This article was first published in The MJ
Earlier this year, former cabinet office minister Matt Hancock urged councils to consider how they could raise their standards in digital services and create a better online experience for their residents.
But while many have talked about the importance of digital, there needs to be a recognition that an effective digital strategy is about more than just having a website or Twitter account. It requires a fundamentally different way of providing services.
Independent research conducted by PA Consulting Group over the last 18 months asked more than 800 organisations globally across both the public and private sectors for their views about the factors affecting the development of digital. The results provide some clear lessons for local government.
Firstly, there is a need to recognise that meeting customer needs and demands are a primary driving force for digital change.
Digital has a key role in demand management, either moving customers to more cost effective channels or ideally sign-posting them to alternative service providers. However, making this a success requires personalisation, yet the survey suggested that organisations are struggling to achieve this, with only 16% of respondents saying they were delivering a tailored experience.
Authorities also need to recognise that digital success is determined by culture and people as well as the use of technology.
Creating the right culture is not easy, only about a quarter of the people surveyed said they believed their organisation had the right mindset to survive in the digital age.
Leadership and digital skills is another area where most organisations say more work is needed. For councils developing a digital agenda that means they need to ensure they have senior officer and elected member sponsorship.
Legacy IT also presents problems for many organisations but the breadth of services and extent of legacy operations in councils make this a particularly important issue for local government.
One authority that has begun to address the challenges of the digital agenda is Essex CC. They already have a number of specific digital projects underway, including a pilot of predictive analytics used to identify children potentially at risk of not having the best start to life and a digital channels project encouraging residents to use online self-service options.
They are also promoting assistive technology that goes beyond traditional telecare.
However, the use of digital had not been explored more widely and consistently across the authority, so the council’s transformation team reviewed what further role digital could play in delivering annual cost savings in the order of £300m to deliver balanced budgets by 2021.
They identified three themes for further work. The first of these was ‘the power of the crowd’ that explored how digital tools and networks could be a catalyst for communities and third parties to deliver results through other means than traditional service delivery.
The ‘power and prediction of data’ theme focused on how data science and analytics could be used to enable better prediction and demand forecasting in order to support effective intervention and resource allocation.
Finally, ‘the council as a platform’ theme concentrated on creating the capabilities (technology, processes, infrastructure and data) which the council and others can use to improve outcomes more cost effectively.
As a result of this work, the council has now formulated a transformation programme which was endorsed by its cabinet in March 2016.
This digital transformation is expected to deliver in the region of £70m in savings by 2020. The programme ranges from using advanced data and analytics more broadly across the council, to establishing government-as-a-platform architecture to support joined-up working with partners.
This will accelerate its open government programme allowing citizens to create services with social and financial value.
The opportunities that digital presents are making us rethink our operating model to better understand and leverage the relationships between people and technology to move the council from being a provider of services to an enabler of provision.
In order to do this we need to better understand our citizens, predict and use nudge to influence demand and have worked closely with senior officers and elected members to gain endorsement of what will be a radically different way of working.
There will be other authorities who have embarked on this digital transformation but what is clear is that to succeed, they need to be bold and think differently.
That means being willing to reconfigure how their organisation works and review their governance and skills.
More fundamentally, if they are to secure the full benefits of digital, authorities need to reimagine their entire organisation – from the services provided to the way they communicate with customers.
David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting and Claire Shuter is Essex 2021 Programme Sponsor, Essex CC