and potential conflicts of interest (for example in relation to planning).

At a time of acute housing shortages, the creation of house building companies takes on increased significance. Chartered Institute of Housing deputy chief executive Gavin Smart agrees that housing companies can help council deliver more homes, but warns:

“The downside is that the need to cross-subsidise might mean that their ability to produce new homes at genuinely affordable, social rents can be limited. It’s vital that they continue to prioritise building new homes at social rents.”

A rising tide or a drop in the ocean?

The trend towards council housing companies shows no sign of waning.

  • Cambridge City Council set up its housing company in January 2016, and the following May the company handed over its first rental property to new tenants.
  • The first of 128 new homes built by Gloriana – Thurrock Council’s housing company – will be completed this year in Tilbury. The development has been created to keep up with demand for homes from increasing numbers of people coming to work in the area, mainly in freight and retail.
  • Meridian Homestart is a company set up by the Royal Borough of Greenwich to offer high-quality homes for local working families to rent. These homes are let at 20% below local market rent levels in order to help working families who would otherwise find it hard to buy or rent on the open market.
  • A shortage of private accommodation has prompted Bracknell Forest Council to use its housing company to provide better and cheaper housing for homeless people.

At the moment, the contribution of council housing companies towards tackling the housing crisis is relatively small. Barking and Dagenham’s housing company, Reside, has so far delivered around 600 homes; while Blueprint, a joint venture between Nottingham Council and Igloo Regeneration, has completed 245 homes. That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee recommendation of 300,000 new-build homes each year.

Even so, housing companies have come a long way in a short time, and their rapid growth signals a much bigger long-term vision. As Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham explains:

“We’re trying to correct 30 to 40 years of failure in the housing market, but it will take time.”


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other housing blog posts:

The 5G arms race: the UK’s strategy to become a global leader in 5G technology

By Steven McGinty

On 8 March, the UK Government published their strategy for developing 5G – the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

Released on the same day as the Spring Budget, the strategy builds on the government’s Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, and sets out the government’s ambition to become a global leader in 5G.

Accelerating the deployment of 5G networks, maximising the productivity and efficiency benefits to the UK from 5G, creating new opportunities for UK businesses, and encouraging inward investment, are the strategy’s main objectives.

If the UK makes progress in these areas, the strategy argues, 5G infrastructure has the potential to become an enabler of smart city technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and to support the expansion of the Internet of Things – the interconnection of people, places, and everyday objects.

5G Innovation Network

Although the strategy highlights the enormous potential of 5G, it makes clear that 5G technologies are still in development, and that the majority of funding will need to come from the private sector.

To support the growth of a commercial market, the strategy explains, a new 5G trials and testbed programme will be introduced – through a national 5G Innovation Network – to coordinate the development of 5G services and applications. This programme will help government and private sector partners understand the economics of deploying 5G networks, ensuring that technologies can he delivered in a cost-effective way, and enabling best practice to be captured and knowledge disseminated.

The government is investing an initial £16m into the programme (involving partners such as UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service), and has targeted a trial of end-to-end 5G (high speed connectivity without the need for intermediary services) by 2018. In February, Ericsson announced that they had a successful end-to-end 5G trial in Sweden, alongside partners SK Telecom Korea.

Improving regulations

To support the development of 5G, the strategy suggests that there may need to be regulatory changes, particularly in the planning system. As such, the government has committed to reviewing current regulations before the end of 2017, and then to conduct regular reviews, as partners learn more from their 5G trials.

Local connectivity plans

The strategy highlights the important role local regions play in the deployment of mobile technologies, and explains that the government will be consulting with councils on how planning policies can be used to provide high quality digital infrastructure.

However, it also suggests that there may be a case for introducing ‘local connectivity plans’, which would outline how local areas intend to meet their digital connectivity needs. Interestingly, the strategy highlights that evidence, such as local plans, may be taken into account when the government is making funding decisions for local infrastructure projects.

Coverage and capacity, infrastructure sharing, and spectrum

The strategy accepts that the move towards 5G won’t be as straightforward as the move from 3G to 4G. Instead, 5G technology will be developed alongside the expansion of the 4G network.

In addition, the government has accepted the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s ‘Connected Future’ report, which states that unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing between telecommunications companies must be tackled. The strategy states that it will explore options for providing a clearer and more robust framework for sharing.

Increasing the available radio spectrum was also highlighted as key to developing 5G technology. The strategy notes that the government will work with Ofcom to review the spectrum licensing regime to help facilitate the development of 4G and 5G networks.

5G strategy’s reception

Natalie Trainor, technology projects expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, has welcomed the new 5G strategy, explaining that:

“…technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.”

In particular, Ms Trainor sees the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Officials Group – which will bring together senior staff from across departments – as a way of providing greater awareness and co-ordination of major public projects that involve digital infrastructure. Ms Trainor also hopes that the new group will encourage the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to work with industry to develop digital connectivity on the UK’s road and rail networks.

Professor Will Stewart, Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, similarly welcomes the new strategy but highlights that the funding announced will ‘not come anywhere close’ to the investment required to deliver 5G across the UK. In addition, he also makes it clear that coverage and regulatory change will be vital, stating that:

The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.”

Former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, Professor William Webb, has also applauded the government’s plans, even though he is an outspoken critic of the 5G industry. For Professor Webb, the strategy recognises that we are in the early stages of 5G technology, and that there is still a need to develop 4G networks.

Final thoughts

5G technology provides the UK with the opportunity to become a genuinely smart society. Yet, as the strategy acknowledges, 5G is still in its infancy and the idea of a 5G network across the UK is a long way down the road.

The new 5G strategy includes a number of positive steps, such as listening to the recommendations of the NIC report, and exploring the realities of deploying 5G networks. This cautious approach is unlikely to show any significant progress in the short term, but does provide a focal point for academia, government, and industry to rally around.


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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 StreetWise.life, 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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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.

 Partnerships

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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Council Tax referendums: power to the people?

ballot box

Since the 2012-13 financial year, council tax increases beyond the government’s limit can trigger local referendums. But are they having an impact on policy?

The Council Tax: before and after localism

Local government spending in Great Britain is paid for by three main sources:

  • central government
  • business rates
  • council tax

The council tax pays for about a quarter of all local services. However, cuts in funding from central government have put pressure on local authorities trying to maintain and improve services. As a result, in recent years many councils have been forced to impose council tax rises. This in turn has generated opposition from local residents and charges from central government that the increases are excessive.

Previously, if ministers believed that local authorities were increasing taxes excessively they had the power to cap council tax rises. However, in 2010, the Conservative general election manifesto promised to give residents the power to veto excessive council tax increases. The measure was included in the coalition government’s programme for government and introduced in the Localism Act of 2011.

The thresholds for council tax rises

The Localism Act, which applies only in England, gives local communities the power to decide on council tax increases above a certain limit.  The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government determines this limit, which has to be approved by the House of Commons.

If a local authority proposes to raise taxes above the limit they must obtain approval from local voters in a referendum.

For the 2016-17 financial year, the government proposed the following thresholds:

  • local authorities with social care responsibilities – 4% (an extra 2% to fund social care)
  • district councils, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), fire and rescue authorities and the Greater London Authority (GLA): 2%
  • Districts and PCCs whose council tax level is in the lowest quartile of their type of authority may raise council tax by up to £5.00 on a Band D bill (which may be a greater rise than 2%).

This means, for example, that a local authority with social care responsibilities wishing to raise its council tax above 4% would have to organise a referendum on the proposed increase. In addition, the authority would have to make substitute calculations that would take effect if the proposed increase is rejected in the referendum.

Triggering a referendum

In March 2016, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) found that many councils are set to increase council tax close to the 3.99% maximum allowed under the referendum cap.

Few councils have so far set council taxes at a level that would trigger a referendum.

In 2015, the Green Party on Brighton and Hove Council failed to secure backing from the other parties for a 5.99% council tax rise. A settlement of 1.99% was eventually agreed, but the Greens said a bigger rise would have helped protect services for the elderly, adults in care, children and those living below the poverty line.

Bedfordshire says “No”

In May 2015, residents in Bedfordshire became the first in the country to vote in a referendum triggered by a decision to raise the council tax. The county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Olly Martins, increased the amount of the council tax for Bedfordshire Police by 15.84% compared to the previous year. He claimed that the increase would provide funds for more police officers.

However, the rise was rejected by almost 70% of voters, and the council had to issue new bills based on the lower increase of 1.99%.

Mr Martins said the result would mean a reduction of up to 135 uniformed officers from the existing 1,067. He also raised concerns about the rules on the wording on referendum ballot papers and awareness-raising during the campaign.

But Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP for Bedford claimed that the £350,000 spent on holding the referendum, and the £250,000 for re-billing meant that Mr Martins had shown “incredibly poor judgement”.

Here to stay

With only one council tax referendum to consider, it’s still too early to assess the impact such polls may have on policy. However, the costs and time-consuming nature of organising referendums of this kind may be acting as a deterrence to raising council tax bills above the referendum cap.

The government remains committed to the policy of council tax referendums, and has suggested that it could be extended to parish councils. In March 2014, the Labour Party confirmed that there were no plans to abolish the referendum principles. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the party’s policy going into the next general election.

For the foreseeable future, council tax referendums are here to stay.


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The digital world … why local government is still running to catch up

By Steven McGinty

In 2015, one third of local councils were still running Windows XP, months after a public sector-wide support agreement came to an end. By failing to update their systems, these local councils increased their vulnerability to cyber-attacks, potentially risking the loss of data.

Although many would argue that not installing a supported operating system is a minor risk, it does highlight a more fundamental issue with local government: whether it’s making simple upgrades or delving into advanced ‘smart city’ technologies, local government is struggling to keep pace with the digital world.

Why should local government invest in digital?

Local councils in England are facing a 6.7% cut in their funding by Whitehall between 2016-2020. It’s expected that the majority of the cuts will come in the first two years, easing off in the remaining two. Additional funding measures have been put in place for social care, including enabling local councils to raise £2 billion by increasing council tax and providing access to £1.5 billion from the Better Care Fund (BCF). However, Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), Lord Porter, has emphasised that social care will not see the benefits of this funding for a decade and in the short term, services will still be under pressure.

So, with this challenging financial context, local government is looking to redesign services, to create efficiencies and improve the experience for citizens. Embracing digital could provide some solutions.

Where could digital be adopted?

According to the National Digital Report, local councils are wasting two million man hours per year by re-keying data they receive through online services or a customer relationship management (CRM) system. The research shows that 50% of local councils are re-keying more than half of the data they receive via e-forms, creating £14 million in waste. It’s estimated that 11% of local councils are re-keying all their data.

In addition, a report by independent consultancy Bluefin Solutions has found that if local councils improved their access to mobile technologies, they could save £10 million per year.  Chris Smith, Head of Public Sector at Bluefin Solutions, suggests that allowing council employees to access information via laptops and other mobile devices is an ‘untapped’ opportunity for council leaders. The report provides further detail, highlighting that local councils should allow staff to complete timesheets via mobile devices, engage with collaborative platforms, digitise data, and introduce a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.

These are just a couple of examples of where technology- enabled savings could be made in local government.

Sounds great! Why hasn’t local government implemented more digital solutions?

Limited infrastructure

Although there are a number of initiatives to improve broadband services across the UK, a lack of connectivity is still an issue, particularly in rural areas. For smart city projects, Wi-Fi infrastructure needs to be in place to support millions of sensors and connected devices. And in remote communities, local councils need basic broad infrastructure to ensure they can implement digital solutions such as cloud services, as well as encourage mobile working.

Red tape

Unlike the private sector, local councils often face challenges with red tape and providing a business case, especially when investing in unproven technologies. Interestingly, though,  the Local Digital Today 2014 report found that the need to provide a business case for digital projects has slightly declined (falling from 85.4% in 2013 to 78.3% in 2014), suggesting that maybe digital technologies are gradually becoming more acceptable in local government. However, for the majority of local councils providing a clear business case can act as a barrier to digital change.

Funding

In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority. And with the legal obligation to set a balanced budget, under the Local Government Act, councils are unlikely to fund projects with debt. Seeking external investment can also be a challenge, as (unlike start-ups looking to develop new technologies) local councils are unable to work with private sector organisations such as venture capitalists.

Local councils have also received no digital funding from the recent Autumn Spending Review – with all £1.8 billion being allocated to central government departments. Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research at Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), argues that investing in digital health without investing in digital social care means that efficiencies and improved outcomes for citizens will not be achieved.

Politics

The public sector has been scarred by failed high profile IT projects, including the abandoned NHS patient record system, which cost the taxpayer nearly £10 billion. As a result, local council leaders have tended to be risk averse and avoid investment in major digital projects.

Additionally, public concern over privacy, an issue raised when national ID cards were considered, has also impacted enthusiasm for digital. Even exemplar digital nations such as Estonia are underpinned by departmental data sharing agreements, which the British public may not be comfortable with.

Research has also shown that a limited understanding of smart cities by the public, has led to a lack of support. Local councils have therefore been reluctant to invest in projects that have limited demand.

Is devolution the answer?

In the Policy Exchange’s Smart Devolution report, co-author Eddie Copeland suggests that devolution might provide the tools to encourage greater digital progress. In particular, he highlights the ability city authorities will have to pool together funding from separate pots, co-ordinate initiatives at a city-wide level, and exploit the benefits of data through a designated Office of Data Analytics.

This won’t entirely address why local government has struggled with digital change. Yet, it’s possible devolution will provide greater opportunities for local government to embrace the digital world. Either way, it will be interesting to see what role digital plays in devolution deals, and how this will impact the lives of citizens.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other posts on digital

Top down ‘devolution’ or a bold new era for local government? An update on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill

By Steven McGinty

On Wednesday 21st October, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill reached the Committee Stage for consideration by the House of Commons. The Bill, which was initially introduced in the House of Lords, provides statutory authority for the devolution of powers to local areas. The Local Government Association (LGA) has described it as an ‘enabling Bill’ – as very few of the policy areas covered in devolution agreements are mentioned.

Yet its technical nature has not deterred debate. Whitehall, local government, and a host of other interested parties have all sought to shape the Bill, and the devolution agenda.

So, what are the main elements of the Bill?  

The Bill makes a number of proposals, including that:

  • Ministers will have to make a statement demonstrating that all new domestic legislation is compatible with the principles of devolution;
  • Elected mayors can be introduced for combined authority areas, and can be given the functions of Police and Crime Commissioners (although this is not mandatory);
  • Powers can be transferred from public body functions to combined authorities;
  • There should be requirements for combined authorities to be scrutinised and audited;
  • Powers should exist to transfer public functions to certain local authorities, and to fast track changes to their government structures.

Which devolution deals have already been agreed?

The Government has received 38 bids, including four from Scotland and Wales. The first devolution deal was the Greater Manchester Agreement on the 3rd November 2014. Since then, a number of other deals have been agreed, including the Sheffield City Region Agreement on Devolution (12th December 2014), the Cornwall Devolution Deal (16 July 2015), and Tees Valley Devolution Agreement (23 October 2015).

However, a number of agreements are still under discussion. For instance, the Liverpool City Region bid is seeking power over a large range of areas, including the creation of a Land Commission and a development corporation, EU structural funds, and retention of business rates. They are also considering introducing an elected mayor.

Elected mayors

The Bill currently before the House of Commons states that elected mayors should not be a condition of further devolution. Nevertheless, the government have linked a full transfer of powers to a directly-elected mayor. In May 2015, the Chancellor, George Osborne, argued that:

It’s right people have a single point of accountability: someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. “

However, in the same speech, the Chancellor also suggested that he would “not impose this model on anyone”.

Some, though, would argue that the Chancellor’s approach is closer to the first statement. For instance, a group of North East MPs have challenged Ministers to “just be honest” and admit that they forced the North East Combined Authority to accept an elected mayor. Interestingly, Durham County Council, a member of the North East Combined Authority, is set to allow residents to vote on the new deal. Yet, even if the public voted against the deal, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill provides that the Communities Secretary has the power to eject a combined authority member, and continue with the deal.

Similarly, it’s been reported that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has explicitly told Suffolk and Norfolk that they would need a directly-elected mayor if they want major powers to be devolved.

The LGA has recently suggested that the government should look to identify alternatives to directly-elected mayors.

Health and social care devolution

During the debates, concerns have been raised over whether devolving health services would mean that health services would no longer be subject to national standards. In the House of Lords, Baroness Williams attempted to clear this up, explaining that services would still be part of the NHS and the social care system and national standards would apply.

However, this led to Lord Warner questioning how ‘devolved’ health services would really be. Chris Ham, Chief Executive of the Kings Fund, also stated that:

The unanswered question is how much freedom public sector leaders will have to depart from national policies in taking greater control of NHS resources.”

He suggested that this issue would need to be worked on.

 Will the Bill bring devolution to English regions?

The great advantage of the Bill is that it provides flexibility for local areas to negotiate their own devolution deal. But, as we have seen from already signed agreements, combined authorities may have to agree to terms that are at odds with the local electorate. For example, in 2012 the electorate of Manchester voted against directly-elected mayors. Yet, a couple years later, they became the first combined authority to sign an agreement with the Chancellor.

Some, however, will say that genuine devolution will only be achieved through devolved finances. This has already started to happen with the Chancellor announcing that local authorities will be able to retain business rates.

Overall, though, the devolution journey has just begun. Each local council will make their own arrangements, and will be answerable to their own electorate. Ultimately, it will be for them to decide through the ballot box whether genuine devolution has been delivered.


The Bill will return for further consideration in the House of Commons on 17 November 2015.

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Read our other blogs on devolution:

Socitm deliberates: what’s the future for local government digital services?

By Steven McGinty

Today, the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) are having their 28th annual Spring Conference. The event provides business and technology leaders from across the public sector with the opportunity to discuss the future of government digital services.

A key issue up for debate is the development of ‘local public services as a platform’. This is based on the idea of ‘government as a platform’, a UK government policy which aims to provide:

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

The most high profile example of government as a platform is the use of a single website to provide digital services, known as GOV.UK. This was introduced by Government Digital Service (GDS), the organisation responsible for the digital transformation of central government services. It’s believed that the use of GOV.UK has led to more than £60m in savings, simply from replacing the DirectGov and Business Link websites.

How could local public services as a platform work?

To date, there have been two main approaches put forward. The first, proposed by Richard Copley, head of information and communications technologies (ICT) at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, involves the creation of a Local Government Digital Service (LDGS). This would oversee the development of a single website for local government services, removing the need for individual council websites. It’s argued that this would only cost each council £3,000 per year, allowing local councils to make substantial savings.

However, Socitm have rejected the idea of a single website for local services. They argue that a single website:

‘..ignores the independence of local authorities as organisations that have different democratic mandates and priorities… local government is exactly that. Local requirements, whether of geography, size, demographics or politics, must continue to drive council websites.’

Instead, Socitm suggests the use of a common platform for sharing local government tools and applications. This would mean that local government could promote and share examples of best practice. However, they do acknowledge that incentives would need to be introduced to encourage this.

Is there political support for extending government as a platform into local government?

There was certainly intent by the Conservative government to have this happen. Ed Vaisey, UK minister for culture and the digital economy, is an advocate of Richard Copley’s view of a ‘local government digital service’ (LGDS). He explains that having local government on one website is an ‘ambition’ and emphasises that it has the potential to save billions of pounds by providing a gateway, similar to GOV.UK, for local government services.

Similarly, George Osborne made the increased use of digital services a major theme of the last Budget. For example, the Chancellor has expanded the remit of the Government Digital Service (GDS), to include collaborating with local councils to develop ‘customer-focussed, digitally-enabled, efficient local services’.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah has also been involved in the debate. Last year, she was keen to see the GDS support the work of local councils, which indicates that there may be some agreement with the Conservative Party. Recently, she expanded on her view, explaining that if the GDS were to work with local councils, they should focus on major areas such as social care and benefits.

At the moment, the future of local government services is uncertain. However, it’s important that we continue to debate the issue in order to find solutions that will provide real value for taxpayers, as well as provide better public services.


Further reading