3 Steps to Save Local Digital Government

by Eddie Copeland

We’ve cracked the easy stuff – now for the hard part…

It was a graph that first provoked my interest in local government digital reform.

Flicking through the pages of an LGA report on council funding, it suddenly appeared: two lines – one showing funding, the other expenditure – starting together in 2010 and quickly diverging into a yawning gap by 2020. A £12.4 billion gap at that.

Local Authority Funding Gap

For those of us with an interest in technology, digital government was meant to be the answer, offering smarter ways for local authorities to deliver more and better with less. Yet six years into those lines parting company, it still feels like the sector is frustratingly distant from what was promised.

So what’s gone wrong?

After all, around the country teams in local authorities are working hard on digital reforms. Many are treading a well-worn path: embracing channel shift, removing paper-based back office processes and migrating to cloud, commodity IT based on common standards. Yet according to ‘Connected Councils’, a new report by Nesta (with figures calculated by the Social Finance Initiative), a fully digital unitary authority – i.e. one that has done all the above – could save in the region of 13% of their costs by 2025.

Worthwhile? Absolutely. Enough? Far from it.

So what would it take to close the gap? Three areas are worthy of consideration.

Digital Nudge

I’ve previously been critical of the amount of time that has been spent on creating a better digital front face to local government services. Channel shift will achieve little if citizen requests that start online end up cuing unreformed processes behind the scenes. That said, if channel shift is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Transactions need to be optimised to produce the best possible response from those that use them.

Understanding how to do that requires an appreciation of how people respond to decision making on a screen. To that end, a must-read book is ‘The Smarter Screen’, by Shlomo Benatzi. A colleague of Richard Thaler of ‘Nudge’ fame, the author explores how people make choices and consume information differently on a screen (and indeed on different types of screen size and format) than they do in person or on paper.

Some of the results are counter intuitive.

To give just one example, though the digital trend is to make things easier to read with large, clear fonts, the evidence shows that if you want someone to think carefully about a decision, it is demonstrably better to make it harder to read. The reason being that it slows down the reader, helping them retain and understand more. The book is well worth reviewing for its many examples that could be applied to designing effective digital services.

Nudge principles can also be embedded into digital tools to help public services change behaviour in other ways. A simple example would be the text message reminders that an increasing number of services use to remind people of appointments or required actions.

David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, gives the example of how the wording of SMS messages sent to job seekers had a substantial effect on how many turned up to jobs fairs. Sent a standard, impersonal text message, around one in ten turned up. However:

“adding the recipient’s name at the beginning of the text increased the proportion turning up by 5 percentage points, or 15 per cent… What if the adviser also added their own name? The number turning up rose even further, to 18 per cent. And how about if the adviser instead wrote: ‘I’ve booked you a place… Good luck!’ Now the proportion turning up rose to an impressive 27 per cent, a nearly threefold increase.” (‘Inside the Nudge Unit’, p.121)

The example serves as a reminder to all service designers that it is not enough to communicate with citizens digitally. To be effective, the language, personalisation and timing of the message must be right, too.

Data, Data Everywhere

If there is one overwhelming conclusion I have reached after several years of looking at local public services, it is that most better ways of working require making smarter use of data.

To expand the use of shared services, local authorities need shared data to see how the problems they tackle and the demand they have to meet transcend their boundaries. If they want to identify other local authorities with similar problems to find examples of best practice, they need shared data. If they want to predict and intervene early in problems before they get large and expensive to resolve, they need shared data. If they want to efficiently coordinate the actions of different teams, they need shared data. (I could go on…)

To that end, I believe every city should have an Office of Data Analytics – a small team of data analysts that has the resources, technology and expertise to bring together, analyse and provide actionable insights from data sourced from all local authority and public sector organisations across the city.

It has therefore been exciting to see Manchester announcing the creation of GM-Connect, an initiative to do just that, inspired by New York’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. The model being pioneered is the most ambitious I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Meanwhile in London’s mayoral race, Zac Goldsmith has declared his wish to create a “Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics”, and Sadiq Khan a “London Data Office”. Combined with the GLA’s recent plans outlined in the City Data Strategy, it must be hoped that the capital will soon have data methods to match its international standing.

Where Manchester and London have started, other UK cities should follow suit.

Changing the business model

Local authorities can optimise their existing ways of working, as described above. But the harsh reality is that some aspects of the current business model of delivering local public services are no longer affordable. Unless digital government has something to say about how we reduce the cost of relational services – i.e. those that require human interaction – and especially adult and child social care (which will make up 55% of all local authority spending by 2020), we are surely missing the point entirely.

Nesta’s report highlights that if councils are willing to transform everything they do (from procurement to how they organise), potential savings could be up to 40%. Local authorities must therefore look at how technology can enable services to be redesigned from the ground up. That can be done in several ways. The famous example of Buurtzorg Community Nursing shows how by giving power to teams of frontline health workers to manage their own time and priorities, it is possible to radically improve levels of care, strip out huge overheads from back office staff, and increase workers’ job satisfaction at the same time.

Meanwhile, in Australia, pilots are being conducted to apply sharing economy principles to their equivalent of the Troubled Families initiative. The ‘Family by Family’ programme identifies families who have been through tough times and connects them with families who want things to change. As well as saving government money, it ensures that support is available 24/7 as opposed to nine to five on a working day. It is also extremely efficient – one professional family coach works with 15 ‘sharing families’, who in turn work with 40 ‘seeking families’, reaching up to 100 children at risk.

It’s up to us

Over the last year the Spending Review and latest Budget have made it clear that central government has little appetite to support councils with new funds for digital reform. DCLG’s Local Government Digital programme is being wrapped up. The Government Digital Service is unlikely to get directly involved. A Local GDS has not materialised.

So it’s up to the local government sector to lead its own way on digital transformation. As it does so, conversations and activity must move beyond merely digitising existing ways of working.

For as that graph reminds us, the need to deliver more and better with less through smarter use of technology and data has never been more urgent.

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