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Research Focus: Digital Transformation in Local Authorities

In today’s post I’m continuing my series about the results and conclusions from a research project that we commissioned Vanson Bourne to run. From consumer attitudes to technology devices and the way that ‘buyer behaviour’ is transforming the purchase journey online, to the impact of technological advancements in the retail financial services industry, it was an extensive piece of work. Part of the scope of the project involved canvassing opinions from the public about the digital services that their local authority provides and what should change about them.

Within the constraints of the Government Spending Review in England and the equivalent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the 433 independent and democratically elected local councils never have an easy ride. Providing regularly improved services with less resource and budget is an ever-present challenge. The added requirement to share best practice and work with or in partnership with other local organisations is piling on the pressure. The research conducted shows that digital services in the public sector are reasonably popular for people who want to access information or for simple online tasks, but sharing and recommending those services seldom takes place.
Digital Transformation in Local Authorities
Key research findings:
• Nearly two thirds (63%) of those surveyed have visited their local authority’s website, representing a significant digital audience
• 57% have used a local government site to look for information, such as bin collections, local schools and opening times to amenities
• This largely receptive audience remains consistent across age groups (16 to 65+) with over half them looking for information on their local authority sites
• 86% of people have bought online in the past year, yet less than a quarter (21%) of online visitors have ordered or booked a product or service online (such as a new bin, a school place or a library book)
• 37% of people did not interact online with their local authority once in 12 months
• When it comes to sharing and recommending via email or social media, just 10% have shared something from their local authority and again only 10% have recommended a local authority service.

Socitm, the society for IT practitioners in the public sector, and its local CIO council met in December 2015, after the Government’s latest Spending Review, to cover the implications which result from how little money is available for digital transformation projects. Its recommendations in a draft paper are stark but clear, stating that “there has been a focus on "transactions not relationships," "websites not outcomes for the citizen," "channel shift as opposed to service re-design and digital transformation." It also recommends that members should focus on improving digital platforms to support the departments which receive the largest amounts of money from the council, for example health and social care.

We agree with the view of the CIO council, which is that local authorities have a leadership role in this area. They must find new and creative ways to deliver better digital services to meet the increased demand on the physical services they are required to deliver – within their budget. Cloud-based technologies and platforms can provide the answer in three ways: with fully-customised, semi-customised templated solutions or a ‘solution in a box’, each leveraging the efficiency and security of the cloud.

Whichever one of those three choices is taken in each authority’s case, it’s clear that digital transformation involves not one enormous project but 433 very large ones, each led by a team with their own varied opinions, experience, and budgets.

As a result, IT consultancies and providers have a vital role to play in advising and providing innovative, low-cost services that really improve the digital platforms available for residents and businesses of each authority. Whilst there is merit in picking the services that can impact the most people first, we believe it’s possible to improve the full portfolio of online services and capitalise on the potential for offering self-service digital capabilities to users. To achieve that goal, it’s no longer an issue of deciding which channel(s) to provide, but rather how to design user-centric services more cost-effectively, as opposed to settling for legacy systems which deliver only on simple goals. User journeys that are as familiar to users of private-sector websites, apps, and other digital platforms are also key.

In one of the devolved nations in Great Britain, The Scottish Parliament recently announced the good news that it has doubled and redefined its digital budget by consolidating various separate workstreams. And in Wales, a recent review of digitalisation in Welsh local government calls for ‘leadership, collaboration, and a tight timetable to bring councils up-to-date.’ Our work for Brighton & Hove City Council involved migrating and upgrading their various websites in 2013 into a single platform solution. It was provided by the powerful open source software Drupal, which is central to our operations, and shows that it is possible to enhance digital services for all local Government functions. Starting from a situation where multiple designs, platforms, and infrastructure were in place, we helped a local authority to recreate and manage its new and improved digital operations more easily.

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