Local authorities must embrace digital technologies and put them at the heart of what they do in order to improve services to citizens and save billions of pounds in the process, according to a report by "innovation foundation" Nesta.
The Connected Councils: A digital vision of local government in 2025 report recognises many local authority are on this path, but much more needs to be done, specifically around digitising the back-office.
“Local government has made huge progress in enabling residents to carry out basic transactions online. But most councils have a long way to go to deliver smooth, frictionless services and fully digitise their back offices,” the report says.
To do this councils should become more like technology companies by operating in a “lean, agile and data-driven” manner, the report says.
Many current technology trends can help councils achieve this transformation, it argues.
“Siloed services will be replaced with multi-agency teams that form around specific local challenges. A truly mobile workforce has freed up public space. Almost all transactions take place online,” the report continues.
“Instead of two-dimensional council websites, interactive platforms connect users with third-party apps and services, and stream personalised content on local democracy, jobs and services.”
The report even suggests that leading councils should work together to create their own digital products if there are no suitable offerings from vendors in the market, or make it clear to the market that a demand for such products exists.
"Leading councils should come together to stimulate the market for new digital products. Councils have specific IT requirements which aren’t currently being met by off the peg, open standards-based cloud solutions," it says.
"As a first step, councils could map their current business functions and identify areas for which software either doesn’t exist or doesn’t quite meet the needs of the local government sector. This information should then be clearly signposted to industry to stimulate the development of new solutions."
Another topic the report touches on is open data, with Nesta arguing that councils should do everything they can to digitise and publish their datasets and push them to developers to help create new tools the public can use.
“Opening up local council data could transform councils’ capacity to understand and respond to new and emerging needs,” the report says.
“It could also provide a foundation for new innovations to emerge – social entrepreneurs, civic hackers, data analysts and citizens could use this information to develop new approaches to tackling a range of social, economic and environmental problems."
The report says the Cabinet Office should take responsibility for organising this, to ensure that everyone involved is made aware of the requirements.
Nesta's report admits going digital will require some additional investment, particularly in new skills.
"While councils have a number of options for attracting and developing talent, in the long term they may need to face up to the need to pay technical employees more or buy in a greater volume of services," the report says.
"Even if these skills can be brought in from outside, commissioners will need to be sufficiently digitally literate to purchase the appropriate goods and services."
Nevertheless, it argues this must be tackled head-on in order to ensure digital becomes central to everything councils do.
"The true potential of digital technologies will only be realised when digitisation is seen as core to what councils do, as opposed to a discrete or separate set of services," the report says.
"To realise this vision, councils need a digital architecture to streamline business functions and enable data sharing and integration across all services; procurement methods which move away from big proprietary systems and prevent lock-in; and investments in experimentation, accessibility and skills."
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