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Why does digital government matter?

London, 3rd February 2016: Harvey Nash hosted a round table event that featured CEOs, Digital Leaders and wide range of thoughtful minds within Local Government. The agenda was focused around digital leadership and its patchy progress to date within Local Government, the ambition was to discuss what can be done to kick-start the digital progression.

What we talked about: "Digital exclusion, tackling fraud cheats, hyperlocal communities, no budget for resources and training, lacking in graduates into Local Government!"
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Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council & SOLACE Spokesperson for Digital Leadership, led the sparkling debate and spoke of how we are at a moment in time where digitally disruptive occurrences are happening daily, some good and some bad, and expectations are shifting for the Public Sector. The discussion was formed around five key areas:

  • The Citizen / Customer / Resident being at the heart of digital transformation
  • The Power of Data - a move beyond data sharing & systems integration and what is the group's thoughts around the power of big data
  • Skills and Leadership
  • A 'Practical Issue' around GDS seeing £450million in additional funding through the spending review process, and ways in which the LGA, SOCITM, SOLACE and others can shape propositions between central and local government & places.
  • What are we going to do to use the powerful potential of digital to transform Public Services?

The group felt that it is essential for organisations to design services collaboratively; across government departments, suppliers and users. The case for collaboration has become much more compelling as a result of the opportunities brought about by digital. The sector should increasingly look at technology as a way of transforming how the sector operates and serves its end users, rather than just seeing it in its traditional role focused on efficiency and cost savings. Collaboration amongst Local Authorities in London in the use of big data has already produced positive results, such as with tackling fraud cheats. However this was only actioned because it has a clear monetary benefit. The group tackled the idea that Central Government would only be interested in investing the progression of digital transformation in Local Government if there were clear pound-signs to gauge its levels of success. There was a general consensus from the group that this approach was flawed.

Omid Shiraji, Interim CIO of Camden then suggested that the everyday customer is going to be reluctant to divulge lots personal data; largely due to fear. Martin Reeves suggested that the data could be anonymised, then the everyday consumer could recognise the value of the data, own it and benefit from sharing it.

It was also discussed how collaboration is only being harnessed in extreme cases, such as tackling fraud cheats. If data such as this was merged with a wide spectrum of other personal data it would really 'sharpen the lens' and enable Local Governments to harness value from the data, as opposed to the old-hat method of storing tonnes of paper in a gloomy, forgotten cupboard in the deepest, darkest corners of a Local Government building.

Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research SOCITM, spoke of how it is time for the Public Sector to reinvent themselves and engage new communities. It was agreed that collaboration would really add momentum to the digital transformation drive and in turn would encourage Local Government to drive new digital ways of doing business into their communities.

John Jackson, CEO London Schools Grid for Learning, proposed the popular idea of hyperlocal communities, declaring how communities can collaborate together and really help themselves to improve their community and crowd fund themselves to essentially drive the changes that they want. It was thoroughly agreed that this realistic idea of hyperlocal communities could genuinely drive this sense of collaboration.

Matt Skinner at FutureGov, spoke of how digital progression in the Public Sector needs to be coupled with a design process to understand problems and define users needs. Matt went on to say that a broad set of skills like user experience design and organisation design are needed in local government to make this progression successful. Involving users in co-designing digital services is essential but you can't just fling open the town hall doors and expect the council to become more digitally advanced and aware, it has to be a facilitated process.

Digital exclusion was a huge point of conversation too, how in 2016 is this still a ripe issue? Graham Bell, CIO City of London Corporation, pondered as to how urban areas such as London still suffer frustratingly low internet speeds. He alluded to the fact that it is not just the person on the street who suffers but also thriving start-ups and fledgling businesses. Rachel Neaman, CEO @ Go_On_UK and Chair of Digital Leaders, stated there are four levels of higher exclusion; age, income, education and health - and that exclusion is not just simply down to geography. She went on to state that the user needs connectivity, a basic set of skills, affordability and motivation to go online in order to be included rather than excluded. Real community work is needed to drive this transformation - local champions are key to enabling users.

Sean Green, CIO at Tower Hamlets, also highlighted that there is no budget for skills and training in a digital environment, and that no new digital leaders are being born in Local Government. The desire is also lacking in graduates to join Local Government over a more attractive commercial sector organisation. Geoff Connell, CIO Newham & Havering, mentioned that people still have a desire to make a difference and help their community. CEOs of organisations, Martin declared, must really lead by example and set the scene for digital transformation, once established they then need remove themselves from the line of sight and let the digitally minded experts take over and drive the changes. This would really enterprise the digital journey in Public Sector organisations.

Digital progression and transformation is being fundamentally held up by political leadership who do not truly understand digital change, Sean Green expressed a feeling of constraint by the culture of his own experience of local government and contemplated that how can the sector advance when many of its drivers are used to an old-fashioned approach.

John Jackson stated that Central Government forget that Local Government actually does more positive work in communities, and that Local Government, actually holds better data and a better understanding of that data than Central Government. Ruby Dixon, a Local Government expert and Head of Local Government practice at Alpine Consulting Ltd, added that the councils and Local Governments who are closest to their consumer are in turn the most trustworthy; this correlation is not due to chance but due to the efforts being made by good local councils.

It was agreed that collaboration would really enthuse the digital transformation drive, collaboration of thought, skills, resources, assets and data would empower Local Governments to enable their communities with digital approaches, digital processes and alleviate digital exclusion. Sean Green called for the establishment for a national accreditation scheme for digital leadership and best practice, similar to schemes such as Investors In People where organisations could be ranked on their digital maturity helping and encouraging organisations in local government to accelerate their digital transformation.

Martin Reeves concluded by stating that now is the time for this debate to be amplified. The group agreed that this agenda needs to remain live and agreed to meet up again in the near future to discuss what has been done to fast-track digital progression across Local Government. Big thanks to our panel

  • Martin Reeves - Chair and CEO of Coventry City Council; Digital Leadership Spokesperson for SOLACE
  • Rachel Neaman - CEO of Go On UK
  • Sean Green - Service Head ICT (CIO), Customer Services and Transformation London Borough of Tower Hamlets
  • Geoff Connell - CIO One Source (Shared Service between Newham and Havering)
  • Graham Bell - CIO City of London Corporation
  • Martin Ferguson - Director of Policy and Research SOCITM
  • Ruby Dixon - Head of Local Government Alpine Consulting
  • John Jackson - CEO London Grid for Learning (former CIO London Borough of Camden)
  • Matt Skinner - Head of Product Future Gov
  • Omid Shiraji - Interim CIO @ Camden

Join the conversation on Twitter using #HNDigitalRoundTable
Blog by:
Jack Pearce, Harvey Nash