Since the beginning of austerity in 2010, most public services have managed to become more efficient, according to the Institute for Government. They have achieved this largely through holding down staff pay and asking workers to work even harder. But for how long can local authorities continue to do more for less?
Not much longer, said the think tank, which warns the strategy is approaching - or has already reached - the limit. “Public services will in many cases now struggle to sustain the efficiencies that they have made,” said the IfG's Performance Tracker 2019.
The new annual report spells out the politically tough trade-offs facing the next government. Whoever takes charge and whatever they might have promised in their manifesto, they must either break annual borrowing rules or reduce the scope and quality of services, increase how much people directly pay for them, cut spending elsewhere or raise taxes.
Technology offers the only real alternative. At techUK’s Local Public Services Committee, we are committed to improving engagement between local government and our industry and promoting the role that technology can play in transforming local services. These services should be designed around the needs of the people who use them, in line with the Local Digital Declaration of 2018. As CEO of an innovative UK technology SME, I am personally committed to working in partnership with local authorities to drive innovation through collaboration.
Collaboration has been absolutely key to our success. In Edinburgh, we rolled out Britain’s biggest public WiFi network to boost digital inclusion and support the growth of the digital economy. It was essential that we worked closely with the local authority to overcome the challenges of deploying robust digital infrastructure in a World Heritage Site. Today, the service has nearly 1.1m registered users.
In Coventry, we installed one of the UK’s first city-wide networks for the Internet of Things. We are working alongside the local council to pilot innovative services designed to add social value, increase sustainability and protect the environment. These sensors gather readings for analysis, which yields informed insight to enhance working practices and decision making at a local level. Coventry will become the UK’s first truly connected UK City of Culture in 2021. These are vastly different environments but each is setting the stage for the transformation of public services.
At the first level is the public network, which needs to be safe and secure but also open and accessible, allowing everyone in the area to become digitally enabled. At the second level is the data, where users store, view, control and share readings (in a GDPR compliant way). At the third level is the service interoperability with open APIs, enabling collaborative working across partner organisations.
Fundamentally, this enables business process automation: analyse, model, execute, monitor, measure and improve. Of course, this is nothing new. It started in automotive manufacturing and spread to the financial services and retail industries. It is gaining ground in healthcare, thanks in part to our sister company Inhealthcare and its NHS partners, and it is coming to public services in places where these foundations are being laid.
This is cutting edge stuff. But we recognise that justifying the business case for new technology can be tough for local authorities and hidebound commissioning rules. This is why collaboration is crucial, with the sharing of knowledge, skills and risk between the technology industry and local government to confront the major challenges facing the UK, especially in the converging areas of health and social care. Nobody can meet these in isolation.