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Does local government feature enough in the Government digital strategy?

Earlier this month, we saw the long-awaited launch of the Government’s  Digital Strategy. While this is a little light on detail, it is deliberately a summary statement of the more detailed plans in the Government’s Transformation Strategy, published a month earlier in February. Together, they offer the ambition and some of the detail of how digital technology and data will be used to improve the work of government.

And as a statement of ambition, it is making a lot of the right noises. The Government sets out its commitment to being a “world leader in serving its citizens online”

It wants to “create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. There is an aspiration to “harness the potential of digital to radically improve the efficiency of our public services - enabling us to provide a better service to citizens and service users at a lower cost.”

Some of our recent work has recognised the huge potential that digital technology and data offer government. In our reports Connected Councils and Wise Council, we explore the ways in which tech and data can help government save money, improve service quality and provide people with more a more personalised offer.

Our Offices of Data Analytics programme is testing in London and in the North East the benefits that can be found from cross-governmental collaboration on data. The Digital Strategy is therefore an encouraging contribution to this debate.  

The problem is, local government feels like a bit of an afterthought in some key aspects

There is an annex devoted to local government in the digital strategy, but beyond echoing some words of ambition and a commitment to open more data-sets there is little concrete information.

Here are three examples where some more explicit commitment to working with local government would be advantageous 

The strategy states the Government’s ambition to make digital technologies and data central to delivering better services. This is very welcome, echoing the argument made in our Connected Councils report. Too often, technology has been seen as a way to make a digital replica of existing services, rather than as  a tool of wholesale transformation.

Explicit recognition of this is good to see, but when around 700 public services are delivered by local authorities, the lack of attention on local government is disappointing

A commitment to exploring different ways of working with councils to involve them in the work that follows the strategy would have been welcome.

It is also welcome that when it comes to government as a platform, the Government has said it will not look to build software or hardware from scratch, considering instead what already exists in the marketplace when thinking of the tech capabilities it needs, such as payment processing, applications or verification. This reduces the chances that the government unnecessarily reinvents the wheel, and will be well supported across the sector. The end result, the Government hopes, could be “a range of reusable components to make it quick, cheap and easy to assemble digital services”

However, the chance to scale impact would be far greater if councils were actively included in this agenda. The hundreds of local authorities in England will have similar capability requirements and there could be a chance to scale the reusable components quicker that is being missed by their exclusion.

The strategy states there will be a Digital Government Partnership which brings outside experts into Government as Technology Fellows. This sounds like a promising way of recruiting additional expertise, and promoting culture change. It is also not totally dissimilar to a recommendation made in Nesta’s Wise Council report for a programme which brings data scientists from outside government to work in local authority teams across the country.

This again feels like there is potential gain being overlooked. A different but similar scheme - the Digital Skills Partnership - does include local government, so why not this one? If this scheme can benefit the centre, then it’s very likely there is a need for it in local government too.

The Digital Strategy and Transformation Strategy set out to radically improve the way that the Government does business. If the opportunity here is so great, it would be a shame to not to try and make it work across all levels of government. As the strategies enter into their delivery stage and various programmes take shape, it would be welcome if conversations were initiated with the local government sector about its inclusion.


NB - this blog was updated on 29/03/2017 - a previous version had missed explicit mentions to local government in the strategy


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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