Scaling digital change for better public services  – reflections on UK local government digital strategies

Written by Theo Blackwell, Cabinet Member for Finance, Technology and Growth for LB Camden

On the eve of the Barcelona Smart Cities Expo, where 600+ municipal authorities from across the world will gather to showcase the latest trends in the use of digital technologies and discuss the common challenges facing them in the future , it is timely to consider how UK local government is responding and planning for the digital revolution.

As Cabinet member for Finance, Technology & Growth at the London Borough of Camden and Chair of our new ICT Shared Service Board with Islington and Haringey, over the past few months I’ve been considering how digital transformation can be better progressed across local government — interviewing leaders of councils, cabinet members and councillors; chief information officers; chief executives and senior officers.

This piece, which follows from previous posts here and here, looks at existing digital strategies which have emerged over the last few years and how local government is describing change.

[Caveat: there is no definitive list of digital strategies across UK local government so I have attempted to bring together as many as I can find and make observations on their aims, scope and delivery. My analysis will no doubt have missed some (and does not include much work specifically badged as ‘digital inclusion’) but it is hoped that the account below will progress understanding of where we are at this critical time].

Councils are at the frontline of delivery

Why is it important that councils have a digital strategy in the first place?

Local councils provide 80% of all local public services — including those that support the most vulnerable in society — and demand for many of them is rising fast at a time of continued central government cuts.

Local government spending is in excess of £20bn annually and the move to integrate health and social care brings future spending into scope. Localisation of the distribution of business rates by 2020 mean that councils will have a closer relationship with businesses and their investment needs — bringing a new set of digital economy challenges and opportunities. Local government is by nature fragmented.

Local government is fragmented in various ways, making co-ordination or scaling of innovation sometimes difficult, particularly for external providers. Across England and Wales there are 375 local authorities, each with their own leadership, local links and priorities. Their priorities are set by over 18,500 elected councillors from unitary and district councils and delivered by over 1.6m local government employees and a huge range of public, private and voluntary sector providers.

Clearly councils can and do undertake digital work with or without an overall digital strategy, but setting down a vision, principles and programmes to make it become a reality is an expression of leadership — and a more permissive approach to technology and innovation.

We should want councils to develop digital strategies because they are obviously a critical player in public service delivery, either in their own right or through their commissioning or governing influence over other public services. As there is more talk about devolution and integration of billions of pounds of spending from the NHS, how councils view digital transformation and innovation will become an increasingly important public policy question.

Digital is not exclusively about ICT

In discussions with public service leaders the term ‘digital’ is often a source of some confusion. This often leads to a discussion focused on technology products and/or lack of knowledge thereof, whereas in reality ‘digital’ should be considered as a broader term for corporate values and practices which capitalise on the opportunities presented by the Internet. While technology is typically the enabler — social media, mobile, the Cloud, analytics and big data, how IT is procured — ‘digital’ is not just about technology. Successful digital organisations tend to develop operating models clustered around speed, adaptability and sharing. These contrast strongly with the usual ways of doing things and are considered ‘disruptive’.

The issue was considered by the former leadership of Government Digital Service, which in a series of articles began to articulate a new way to think of how public services are run in the 21st century. Former GDS-er Tom Loosemore describes digital as this:

“Digital means applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

Successful public service digital transformation requires redesign and reengineering on every level — workforce, customer service, process, technology and governance — to make organisations faster at doing things, more adaptable, able to share more information and do so securely.

Arguably, digital transformation for councils is more complex than in much of the private sector.

First, local authorities have many more lines of business — a large metropolitan borough can have between 600 and 700 areas of operation some of which will be universal service obligations to all residents as well as specific statutory duties to the most vulnerable.

Secondly, the governance role of local authorities increases their scope beyond transactions to include wider issues such as the impact of the digital revolution on infrastructure, jobs, growth and skills. In Camden’s Digital Strategy I describe it as a consciously broad active government approach to the impact of the digital revolution on the borough.

Thirdly, there will be even more complexity to navigate over the next decade as local services respond to rising citizen expectations, continual budget cuts and demographic change. This will require specialist approaches to multiple relationships and integration. Local councils will need to share data and systems with other authorities, public services and the private sector to solve common problems in a way that large private sector organisations just won’t.

Finally, in my experience talking to councillors up and down the country there is a (often self-perpetuating perception) that local government representatives — and leaders — ‘just won’t get it’ because they aren’t digital natives. The average age of councillors in the UK is estimated to be around 60. The UK has the oldest cohort of councillors of the countries surveyed by De Montford University, and is “in a league of its own” when it comes to the percentage of councillors who are retired.

Adoption of digital strategies in local government

I want to suggest that these challenges (including the final one) are not necessarily limiting and with the appropriate investment in leadership capacity there can be a fundamental transformation in local public service delivery. By examining digital strategies we see how local council leadership recognises it is on the digital frontline both responding to digital change and developing the kind of seamless and relational public services and digital place-shaping initiatives set out in future-scoping work — e.g. NESTA’s Digital Vision of Local Government in 2025.

So what’s the picture so far across local and regional and devolved government?

Ambitions around technology, integration and channel shift have typically been expressed through ICT and customer service strategies which local government has a fairly rich history of, see e.g. the Local Government Asscoiation’s Transforming local public services. However, in recent years this has begun to change and the following digital strategies have all been produced over the last 4 years, the majority in the last two: Manchester Digital Strategy (2012), Buckinghamshire (2013, 2016), Edinburgh ICT and Digital Strategy (2013), Digital Glasgow Roadmap (2014), Gravesham Digital Strategy 2015–2020 (2014), Rotherham Digital Strategy (2014), Calderdale Digital and ICT Strategy 2015–20 (2015), Cornwall Digital Strategy (2015) Cumbria Digital Strategy (2015), Digital Greenwich Smart City Strategy(2015), Islington Digital Strategy (2015), Newport Digital Strategy (2015), Solihull Digital Strategy (2015), Southend-on-sea (2015), Tower Hamlets Digital Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan 2015–2020 (2015), Wigan Digital Strategy 2015–20 (2015). Doncaster Digital Strategy (2016), Southwark Digital Strategy (2016)and Tewkesbury Going Digital (2016).

Some authorities have incorporated digital thinking into their core business/corporate plans (e.g. Bournemouth) which set overall outcomes; expressed ambitions via informal strategic documents (e.g. Camden, Bristol); documents focused on technology (e.g. Peterborough Technology Strategy); or — at a district level — have expressed ambitions together (Dorset Councils Working Together ICT Strategy, 2012–15). MK: Smart in Milton Keynes is constructed as a smart city consortium with public and private partners in its own right. Further strategies are in development in Birmingham, Oxford, Tunbridge Wells and the London Borough of Ealing, where the council is conducting what I consider to be a ground-breaking scrutiny with local councillors to develop their approach.

Scotland has a undertaken a significant amount of work influencing and guiding work with local authorities there through an implementation plan. London expresses its ambition through the Smart London Plan (2013). The UK Government Digital Strategy (2012) is in the process of being reworkedand possibly relaunched with the Autumn Statement and we wait to see what will be said about the relationship with English local government.

Vision, approach and objectives

Research into digital strategies in major global cities undertaken by Townsend and Lorimer, similarly concluded that “while there is little convergence of methodology, the plans share a common set of goals: the amplification of existing investments in infrastructure, government services, and economic development through sustained, incremental innovation in digital technology.

By the same token strategies in UK local government appear to be very much a product of place and the political priorities of the administrations advancing them, nevertheless there are some common themes shared by almost all strategies, namely:

  1. improving online transactions
  2. digital inclusion / assisted digital
  3. better public, residential and business connectivity through better wifi and broadband provision

Strategies, depending on political priorities, go on to consider a wide range of other digital themes and ambitions:

· data-sharing with other public bodies;

· better business intelligence data for performance management;

· open data and transparency;

· information governance, cyber-security and trust;

· better IT procurement and supply chains;

· improved civic/democratic participation;

· better budget-setting/outcomes based-budgeting;

· public sector workforce digital skills development and digital leadership;

· promotion, incubation and support for digital start-ups, including e-commerce;

· digital master-planning for major infrastructure projects;

· long-term talent development through digital apprenticeships; coding in schools and support for the new Computing curriculum;

· specific work around government initiatives such as Universal Credit;

· specific ‘smart’ initiatives such as improving democratic participation of councillors; housing and social care integration; health; ‘Green IT’;

· work with higher education institutes and innovation labs.

Towards a taxonomy of digital strategies

Strategies range from basic action plans which effectively explain the need for channel-shift to very comprehensive and ambitious statements of context and intention, for example the Digital Glasgow Vision, Manchester Digital Strategy and Digital Greenwich Smart City Strategy.

The strategies can be roughly placed in three camps: those arising from a ‘digital-by-default’ approach, largely focused on customer service transformation; and those which consider many elements of the ‘smart city’ agenda. This year a further generation of digital strategies which have adopted the language and user-centric approach of GDS can be detected.

Digital Inclusion focus

With a strong focus on access to services, digital inclusion and channel shift, these strategies focus on increasing digital take-up — examples include Cumbria, Calderdale and Rotherham all of which place strong emphasis on contextualising channel shift and the steps the council is taking to build capacity and resilience with residents and with their own workforce.

Tower Hamlets’ action plan to tackle digital exclusion considers a range of factors including access to broadband, financial exclusion, disability, isolation, skills and confidence — and is guided by a statement from the council’s Fairness Commission.

‘Smart City’ focus

Alternative strategies adopt a ‘smart cities’ approach which consider technology solutions to the challenges of urbanisation. Examples of this approach in the UK are Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, London (within London, LB Greenwich), Manchester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough. Typically, these are far broader in scope than previously identified strategies looking at the use of data to plan ‘place’ (infrastructure and human interaction with public realm) and services, often linking with universities and Digital Catapults.

While these strategies also focus on 24/7 customer services they also look at the wider picture, including, Internet of Things, ‘Big Data’, Open Data, work to support start- and scale-ups, partnerships with universities, advanced digital skills and the wider economy.

GDS ‘user-centric’

More recent digital strategies have explicitly referenced or used specific language around designing services around ‘user need’ and innovation, echoing or specifically referencing Government Digital Service.

The stand-out example of this approach is Buckinghamshire, which aims for “Digital services so good, people prefer to use them.” It takes a uniquely deliberative methodology, first diagnosing specific organisational challenges through a senior management audit of progress against 10 goals followed by consideration of 5 strategic options (Government-as-Platform; Government Digital Service; service redesign; universal web portal; Outsourcing to a Partner).

Other strategies which reference Government Digital Service work, albeit to a lesser extent, include Newport, Southwark and Islington.

Reflections on progress

· So far many councils appear reticent to express their digital ambitions — While this will not be an exhaustive list, if digital strategies are a means of explaining and planning wider digital transformation to their population, that we have so few should be a source of concern. Further work is needed to understand why this is the case. A fear is that leaders feel that transformation can only follow at a pace set by digital inclusion priorities when councils should be adopting a less restrictive and more permissive approach to digital.

· Leading strategies consciously face the future… and identify their responses as recognition that digital technology and ways of working are becoming increasingly pervasive across all sectors of the economy and integrated into aspects of residents’ lives. They are not just advanced visions of channel-shift but think more deeply about transformation. They support the business community through the provision of infrastructure and skills as well as a permissive posture towards innovation. They recognise the role of a new mixed economy of tech businesses and private sector providing solutions to problems — not because there is an app to cure social ills but because technology platforms can assist public service become more effective by making decision-making faster, more adaptable and with solutions that are easier to share.

· We must go further than channel shift — councils only focusing on narratives explaining channel shift are missing a trick to set out their agency on the digital economy and the use of data. Cities and regions outlined in Tech City UK’s Tech Nation 2016 to all have well advanced digital strategies linking local governing vision with the private sector innovation going on across the country. This is not the case. With some notable exceptions the conclusion drawn by Policy Exchange last year that “UK cities have failed to put in place even the most basic mechanisms to join-up, analyse and act upon the vast quantity of data they have”, appears re-confirmed.

· There should be more alignment with corporate priorities now and in the future — Perhaps in the future the focus should be less on producing a document and more on making sure that digital is integrated in everything councils do and specifically weaved into the next iteration of the corporate or (‘business’) plan and financial strategy. This should ensure digital is at the heart of delivering the savings needed, transforming services for citizens, and that Town Halls have a clear and compelling narrative — both to continue to demonstrate leadership in the area and to build coalitions with like-minded partners. A good example of the integration of digital priorities with a central corporate plan is provided by Bournemouth with its objectives around 24/7 services, workforce development and the digital economy.

All strategies need better implementation plans — All councils will have a number of old systems that make change difficult, slow and expensive. Although there have been ambitions to resolve legacy technology issues, progress on this during a period of huge central government cuts to Town Halls often gets caught up in wider service reviews. Therefore councils need to look at the picture across all systems in order to make better choices. Additionally, councils also need to make sure that they are taking full advantage of opportunities to automate transactions wherever possible. But not all strategies have identified adequate capital or revenue resource to maintain transformation. Identification of officers, structures (internal boards) and cabinet members to champion the strategy are not as evident as they could be. It may well be that ‘digital’ has more than one champion in the organisation — for example, an executive officer lead for data as well as transformation. Good examples where design principles and what the strategy will deliver are considered are given by Buckinghamshire and Islington.

Digital transformation must form part of devolution discussionsDevolution — particularly around health — presents an opportunity to establish expectations around digital transformation for city-regions. As I have argued elsewhere, there’s a strategic gap between plans developed in 2013 and 2015 and the Devolution Deals signed in 2015 and 2016. On paper at least, the bold digital vision set out by Manchester in its own strategy and the evolution of the deal with central government there seems to be out of step. This is important not just for Manchester but more broadly because although each deal ostensibly is struck with Whitehall according to each areas local need, and in practice the Manchester Deal is seen as the most advanced and, informally at least, the horizon of what will be allowed by Whitehall. Scotland and Wales have set out their unified approaches, with the former specifically building-in the role of local authorities. London government (the City Hall and 32-borough London Councils body) has yet to fully define its leadership in this area, although the GLA will have a Chief Digital Officer.

Whitehall and GDS should have a role working with local councils on digital transformation — Local government is by nature fragmented. Across England and Wales there are 375 local authorities, each with their own leadership, local links and priorities. Their priorities are set by over 18,500 elected councillors from unitary and district councils and delivered by over 1.6m local government employees and a huge range of public, private and voluntary sector providers. There are a complex web of relationships based on geography, culture and the professions which constitute its ranks.

We are also in a period of potentially significant regulatory change which will impact public service delivery (e.g. new public sector data-sharing provisions, new EU data rules, security). In March 2015 it was announced that GDS would have extra responsibilities with local government, a competence which previously was not in their business plan. Much has changed since then, not least two senior leadership changes and a shuffling of political leadership with the May government. Extending thinking about digital transformation has not been on the agenda of HM Treasury and Communities and Local Government in Whitehall — neither in devolution deals nor in support, following the axing of the CLG’s Local Digital Campaign in March 2016. This is something which should be remedied in the long-awaited UK Digital Strategy and GDS Digital Transformation Strategy in development (last week’s scene-setting leak about the Strategy does not broach this issue). Whitehall and local councils — whether through combined authorities, London government or in local alliances, should be prepared to invest in digital leadership capacity-building on a grander scale.

· Collaboration is key — Another consideration for those wishing to innovate is the diversity of local government and the complexity of engagement. This is not just an issue of type of authority and geography but who to talk to. There is currently no unifying vision or vehicle for digital transformation in local government, but various groups are developing thinking in this area — e.g. SOLACE (Chief Executives); LGA (local councillors); SOCITM and Local Digital Coalition (CIOs). The next generation of digital leadership should emphasise how technology can assist local public services to integrate. They should consider overall spending on transformation in locally including the potentially very large spending on IT proposed by Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships. Initiatives like the Local Government Digital Service Standard, developed over 2016 by technology officers as a response to the Government Digital Service Standard for Whitehall departments should be universally adopted to establish a common approach for local authorities to deliver good quality, user-centred, value-for-money digital services.

· We must harness innovation better— By keeping an eye on Smart Cities work and developments on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology, there will be a number of opportunities that councils could take advantage of. There is value in extending the approach further to look to next generation technologies such as more predictive analytics, intelligent process automation (use of artificial intelligence) and creating more dynamic (or less static) services. However, councils do not necessarily speak with one voice to the outside world, especially the tech community, and the challenges faced by the highest spending services, such as adult social care, are often difficult to procure solutions for because of a low appetite for risk, professional barriers or inherent complexity.

· Digital transformation is not just a subject for council leadership — while most adopted strategies will have gone through the usual pre-decision scrutiny before being adopted, an interesting approach is being developed by Ealing Council which is currently undertaking a public scrutiny of digital while developing a strategy. This enables wider learning for local councillors (not just council leadership and the sponsoring politician) over a period of time as well as a stake in policy development. Joint scrutiny functions in combined authorities, devolved administrations and the Greater London Authority should also consider this.


In previous posts on digital transformation in local public services I’ve described Camden council’s journey and looked at how devolution deals and combined authorities could be doing more to promote this agenda.

In January, in conjunction with the Local Government Information Unit, I’ll be publishing research on views and opinions of frontline and senior elected councillors, based on a survey of with 800+ responses in England. The results and recommendations arising from this will hopefully help inform leadership improvements in this area.

UK government at all levels needs to think about practical ways to strengthen digital transformation in public services. Support and investment for digital leadership capacity-building is central to this.

We won’t succeed if public policy continues to treat change purely in terms of the dynamics of the UK government central vs local debate, rather than considering use digital technology and techniques to improve public service delivery where it happens.

Many major authorities are establishing track record showing they know how to innovate and adapt, the opportunity is here to accelerate and scale this change if this can be matched by political leadership in Whitehall and town halls.


Theo Blackwell was 2014 LGIU Digital Champion of the Year and winner of the Sandy-Bruce Lockhart scholarship in 2015. Camden’s Digital Strategy won the borough the MJ Digital City of the Year in 2015. He is a freelance technology and public policy consultant and sits on the Advisory Board of Digital Leaders. 

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