Cllr Tom Bell is a councillor in Southampton. He has a background in patent law and is currently a cyber security consultant for a Hampshire-based research company.
As we move full-swing into the New Year, 2019 will inevitably be no less of a turbulent ride than the past few years. While our departure from the EU and the associated opportunities and pressures are taking their proportion of government attention, the pressures faced by local councils must not go unaddressed.
Since Labour’s spending spree – and the subsequent recession in 2008 – the Treasury is rightly committed to reducing the public deficit as a matter of moral duty towards future generations who would otherwise pay the price. Although growth in government revenue is continuing to build momentum, local councils are likely to face continued budgetary constraints in the medium term and the need for efficient council services is likely to continue. In addition, increasing demand on council services is compounding these effects and councils need to develop innovative ways for digital transformation to improve services and reduce overheads.
As it often the case with innovation, the private sector is quite a considerable way ahead of local government in terms of its effective exploitation of technology. However, there are already examples of councils across the country which are re-imagining service provision to remove redundancy and allocate resources where they have the greatest impact. These include providing scalable online services which can be licenced by other councils and integrated with existing platforms; using large data sets to extract behavioural insights in order to identify more targeted policies; and investing in IT infrastructure to facilitate flexible working patterns.
In addition to organisational and process reforms, councils are continuing to invest in smart technology through procurement, such as using smart bins to improve waste collection; digital boards to provide access to local information; and electric vehicles to reduce running costs and improve air quality.
A move towards technological solutions will usually require some level of investment. Councils have considerable capital budgets which should be far more targeted at digital solutions rather than traditional methods.
When the delivery and administration of local government services is provided in a way that optimises the leverage which technology can provide, councils can alleviate ongoing budgetary pressures and free up employees’ time to focus on more people focussed activities. Not only can technological solutions drive efficiency savings, many of these solutions can also deliver service quality enhancements, such as improving the accessibility, capability and longevity of local services. For example, by proving a richer set of features through a secure online dashboard, many councils are giving residents greater control and flexibility over the services they access, as well as reducing demand on customer services and administrative teams inside the council.
In a climate in which the government budget for local government is kept under control and local councils have considerable budgetary pressure, the need – and opportunity – to exploit technology effectively is as great as it has ever been, and council leaders must adopt a ‘digital-by-default’ approach. However, there is also the need for central government to provide reforms to support and incentivise this approach. Government Digital Service (GDS) provides an excellent and growing resource for the civil service by promoting consistent and quality digital design. Moving forward, GDS needs to be working with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to extend its arms out to local councils. The ‘Local Digital’ movement provided by MHCLG is a good start at creating the right conditions for councils to deliver excellent digital services, but more work is needed to generate consistent standards, establish best-practice, and provide procurement guidance to accelerate the transition to digital.
In addition, the funding process for local government too often incentivises failure and inhibits excellence. Councils which lack technological foresight are given extra funding to compensate, while those who are able to deliver more for less fail to be recognised. Leaders in local government need the kinds of incentives that motivate the private sector to drive technological progress. Those Conservative Councillors who excel in this regard must be able to see the ways in which their leadership has made an impact, rather than just provide the opportunity for government to further reduce investment in them.
Why don’t we send a powerful message to those in local government by embracing a new approach to funding based on incentivising growth and digital transformation – one which rewards those who are able to deliver efficiency gains through smart use of technology? We have some fantastic councillors all across the country with the skill and vision to make intelligent investments in our future. Let’s make the most of them.