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Why local government needs to embrace digital to better serve the public

There's considerable pressure on councils to go digital
There's considerable pressure on councils to go digital

Times are tough for local authorities: tight budgets mean that it's difficult to invest in keeping up to date with IT infrastructure, yet they are under pressure to embrace digital for the delivery of services and engagement of constituents.

This pressure on local authorities to 'go digital' comes in many forms. For example, the government's UK Digital Inclusion Charter, launched last year, sets the bar high for public and private sector organisations alike. Its commitment is to cut the number of UK citizens who are still offline by 25% come 2016, then by a further 25% every two years until all are connected.

In a related policy paper, Government Digital Inclusion Strategy, MP Francis Maude outlined the scale of the challenge: "Recent research published by the BBC has found that 21% of Britain's population lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet."

Yet, the potential economic and social benefits of digital inclusion are also great. As Maude says: "Independent analysts Booz and Co. estimate full digital take up could add £63 billion value to the UK economy." The paper goes on to estimate that £1.2 billion of taxpayers' money could be saved by spring of this year by making government services "digital by default".

At the other end of the digital user spectrum, local authorities are feeling pressure – or at least demand – from tech-savvy constituents.

To get a better understanding of this demand, we partnered with Ingenium to survey 140 UK-based IT decision-makers from local government authorities about the delivery of services and barriers to adoption of new technologies. The most interesting finding was that 84% of IT leaders are seeing growing demand among citizens for digital services such as mobile apps, and 88% believe that their organisation needs to become a 'digital business' to better engage service users.

The explosive growth in the use of smartphones and other connected devices, especially amongst younger generations, means that more people expect to engage organisations through digital channels first and foremost, so local authorities need to adapt accordingly.

However, despite good intentions, the reality is that legacy infrastructure and falling budgets mean it's difficult for local authorities to fulfil their digital vision.

Overcoming barriers to digital growth

Our study confirms that the top technology challenge for local authorities is delivering required results with tighter budget constraints. Over one third of those who answered (34%) said this was the biggest IT challenge facing their organisation. This was followed by the problem of delivering digital services with legacy IT systems (29%) and lack of appropriate resources to deliver (20%).

These resource and technological issues align closely with key barriers to engaging with service users. The most common hurdle amongst all respondents is legacy systems that are hard to integrate into a more modern infrastructure (43%), followed by the lack of funding to provide additional services (38%).

Despite such challenges, our research indicates that progressive IT leaders within local government are forging ahead as best they can to realise their vision. Nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents have a strategy concerning the implementation of new technologies, and almost two-thirds (63%) are confident or very confident about the ability of their department to deliver significant IT-led innovation in their organisation.

The tools for success

When asked about the types of technologies that local authorities require to develop the organisation, e-transactions (52%), wireless networking (49%), business intelligence tools (42%), and core IT infrastructure, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tools (41%), were ranked highest. The past 12 months paint a similar picture of local authorities laying the foundations for innovation and greater efficiency. Almost half of organisations (45%) have already invested in wireless networking, 30% have focused on e-transactions and 26% have prioritised core IT infrastructure.

Improving negative perception

Interestingly, the majority (83%) of IT leaders surveyed believe they need to build more trust with users of their services, pointing to a number of digital services to achieve this. The largest proportion hope to build trust through better engagement via social media (83%), while 75% would like a standard online payment service and 63% say that mobile apps for council services would help. Four in five (80%) also believe that crowdsourcing might help deliver better services, highlighting how UK local governments are trying to overcome the problem of poor funding creatively.