To see the future, look at the past. In the 1870s, the mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, exploited a slum clearance Act to transform the town into a great city, replete with civic buildings and community pride. Businesses flocked there. Birmingham became powerful. The electorate backed him because he communicated his ideas brilliantly – he even invented the political flyer.
Move on to the 21st century. Local authorities’ central government financing has shrunk substantially but demand for their services has grown. Our aging population means that by financial year 2019/20, 56 per cent of all council tax* will be spent on social care. Something has to give. Either tax shoots up or services are slashed – or we take a different approach.
Instead of shrinking, the role of local government could expand. At the same time, service users (that’s the public, local businesses and local communities) could involve themselves in delivery, enabled by mobile technologies.
Councils – the only elected multiple-member bodies at a local level – could become responsible and accountable for neighbourhood policing, taking on minor crimes such as shoplifting. That’s not such a big change, given that, until a few years ago, police handled parking offences.
Councils could also take on local community healthcare, particularly post-operative recovery and chronic conditions, such as those caused by aging. Greater Manchester is already a pathfinder, merging NHS local healthcare and council adult social care budgets.
Councils with an expanded role would be the focal point for local communities and a one-stop shop for all local services. Councils become agents, mining the billions of pieces of data they already hold to match supply and demand across services. Each service’s budget allocation would become fluid and evidence-based, rather than subject to annual departmental lobbying.
Data mining also allows councils to match services to people – and vice versa. Cross-agency and cross-departmental data sharing becomes possible when people give informed consent, as they do for a DBS check.
So, for example, home visit volunteers can be partnered to elderly or convalescent people, reducing demand on social workers and community nurses. This works – our Community Care 360 project in Finland and Norway is already matching clinicians and mobile care workers, including volunteers.
Rich data can also be used to grow local economies, identifying opportunities and providing information that helps development agencies to bring resources and talents together.
The benefits of data mining do not end there. It is also a step towards recasting council websites as mobile-friendly, two-way portals where citizens can access services, provide ideas and offer their own services.
Currently, council websites are siloed, with different application processes for different amenities. With portals, users could place all the services they need in one scrapbook. Application details that are currently duplicated, such as alcohol licensing and planning permission or council tax payments and parking zone permits, could be shared automatically, online. Easier for users, cheaper to service.
In multiple-authority areas, an app could merge the different councils’ data. We have seen how using our digital collaboration platform can improve both decision making and citizen services. Similar apps for banking agglomeration have already proved the concept. With local authority portals, citizen self-service would become the norm, reducing costs significantly.
Local government becomes more open – and a truly social enterprise. That, in itself, will encourage younger people to be more fully involved in their communities, in the same way as they are immersed in social media.
This future of local government will need the same skills Joseph Chamberlain had – a willingness to embrace the latest technologies, great energy, leadership and brilliant communications. It’s a modern version of a Victorian truism: if you want something done, step up and make it possible.
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