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Report of the Digital Government Review

Complexity: the scale and diversity of the challenge

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Local service delivery is an incredibly complex environment within which we are wary of making broad-brush public policy recommendations.

The scale of the challenge is considerable, as is its diversity. There are 433 local authorities in the UK [117], ranging from London Boroughs serving densely populated areas to Welsh councils serving large, lightly populated geographies. Some are unitary, some are part of a public sector hierarchy (parish councils, town councils, borough councils and district councils). A council typically delivers 400-600 services, and will have accumulated ICT systems over the years to handle the challenges of each service.

These systems will have been built using the same methodologies that ruled in both central government and the private sector: they are frequently bespoke systems built for a particular service and often procured on long-term contracts. Each public service will be subject to guidance and directives from central government departments as well as demands from the people that they service locally.

Within this diversity, some challenges are national: they are common to almost every local authority in the country, and open to common gains from digital.

Across the whole sector, for example, there is the need to support heavy budget cuts. The funding gap is expected to reach £12.4bn by 2020 [118]. Digital could support this challenge by increasing efficiencies and reducing the cost of service delivery.

Some service needs are also common across the nation. One famous case study is a smartphone app, designed to help people to park (a near-universal UK challenge amenable to technology). Similarly, a website allowing local people to report potholes is of universal use; as is an online map showing the locations of public toilets; or the ability to raise a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. These problems and needs are among those shared by all local authorities.

Another national concern is the ongoing debate over localism, or devolution, of powers to regions, cities, local authorities and even down to community level [119]. Responding to this will require flexibility to deliver new services or to deliver existing services under guidance that varies across the country.

For example, the powers that are devolved may well differ across the country, Scotland may receive devolved powers that are different to those devolved in England [120] and develop different delivery guidelines.

Across the UK, people and communities are all coming to expect higher and higher levels of digital service. They see high quality in the services they use at home and at work. They see it on their smartphones, tablets and laptops. They see it in some central government services and question why their local authority is falling behind. They may understand that their local authority lacks the scale of a central government department but they are likely to think that this is government’s problem, not their problem.

The above are all national challenges that local authorities must engage with on an individual basis – and that sharable national approaches can greatly help. Many other challenges, however, will vary by area.

Consider the fact that individual areas have very different high-priority issues: a growing urban population, perhaps; changing demographics; social care; increasing traffic congestion; the need to control emissions; persistent levels of crime and anti-social behaviour [121]. And these lists may also change within the space of a few years: people’s needs evolve and political control can shift.

The complex services that we mentioned earlier will vary by location. Each location will have differing partner agencies with differing capabilities or drivers for integration. Both at regional level, where NHS Scotland, NHS Northern Ireland and NHS Wales may choose to operate under different guidance to NHS England, but also at local level where third sector organisations often help to deliver services.

And then there is the fact that access to the Internet and connectivity itself varies widely by area. The service in central London is vastly superior, for example, to that in rural Wales, Scotland or the North.

These area specific challenges speak strongly to the nature of local government. Local authorities are accountable to their electorate to deliver services that are right for the place, for the people and communities that live and work there.

It is natural that these authorities will have different local needs and differing service responses. We need to put recognition of this diversity and localism at the heart of our digital ambitions.

To summarise we see:

  • That local government faces the same degree of legacy technology challenges as central government
  • That the most regularly used government services are delivered locally
  • That local authorities faces common challenges such as budget cuts and rising expectations from people for better digital services
  • That devolution may impact on the how services are being delivered and that flexibility is vital
  • That there are some services that have common needs nationally (parking, potholes, the location of public toilets, FOI requests) that could be supported by common components
  • That there are also challenges and priorities (driven by local needs, local delivery partners, local accountability and political control) which are specific to each local authority and that vary over time
  • That two, or 433, local authorities can have differing priorities at the same point in time
  • That some services are more complex than national services, requiring local integration across multiple agencies
  • The skills required to deliver modern digital solutions to public service challenges – both leadership and hands on will be in short supply in many local authorities

“In areas such as complaints citizens are developing informal services and moving between formal and informal channels to communicate with government. Local government in particular needs to tap into these informal” services as a resource for insights on service improvement.” – Civil Society Organisation

[117] This figure includes England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
[119] There are numerous devolution announcements being made by all parties at the moment. For specific examples see the Labour Local Government Innovation Taskforce report ,the debate over the devolution of more powers to Scotland, or the various announcements centred on Northern cities
[120] For example Housing Benefit may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament who may choose to define their own rules and reach their own arrangement on delivery with Scottish local authorities. Yet Housing Benefit is currently included in the Universal Credit service which is being nationally developed by the central government Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
[121] See page 11 of this report on smart cities for examples of varying needs

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