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Missive "truly redefines glib" says councillor at the local authority poster child for digital strategy

A Camden councillor has slammed the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) guidance on funding digital services for local authorities, and the borough will now respond with a set of proposals urging Whitehall to recognise local government as central to digital strategy.

The DCLG issued guidance on funding new projects late last year. It told local authorities that from April 2016 they will only be able to fund reform through new capital receipts – in other words, cash generated from selling off new assets. No funding was provided for local authorities digital programmes in the 2015’s Autumn spending review.

Councils are squeezed for assets to sell and in a climate of cuts this is leading to frustration.

Camden can be found on the Government Digital Services website as a case study for how to implement digital strategy. But Camden councillor Theo Blackwell tells Computerworld UK: “After five straight years of cuts, and four more to come, this missive truly redefines glib."

“We estimate that 85 percent of our efficiency programme is IT-dependent,” he says, explaining why digital is key to driving savings.

Blackwell claims the real issue is in building the capacity for local government to make the right choices so councils can spend more efficiently.

Partner at global consultancy firm OC&C Strategy Consultants, Colin Tyler, says that many local authorities see the smart application of digital technology as the only way they can get the maximum return on spending in areas like housing and social care.

“[The guidance] fails to recognise the superior track record of local authorities and other regional bodies such as police forces in delivering digital efficiencies compared to flagship national programmes such as Universal Credit and the G-Cloud, which have continued to flounder,” Tyler says. “Local authority leaders could be forgiven for viewing this as further proof that there is one rule for ministers and permanent secretaries, and another for everyone else in the public sector.”

“They will no doubt be frustrated by Whitehall’s refusal to follow through on early Tory policy to loosen the DCLG’s grip so that innovation can be allowed to flourish from below.”

And public sector research director Alan Mo of market intelligence firm Kable believes there is “a lot of unhappiness in the sector that there isn’t any focus on local digital”.

“And there hasn’t been,” Mo says. “There has been a lot of canvassing for digital budgets and even greater focus for GDS to look at the local space, but there hasn’t been that response – it’s not been addressed.”

There is, however, “still a lot of dispute at the local level” regarding what greater investment or local government digital service would look like for local authorities.

Camden council has now put together a series of proposals in response. It says Whitehall should recognise local government as “integral to the delivery” of digital strategy, “enabling cross-government transformation, economic growth and making everyday lives easier”.

“The UK Digital Strategy should consider how and in what form the work of the Digital Partnership Programme is continued,” the draft proposals continue. “The London Borough of Camden is willing to play a leading role in this.”

It recommends that UK digital strategy “must set out a clear and funded plan” to ensure local governments have the “capacity to support an ambitious and cross government UK strategy”. This would include resources a local government practice to provide technical and thought leadership for interoperability across government, plus fostering collaboration across councils.

Minister for the digital economy, Ed Vaizey, is tipped to announce an update to the UK’s digital strategy in mid-February.

Camden council’s draft digital strategy proposals in full:

Transforming Government recommendations for the UK Digital Strategy

Recommendation 1: The UK Digital Strategy should consider how and in what form the work of the Digital Partnership Programme is continued. The London Borough of Camden is willing to play a leading role in this.

Recommendation 2: Proposals for government transformation must incorporate workforce transformation, use of analytics, channel shift as well as ‘joined-up’ data across local and central government. We recommend that a wider culture and change programme, including the development of a strong internal digital capability, is integral to the successful delivery of a UK Digital Strategy and should be fostered and encouraged as part of government transformation.

Recommendation 3: The digitisation of the workforce and elimination of paper within government should be a central priority to achieve the step change in service delivery;

Recommendation 4: We believe that the publication and sharing of local authority data online needs to be a continuing focus and priority for a new UK Digital Strategy;

Recommendation 5: The UK Digital Strategy must set out a clear and funded plan to ensure that local government has the capacity to support an ambitious and cross government UK strategy. Specifically:

  • Resource a local government architectural practice that provides technical and thought leadership to support interoperability across government as well as fostering collaboration across councils; and
  • accelerate the development of standards and APIs that facilitate data exchange across IT systems in government;
  • further incentivise the IT software and services market, through government sponsored commercial and procurement strategies, to deliver interoperable technology platforms and encourage the level of data exchange that is necessary to enable government transformation.

Unlocking Growth recommendations for the UK Digital Strategy

Recommendation 6:  The UK Digital Strategy needs to continue focusing on accelerating superfast connectivity which is particularly poor within inner London as well as incubating the rollout of next generation mobile and telecommunications connectivity to enable ubiquitous access to the internet and greater competition.  Central and local public service estate should be used to boost connectivity, following Camden’s ‘digital rooftops’ initiative.

Recommendation 7:  More should be done by government to increase transparency regarding the performance of telecommunications providers so there is more accountability for poor performance;

Recommendation 8:  The dominant market position of a small number of big suppliers should be reviewed to see whether more can be done to encourage competition and accelerate high speed access to internet service.

Recommendation 9:  The government should review the impact of Permitted development rights due to their negative impact on employment space in tech clusters like Camden and inner London.  If the PD right is to continue it should be amended so that:

  • areas such as Camden with large numbers of office premises in important growth sectors throughout their areas should be exempt;
  • it only applies to genuinely vacant premises.  

Recommendation 10: To develop talent in the long-term, the Department for Education and devolved administrations should promote school-based Computing hubs to address teacher shortages in Computing and STEM subjects. 

Improving Everyday lives recommendations for the UK Digital Strategy

Recommendation 11:  minimise digital exclusion, improve community resilience and support earlier and better targeted interventions across agencies will save money and deliver better outcomes.

Recommendation 12:  We believe that priority should be given to developing an integrated and joined-up view of key datasets across government including residents, the NS and other local public services and businesses.  

Recommendation 13:  Fundamentally review statute and regulation in respect of information and data handling in government so it enables and supports public service transformation. The UK’s approach to digital privacy, data sharing and security needs have developed organically that has / is contributing to confusion and unnecessary complexity on key issues such as Information Governance and data sharing. 

Building Foundations recommendations for the UK Digital Strategy

Recommendation 14: We believe a risk-based approach is the right one for cybersecurity as opposed to a one size fits all model which has led to issues within local government; and

Recommendation 15: The work undertaken by the LGA, local government and Crown Commercial Services has had a positive impact on both the costs and the quality of IT solutions.  Going forward, the partnership working on commercial strategy must continue.