Cracking the code of local government’s big digital challenges

Jamie Harrison is Innovation Programmes Manager at Digital Catapult

Jamie Harrison is Innovation Programmes Manager at Digital Catapult

Working with, and not against, personal data: Why local governments are hot beds for digital innovation

Being under increasing pressure to cut costs while improving services, local government is turning to digital technology to transform the way it works. From driving down A&E admissions to keeping track of wheelie bins, local government is becoming more and more confident in building digital resources for today’s technically savvy citizens.

In collaboration with EIT Digital, Digital Catapult has for the past nine months gathered insights into what restricts local governments in making the most of the data at their disposal, and why personal data is such a sensitive issue in this context.

The challenge is huge. How do you begin to unravel overlapping legacy systems, out-dated digital strategies and several decades of data stored in multiple formats, controlled by numerous data protection laws, all under the microscope of local citizens and national media?

Local government is turning to digital technology to transform the way it works

Local government is turning to digital technology to transform the way it works

Start small or go all out

The majority of digital trailblazers in local government start with a single, well-defined challenge. These small-scale projects enable the workforce to make small changes, keeping the number of people and external companies involved to a minimum and ensuring success metrics can be easily defined. This trend is commonly found in departments with comparatively easy to use data standards, such as mobility and transport teams with access to open and less sensitive data types (those unrelated to personal data).

A ‘go all out’ approach comes top-down from senior management, usually with an updated or brand new digital strategy. A prime example is Sunderland City Council’s approach, realigning all departments to be driven by data based decisions. This new way of thinking, established through mass workshops and seminars, brought everyone at the council into the conversation, creating a shared vision for the future.

Combining this approach with rapid implementation of a centralised data management and visualisation platform softened the learning curve and prepared employees for what was to come. The result: a digitally aware, united workforce striving for the same goals, a robust platform able to support the delivery of those goals and an ever growing catalogue of cross departmental successes, all supported by their chosen platform providers and a clearly defined senior management strategy.

The Greater London Authority and councils such as Sunderland and Milton Keyneshave propagated a digitally focused approach by passionately promoting the success of their strategies. Central government are responding by supporting these and other collaborative ventures including Data Mill North (formerly Leeds Data Mill) and the Trafford Innovation and Intelligence Lab, increasing the reach of digital success.



In addition to this, open innovation is driving change beyond individual council boarders. Geographically connected councils are joining collaborative groups, including research organisations, universities and local businesses, generating a unique environment where successful technologies thrive, ideas blossom and the speed of adopting new technologies vastly increases. (For more on open innovation practices see Dr Maria Slowinska’s blog post for Digital Catapult).

What does this mean for companies looking to bring their technologies to local governments?

The first thing to consider is how local government digital services are implemented; usually by a centralised IT function, an external IT provider or in some cases a combination of the two. The second complexity to consider is the scale of different councils. There is a huge difference between councils governing a local population of over 1m people, such as Birmingham, and those looking after less than 50,000 people, usually rural or remote communities. The big councils act, much like big businesses, with a collection of different departments each with their own sub-cultures, habits and identities. Small councils are collaborative with shared resources, smaller budgets, and in some cases a greater degree of flexibility in how they operate.

A simplified view of resources required across all local government departments

A simplified view of resources required across all local government departments

For those new to the sector and have made inroads, won over the IT team, found the department that wants to work with you, negotiated a price, drawn up contracts and are ready to go – there can still be further considerations. The challenges keep coming. Are you compliant? Does the language you use translate for less technical senior managers? How clear is your promised return on investment? To navigate this minefield of questions, we have drawn up six key focus areas to consider when approaching the public sector. This guide can also be useful when struggling with the complexities of bigger businesses:

  1. Finance: The number one concern for councils is improving service while saving money, ideally pulling on less resources.
  2. Knowledge: Take time to understand the audience you are speaking to, their level of technical knowledge and the language they use.
  3. Technology: The level of access to technical services differs from council to council. Some provision in house services while others draw heavily on suppliers.
  4. Culture: County councils, city councils and borough councils have different cultural and organisational concerns to consider.
  5. Legal: Although standard legal frameworks are common across councils, many are restricted by historical beliefs and agreements, especially around the use of personal data.
  6. Political: Consideration should be given to the composition, remit, demographic and priorities of councillors at the point of engagement

For a more in depth view of the research and insights, you can find the full reports via the links below and a summary via our EIT Digital Pit Stop video below, which focuses on six local government data challenges.

Local Councils play a key role in the quality of life we lead, the connections we make with our community and are the custodians of essential services we cannot live without including schools, hospitals and clean outdoor spaces. Supporting the evolution of councils to deliver better services has been at the core of this body of work. Through sharing our knowledge, Digital Catapult seeks to empower local governments to take on the challenge of digital change.

Jamie Harrison is Innovation Programmes Manager at Digital Catapult. You can follow him on Twitter @JmeHsn

For more insights, check out our ‘Creating Data Services for Citizens and Communities’ and ‘Data Services for Citizens and Communities: Practice, Opportunities and Barriers’ reports, created in collaboration with EIT Digital. 

This blog post was originally posted on the Digital Catapult website.