4 steps for local government digital leaders

Written by Theo Blackwell, Cabinet Member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden and an Advisory Board member of Digital Leaders

Digital transformation is one of the most exciting challenges facing local public services, but one which is often inadequately addressed directly by elected representatives.

Over the past few weeks I have written about Camden’s journey from 2009 to presents day and examined all devolution deals and commented on the strength of arrangements about devolution.

Camden’s 2014 Digital Strategy was our first step – by 2017 we intend to full integrate our approach to digital in our new borough Plan.

Here are four steps I think elected digital leaders should take when developing a new approach:

1. Discovery

There are two main questions I would ask council officers at the start when developing a new approach to digital.

  • Digital Foundations — What are the basics a council still needs to get right internally to facilitate more transformation?

Our learning here is that this is not about technology – the key issues we need to focus on are largely behavioural and cultural. Prioritisation is key – the current strategy identified and listed some good initiatives but there was no prioritisation criteria associated with it.  ICT should not ‘own’ the strategy – it needs to be developed, managed and delivered with services. Services need to understand the issues, their roles and how technology can deliver better and/or cheaper outcomes.

  • Digital Aspirations — How can we set of digital principles to further our goals and ambitions of the council?

A digital ambition depends very much on your own priorities.  This will differ from area to area.  Some authorities will place more of a focus on digital inclusion or workforce development; some may link with broader goals around regeneration or connectivity; others still will focus on developing a better approach to data.  The emphasis should depend on your priorities, which you will already be aware of – so no need to reinvent the wheel.

2. Ask how much to you rely on digital technology for your budget savings?

Digital is fundamental to balancing the books.  All local councils face huge financial pressures which require a new approach to long-term budgets.  In 2014 Camden totally reshaped the way we budget – introducing outcomes-based budgeting, which made us think much more deeply about how we ‘invest’ (rather than just ‘spend’) public money.  For this we need much more dynamic use of data to set priorities and make choices on what to spend money on and what to stop.

In our current plans some 85% of all savings needed to balance the books in Camden have a digital technology-based solution in one form or another.  The inter-relationship between digital technology and how we budget is now considered fundamental by the senior leadership team.

3.  Commit to Open Data

Digital offers tremendous opportunities for public services to be more transparent.  Camden set an aim to be ‘open by default’ in 2014.  Our Open Data Charter and a Socrata Open Data Platform (similar to the one used in New York City).

Means more and more searchable information is available online-by-default. Data on parking, for example, has led to a reduction in costs on Freedom of Information requests and the development of private sector innovation through apps to make parking easier. The public can request datasets from us and we will publish them where we can.

4.   Adopt the Local Government Digital Service Standard

Finally, elected representatives should ask their Chief Executive hat steps are being taken to adopt the LGDSS.  The Standard was developed over 2016 by technology officers as a response to the Government Digital Service Standard for Whitehall departments. It proposes a common approach for local authorities to deliver good quality, user-centered, value for money digital services.  Our organisation is on a journey but we also recognise it is not yet skilled enough at identifying digital opportunities; these must be informed by the work around user-need.

Over the next two months, in conjunction with the Local Government Information Unit, I’ll be conducting research on what I consider the be the digital ‘lag’ experienced by senior elected councillors.  The results and practical recommendations arising from this will inform new leadership in this area.

Theo Blackwell is Cabinet Member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden and an Advisory Board member of Digital Leaders. Camden’s Digital Strategy and submission to the UK Digital Strategy can be found here.


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