Digital needs to come off the sidelines, Solace conference told

Written by Rebecca Hill on 14 October 2016 in News

Local government needs to move away from piloting digital services on the periphery of their work and focus on building digital in from the start, a conference has heard.

Get off the sidelines and into the fray: Council leaders told to embrace digital - Photo credit: Flickr, Soft Surfaces, CC BY 2.0

Speakers at a session on digital leadership at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives annual conference in Newcastle yesterday said that councils should make digital an integral part of their work.

“We’re still playing on the periphery,” said Martin Reeves, Coventry’s chief executive and Solace’s digital spokesperson, characterising digital as offering “profound challenges but amazing opportunities”.

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Reeves said that digital was “woefully under-harnessed” when it came to tackling so-called wicked, intractable problems.

“Unless we think differently about this agenda, then we will carry on producing the same solutions to those problems, and we’ll wake up in five to ten years time with a missed opportunity to connect our people,” he said.

Both speakers and participants at the event agreed that the change had to come both in the way that councils work with industry and their communities and in the way they treat digital, from the way IT staff interact with other departments to the way local authorities create their strategies.

“IT in local government is still the people in the room; they’re still down in the basement,” said Tom Baker, business development director for smart cities at BT and former chief information officer at Sunderland council. “There needs to be a huge cultural shift, from the IT department to the top of the council.”

He added that councils needed to shift their mindsets from funding a series of pilot projects and make digital an integral part of their work.

For instance, Baker said, one chief executive had told him that the council in question had “had more pilots than British Airways on the digital front”. Baker urged councils to break out of the cycle.

“Think about how you can engage with place and your community,” he said. “Think about the model, move away from pilots and get it ingrained.”

Meanwhile, Naureen Khan, the lead on local government at the industry body TechUK, said that councils needed to develop a “very clear strategy” and work towards having digital represented in all aspects of their work.

As an example, she highlighted the decision by local digital pioneer Camden Council to bring digital into its overall strategy – a move taken after six years of focus on a standalone digital strategy.

Baker agreed, saying that digital needed to be linked to organisational outcome if it was to gain sustainability. “Divorcing the two things gets you back to [working on series of initiatives and pilots],” he said.

The speakers also noted that citizens were becoming more used to technology in their everyday lives, and expected the same things of their councils. “It will be a very different relationship with the state [in the future],” Khan said.

However, the group discussions emphasised the need to ensure that no one is left behind when councils make digital services, with suggestions including engaging local leaders such as pub landlords or postmen and being able to help people who weren't tech-savvy through online forms.

Other issues that need to be addressed include how to make better use of big data - Reeves said councils were “behind the curve” on their use of data - and on shifting relationships with industry.

Khan said that tech companies “would love to have a conversation” about what councils need from them, suggesting they were ready to adapt to local government’s needs.

She said that councils should “leverage their buying power” during these discussions, adding that if councils worked together, “it’s an even bigger buying power”.

This echoes comments made at the Local Government Digital Standards Summit last month, where participants urged councils to team up to pressure the big suppliers to change their offerings.

At the Solace conference, Reeves summed up the potential of digital within local government as being “awesome, anxiety-ridden and the single-biggest opportunity”.

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