Two in five councils say no savings accruing from digital services

Local digital todayWhile almost all local authority decision-makers agree the use of digital technologies can improve services and save money, two in five say that no digital savings have accrued as yet in their councils, a landmark new survey finds.

'Local Digital Today', a survey of 200 senior local authority and supplier decision-makers on how councils are adapting to new technology, was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government from UKAuthority with support from the Local Government Association and the Society of IT Management (Socitm).

The survey found that almost all councils (92.1%) agree or strongly agree digital technologies will deliver savings through enabling staff to work flexibly and on the move; and almost as many (91.0%) believe technology will "help my organisation to deliver better for less". Most council respondents (60.4%) also reported that they have realised at least some technology-linked savings to date. And while only 16% were able to quantify these savings, the average came in at around £1.5m.

Brandon Lewis MPHowever, this leaves almost two in five respondents (39.1%) who said that no savings have accrued from digitising services the report found, "a disappointingly high proportion". Speaking at the report's launch today, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said the gap figure was "troubling".

"It is heartening that six in 10 councils are already reporting savings from their digital endeavours," Lewis said. "However it is equally troubling that 40% of councils are yet to drive efficiencies from this opportunity and I would urge these councils to reach out, learn from the best, and accelerate their digital programmes.

"Few would dispute the willingness and ability of many of our citizens to engage with public services online. Fewer still would dispute the cost savings that can be made from the move to digital services and processes. While much progress has been made across frontline services it is essential that the sector now works together to share learning and best practice and rapidly transform the ways in which we join up and provide services."

Another gap highlighted by the survey - albeit a smaller gap - was in the creation of digital strategies by councils. While the great majority (86.1%) either have a strategy in place already (35.5%) or intended to create one (50.6%), this leaves 13.9% who reported not only that they had no strategy, but that they had no intention of creating one.

The main barriers overall to digital progress were cited as 'Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure' (72.7%) and 'Lack of development funds' (59.4%). "It is surprising that legacy systems are still such a barrier to progress in the public sector, and that this is coming out as the top barrier, above even funding - but it is also indicative of the scale of technology infrastructure and investment over the years that must be integrated with new digital processes and service delivery", the report finds.

Strong leadership backed by a solid business case emerged as the most important element for the successful development of digital services and process. More than nine in 10 local government respondents (92.7%) cited 'Digital leadership within my organisation' as important; with almost as many (85.4%) citing 'Creating a business case for any digital-led change'.

Another key finding is that councils feel it is vital that they share best practice on digital innovation, to avoid duplicating effort. More than four in five (81.9%) said "Sharing best practice and experience of developing local digital services" is important.

However, another urged best practice sharing to be based on evidence. "Evidence behind these is really important. What are the customer satisfaction results for the change in that service? How much has been saved by a shift to digital?"

In another key policy area - that of digital exclusion - councils were split. Around a half (49.4%) disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that digital technologies will 'Give equal access to all citizens', signaling that digital inclusion - or fighting digital exclusion - is an urgent problem to be tackled and underlines the importance of developing 'Assisted Digital' access to services.

Examples of specific problems raised by survey respondents include that: "The council covers a very rural area and therefore a lot of areas have no access to the internet"; and that "It will help communicate with sections of the community but 100% digital will exclude many".

Intriguingly however, others saw digital technologies as a potential solution to these same social problems. For example, they "allow people to access services better in rural areas, enabling older people to stay in their homes for longer and providing tourists with better information at the time they need it," said one respondent.

Another said the council itself can help fight digital exclusion: "Provide access to enable and empower residents to get online, support education and training for anyone that wants help to gain new skills. Ultimately these technologies (with our support) will help the digitally excluded gain new opportunities and improve their life chances."

Local Digital Today can be downloaded from Communities and Local Government:

Picture: iStockphoto/denphumi