Time to ‘turbo-charge’ digital transformation in local government

Time to ‘turbo-charge’ digital transformation in local government

Jason Kitcat, Leader of Brighton & Hove Council gets straight to the point in the foreword to Better connected, the annual report on councils’ digital progress, published today by Socitm, the local authority IT management association. ‘If we are to have any hope of getting ahead of the scissors of doom – the relentless curves of demand growth and budget cuts bearing down on us,’ says Kitcat, ‘we also need to turbo-charge digital transformation across the sector.’
Now in its 17th year, the survey was started shortly after the Internet went mainstream, in the year Google was founded. Socitm reminds us that there wasn’t a full set of council websites to review until 2003 when Bridgnorth District Council (later reorganised into Shropshire Council) finally launched itself online.

The customer experience
The report reviews the quality of the customer experience of council websites – how easy it is to find information and use online services. In recent years it has also assessed councils’ digital engagement with the public through social media, email and customer accounts, and explored the extent to which social media and phone channels are joined up with the website offering.
Results of the survey are presented in the report alongside other data, most importantly the website performance survey Socitm runs for council website users to feedback their experience. This year, for the first time, Socitm also gathered information on council website management practice (40 per cent responded), and took a look at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ ranking of councils that had redesigned their websites in the 12 months prior to the main Better connected survey.
The results are not hugely encouraging. Or as Jason Kitcat puts it: ‘There is some fabulous digital work out there; some brilliant apps, websites and more as evidenced by this report. But it’s not enough. If we continue at this pace of change, the transformation will only be ready long after our sector is dead and buried.’

Top line scores
Better connected’s top line scores show that just 34 councils (eight per cent) have achieved the top, four star ranking. The decline in top ranked sites that occurred in 2014 (from 39 in 2013 to 32) has been halted, but overall, the proportion of three and four star sites together has declined from 46 per cent to 44 per cent, with more than a quarter (28 per cent) of sites achieving just one star.
The public passes an even harsher judgment: Socitm’s Website performance service recorded sharp rises in visit failure and large drops in visitor satisfaction during 2014.
Most worrying, perhaps, is the fact that of the 63 sites known to have been redesigned in 2014, nearly half do not show any improvement in the Better connected ranking.

So what’s to do?
In the past, reaction to Better connected’s exposure of the sector’s slow pace of change has often been to shoot the messenger, by questioning the survey results, or by denying that digital is important or even appropriate, because ‘local authority customers are not online’ or prefer to ‘deal with people’.
This year’s Better connected launch is happening in an atmosphere that does seem different. The debate has at last moved on from ‘why local digital’ to ‘how local digital’ with calls for change coming from senior levels in the sector’s policy and decision-making organisations, and ‘local government digital’ even featuring in the pre-election sparring of the main political parties.
Labour’s Digital Government Review, for example, makes various recommendations, the most tangible of which are to ‘increase collaboration between central and local government’s digital experts’ (probably meaning giving Whitehall’s GDS a local remit) and creating ‘a new organisation to work with local authorities to build ‘local digital factories’ that will deliver solutions to common challenges like planning or waste disposal’. This might be taken to mean a funded version of LocalGov Digital, the activity run on a voluntary basis by a group of council web managers.

Technology to reform
Meanwhile the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange has published Small Pieces Loosely Joined: How smarter use of technology and data can deliver real reform of local government. Among other things, this recommends establishing ‘A Local Government Digital Service, owned by the sector... that creates and manages a... competitive online marketplace that brought together local authorities that needed particular online services (transactions, apps or data) with individuals, businesses and other organisations that could provide them.”
Jason Kitcat’s prescription, set out in his Better connected foreword, is also the creation of a Local Government Digital Service, although perhaps one with a wider remit than Policy Exchange envisaged. It would be ‘by and for local government; not a centralising force, which I know many would rightly resist.’ Perhaps thinking of the idea of a top-down-imposed single local government website that a number of commentators have proposed, he concludes: ‘We need to do this for ourselves, together – now.’

This article first appeared in The Information Daily (www.theinformationdaily.com)

Further information
Better connected: tinyurl.com/nzewaqr

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