Why IT now?

“Be as ambitious as you can. Be as radical as you like. Be as bold as you want....I won’t stand in your way. If you’ve got genuinely radical, genuinely promising ideas, I’ll shout them from the rooftops,” said Secretary of State Eric Pickles on 27 July 2010 to the LGA. His statement is a bold offer to local governance and service delivery at a time when local government is under pressure from both the public expenditure cuts resulting from the government’s objective of eliminating the deficit in a single term, and the sometimes conflicting objective of returning more responsibility for service levels and quality to local government and the communities they serve (the Big Society). Local authorities faced with budget cuts are also faced with an opportunity to radically change the way they deliver services whether through demographic, economic or social and technological change.

Local governance

The comprehensive spending review (CSR) has added some flesh to the bones of the government’s approach to local governance. Less money, but greater freedom to spend it, and perhaps the ability to raise money in different ways, as well as working more closely with other local agencies – NHS, voluntary and other third sector organisations as well as the private sector – to deliver more efficient and effective services, unbound from centrally devised targets.

The recent ‘Decentralism and Localism Bill’ can be seen to allow local governance further freedoms in due course, through the so called ‘six steps to return power to the people’ and whilst it can be argued that local authorities as democratically elected bodies are already acting on behalf of its citizens it is clear that this message has not always been clearly seen by their constituents. As such there is a clear role for the smart application and use of technology in achieving these six steps and radically reconsidering the culture in which they have operated previously.

Key service areas
At a more detailed level, CSR also identified a number of key service areas where the government’s reforms to grants identify that some priority should be afforded by local authorities – not targets as such but nevertheless… Social care, in particular for vulnerable adults and children, and affordable housing are clear areas of concern as is local economic growth, with the devolution of RDA responsibilities to local enterprise partnerships. It is also clear from both the overall amount of grant available and the need for local authorities to fundamentally re-examine the way they work, pooling resources with other agencies, eliminating traces of waste and maximising efficiency, that doing the same or more with less is at the centre of CSR.

With the projected loss of public sector employment, the challenge presented is to design a new service infrastructure that can generate both growth and jobs within communities and localities as opposed to exporting them. Therefore local services should be designed in response to the local citizens’ views of their needs rather than centrally imposed targets for service supply and effectiveness.

This bottom-up model is based first, on regarding the local authority as the agent of change within its locality, second on recognising that all organisations (public, private, civil sectors) require infrastructure – buildings, people, finance and support services – to fulfil their respective responsibilities, and third that localism offers an opportunity to develop community sourcing models for such infrastructure rather than outsourcing or offshoring, thereby fostering local skills and employment.

Using imaginative solutions
Many local authorities have started this bottom up approach to consult with their local communities and there is no doubt that the use of council websites, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, YouTube and hyperlocal websites have all been used to engage in the debate. However good and welcome this is, with approximately 10 million people not online there is still a need to use more imaginative technological solutions for democratic engagement and all local authorities must now treat seriously the need for investment in multi-channel communications and access strategies.

This means using the power (and increasing popularity) of digital TV, interactive kiosks, mobile phones and even games consoles to reach more of their local population. Innovative local authorities are already aware that government has already invested in developing these channels such Looking Local and Start Here, both not-for-profit organisations that can provide easily accessible communication channels and the capability to join cross-agency information into one easily accessible format. Consultation and democratic engagement are critical parts of the duty to involve but it is more than that, it is how technology can assist in moving local authorities from being direct deliverers to facilitators of services and stimulators of local economic growth.

Addressing tough issues
We must also recognise that efficiency and savings are not enough. Service redesign and community sourcing offer local authorities the opportunity to address the issue of protecting the most vulnerable, stimulating local economic growth, and skills development/retention as critical objectives for local governance.

For individual local authorities, skills retention in-house will mean multiskilling staff to cope with changing type and volume of demands. As such we must recognise that the use of technology is becoming more pervasive in its use as a serious enabler and deliverer of better and more cost effective services. However, this needs to be done in a systematic way and be focused on the four core drivers: social benefit; economic opportunity; better service delivery; and environmental opportunity.

Eric Pickles has also called for innovation but the drive for innovation should never be to the exclusion of the socially disadvantaged or older people, the UK’s fastest growing demographic group. These are the often the stakeholders with the greatest need of public services, but who lack the skills or resources to access them online. Moreover, a larger elderly population will require innovative assistive technology such as telehealth to help them lead independent lives and make the personalisation agenda a reality.

Good and digital
Good government is digital government. To effect this we must widen access to technology through community-based education, making imaginative and creative use of new platforms and devices and continuing to press for next generation access broadband for all, ensuring that people have the access to the device of their choice and know how to use it.

These will provide the safety net that ensures no one is left behind, and also help create the conditions by which we can upskill the British workforce. Innovation applies not only to new tools but also to the way we make technology relevant to more people’s lives.

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