Local government urged to embrace the digital age

Austerity will define local government IT for another 30 years, a public sector body has warned.

Councils are expected to absorb another round of government-imposed cuts in 2015/16, but public spending will remain low for a generation to come, according to local authority body Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives).

Speaking at Civica Expo 2015, Solace's business chair, Kim Ryley, said: "Austerity is the new normal, it's going to be with us for a generation, probably 25, 30 years, because there's going to be no real growth in public service spending once cuts hopefully start to level off around 2020."

Instead, councils already battered by requirements to cut millions from their budgets will have to do more with scarcer resources in future, he added, as the UK slowly recovers from the effects of the credit crunch.

However, a "technological revolution" over the next decade will help councils transform to cope with the new demands, Ryley told delegates in Manchester.

He said: "Underpinning all of that is a technological revolution happening at the speed where in the next 10 years it will [achieve] what took the industrial revolution 100 years to achieve, in terms of a profound shift in the way we operate and work."

This new, digital-first model of public service delivery will affect communication, citizen engagement and collaboration, but will require local government to make some tough changes.

Firstly, councils must change citizens' perceptions of what can be provided. That means local authorities must "wean people off public services they don't really need, and frankly we can no longer afford to provide for them," said Ryley.

Civil servants must also become more digitally savvy if they wish to survive the revolution, he added, saying: "The reskilling of our staff is still underestimated. Many of us are assuming we'll keep most of our current staff with us.

"What I see happening in 10 years is us having the need for a quite fundamentally different workforce to the one that we've got currently.

"Either we have people adapt and go with us on that journey or we're going to need a new set of workers able to work effectively and comfortably in that environment."

His comments came shortly after public sector IT outsourcer Civica released research into the views of 80 council leaders on digital transformation.

The survey, carried out by Opinion Matters, found that just 51 per cent of authorities believe they will be completely paperless by 2025, while only 46 per cent will provide secure web portals to support online interaction with citizens.

Meanwhile, only one-third of respondents said they plan to communicate with citizens via social media, email, phone and live chat from any device.

Civica business development director Paul Bradbury said IT suppliers must work with council customers to ensure they do not create a digital divide in communities.

"What role will the private sector have in addressing the vulnerable individuals who don't today have access to digital technologies or are uncomfortable with it or are unsure on how to do that?" he said.

"There's a real risk that we start to create a divide in communities if we don't find a way of working with our public sector partners to address that."

Those findings follow Labour's report into digital government in December, which recommended the party improve the level of tech skills within departments and local government if it wins May's general election.

And James Mansfield-Sturgess, IT technical architect at Buckinghamshire County Council, told IT Pro the authority already has a strong focus on digital, and has moved much of its infrastructure to the cloud.

"[Digital is] very much the message we get from our senior management, people are very aware of that," he said. "You can have a restructuring of your staff, but unless you actually change processes, you change technology, you can't do it."

He added the council views digital as a way to improve services, rather than simply a cost-cutting measure, even though spending cuts initially prompted the council to consider the option.

"All those essential working processes are being looked at," he said. "We ask: how can we get them designed in a digital way, which will deliver savings while at the same time hopefully improving services for our residents, and they don't see them as cuts?"

Picture: Solace for Business chair Kim Ryley at Civica Expo 2015