#LocalGov elections: Councillors should not shy away from digital

Yesterday voters went to the polls to choose over 8,300 councillors in 248 English local authorities. Councils are faced with a range of challenges: from demographic change, environmental crime, housing and adult social care, to employment opportunities. Set against a backdrop of rising citizen expectations and budget cuts, this poses a significant public policy challenge for elected officials. These challenges can no longer be faced alone, and digital presents the opportunity to do things differently. Fundamental to successful transformation is having strong digital leadership, and that means councillors must understand digital. It is no longer just the responsibility of the IT team. 

Last year, techUK, produced Council of the future: A digital guide for councillors to provide a blueprint on what needs to be done and the questions needed to be asked to ensure the right leadership is in place to deliver meaningful transformation that improves outcomes and creates places where citizens want to live, work and thrive.

It should never be a case of simply tech for tech sake but how tech can help solve a problem and ultimately improve the lives of citizens. A good example of where technology can transform outcomes is helping to prevent homelessness, and this is one of the biggest challenges facing local government. An estimated 4,134 people in England were forced to sleep outside in 2016, up 16 per cent on the previous year. Furthermore, the Government’s Homelessness Reduction Act, places more responsibility on local government to prevent homelessness when it comes into force in April 2018. By unlocking the potential of their existing data, local authorities strategically predict and prevent homelessness by identifying households at risk of losing their home. Councils, such as Redditch, are using apps to enable the public to alert the local authority about people sleeping rough on the streets.

The more progressive councils will see digital as an opportunity to re-imagine how future services can be delivered as well as gain value in reducing demand on services; improving efficiencies; enhancing customer experience and driving better decision making from data insights. The momentum must not be lost – and councillors can be at the forefront of creating the conditions for a digital council.

Key considerations for councillors should be: 

  • Putting in place the right digital leadership. Digital leadership must be formalised in terms of its authority to instigate change within the organisation. The structure of formalised digital leadership could take the form of Digital Champions, Chief Digital Officer (CDO), or through the establishment of a Digital Board. 
  • Early market engagement. What are the current mechanisms in place for pre-procurement engagement? By engaging with the technology market early, councils will be able to access the latest innovations and workshop through with partners what the art of the possible is.  
  • Putting user needs first. To build relationships with residents, it is important that citizens can engage in the way they prefer. This could be both face-to-face or digitally. A citizen-centric approach should be taken by working closely with the community to tackle digital exclusion. 

Georgina Maratheftis, programme manager for local government at techUK, said:

“Congratulations to all the newly elected councilors. It is a pivotal time for local government and by grasping the digital agenda and having a digital-first mindset, councillors can be at the forefront of spearheading the transformation of the area into a ‘smart community’. There is a real opportunity for councillors to empower citizens to shape services and create the places where they want to live. We hope techUK’s guide will act as a useful tool for both the new and incumbent councillors to have the right conversations about digital. The case studies in the guide show that digital is more than just achieving cost savings but about breaking down barriers; aiding collaboration and renewing local democracy and trust. We look forward to working with the councillors across the UK to help them realise their digital ambitions and reimagine what 21st century local services look like.”

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