This blog post was originally posted on the Guardian Public Leaders Network. It was written by Sarah Lay, a senior digital officer for one of GovDelivery’s U.K. clients, Nottinghamshire County Council. Sarah also serves as the communications and community management lead for the LocalGov Digital network.
Councils vary wildly in their willingness to grasp the potential of digital services. Some are using digital technology to help them reshape services, create centres of innovation and harness the enthusiasm of their staff, while others still struggle to get their websites to work properly.
Too much investment has been made in large, unwieldy systems. In fact, local government has been doing the wrong digital activity really well for the past 10 years, according to Devon county council’s Carl Haggerty, chair of the LocalGov Digital network. But this is now starting to change. Innovators, experts and enthusiasts are looking at the example set by central government’s Government Digital Service and are recognising that to get people to access council services online, they have to be so good people actually want to use them.
Some councils are already exploring technology in a deeper way. Here are a few examples. Shift Surrey at Surrey county council is aiming to redesign services radically through its innovation lab. The intrapreneur programme at Monmouthshire council is using fresh ideas from the authority’s own workforce. And FutureGov is delivering services made possible by digital technology, such as its Casserole project in areas of London,which connects neighbours with spare portions of food to those in their community who need a good meal.
Technology has also helped local government to share information and work more collaboratively together. Networks like Localgov Digital bring together councils with digital enthusiasts to share resources, skills and, ultimately, savings.
Digital technology is also an opportunity to engage with residents. Social media is now widely used, with more councils giving access to frontline staff and using it as a conversational rather than broadcast tool. Many councils also offer email alerts, newsletters and social media updates instead of printed material.
What next for local public services?
The sector needs to become more adept at recognising and implementing digital excellence that is already happening in other sectors. User-focused digital delivery should become commonplace, rather than the domain of a few leading councils.
Technological advances will offer more possibilities for local government. Affordable, wearable internet devices and the “internet of things”, including devices such as Google Glass, bio-monitors in shoes or clothing, and connected household goods, have the potential to enable councils, traditionally heavily reliant on personal labour, to provide more services remotely. Bio-monitors in the clothing of vulnerable people could send alerts to careworkers, for instance, while smart systems in car parks could help people find free spaces, as already happens in San Francisco already..
Technology itself can also help us address the digital divide. Councils are already very aware that the people who need their services most are not only among the most vulnerable in society, but also probably the most digitally excluded. There are programmes underway around the country to improve broadband provision but not everyone can afford this. But using technology to increase collaboration could see projects springing up , such as public or shared Wi-Fi and services tailored to smartphones, tablets and other devices. Making council data more open, and encouraging development by local digital enthusiasts could also have benefits, potentially leading to tools that will help communities to help themselves.
And finally, digital technology also has the potential to transform the way people work in local government. Technology like mobile video conference, such as G+, Facetime and Skype, could help council staff become more flexible and dynamic in the way they work.
None of this lies too far in the future. Increasingly, people, things and organisations are going to be connected up. It’s time for local government to harness this potential.