UKA correspondentFriday 20 January 2017

A digital escape from the financial abyss

UKAuthority's two Local Digital Transformation events provided valuable lessons on local government’s priorities in a digital transformation

Two perspectives have combined to create a consensus on the future of local government: it is staring into a financial abyss, losing an estimated £4.1 billion a year in the 2015 Spending Review; and it needs a radical transformation, with digital technology at its heart, to give it a hope of a sustainable future.

Local Digital Transformation graphicThis formed the basis of two conferences staged by UKAuthority in association with Microsoft, in London and Manchester, in December 2016. The lessons that emerged may not be definitive, but they highlighted the issues that senior local government officials need to treat as priorities now.

Public sector IT association Socitm and the Local Public Services CIO Council have articulated the underlying needs, deriving from the demands on local government to deliver a wide range of complex relational services. With the tight squeeze on resources it needs a new approach towards the use of digital systems to manage the demand, summed up as “simplify, standardise and share”.

Ideas and options

The conferences yielded a series of ideas on how to achieve this. Some are familiar, such as exploiting the opportunities in cloud computing, increasing the options for digital self-service – designed to make it the first choice for most people – and taking a more confident approach to data sharing.

There was also talk about building a common data model, an acknowledgement of the importance of geographic data, and talk of the potential, still largely unexplored, of open data as an ingredient in new services.

Other ideas are less familiar. These included an emphasis on creating the minimum viable product, a digital service that covers the key bases, with a view to taking feedback and perfecting through further iterations.

Another is a new approach to information security, which acknowledges that the past emphasis on a strong perimeter is now insufficient and focuses on the need to “protect, detect and respond” to cyber threats on every layer of a network.

Concepts including design thinking and benefits realisation were also thrown into the mix, along with guidance on technology around mobile apps and chatbots.

Mining the opportunities

The events also made clear that the possibilities are already open to some organisations - many are users of Microsoft, and it became clear throughout both days that the tools they need are often available within the platforms they are already using. Mining the opportunities and value of the licences already paid for is a common sense step along the transformation path.

There are no panaceas in any of this, and pushing through the changes will be a major challenge for any authority: the difficulty of achieving the necessary culture change was among the subjects raised at the conference.

But the ideas raised provide starting points for authorities to deal with the issues involved in digital transformation, and councils have to face up these with a sense of urgency. A failure to do so is going to increase the dangers of falling into the abyss.

A more in-depth report on the ideas and technologies highlighted at the conferences is available for download here: