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CSR: delivering on the digital transformation agenda

By: Alan Mo, Research Director at Kable
Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2015 - 12:12 GMT Jump to Comments

What obstacles do local councils face as digital transformation continues to prove crucial under austerity?

In his Spending Review, George Osborne found £1.8bn for digital transformation and earmarked £450m for the Government Digital Service. Just 24 hours after the review, however, some local government technology advocates were unhappy that this approach to digital transformation - though laudable - is too Whitehall-centric.

The public sector managers' group, Socitm, said: "The Government is investing £1.8bn in digital transformation, but the focus is on central government delivered services such as digital tax accounts and building one payment mechanism for all central government services. This shows limited aspiration when there are so many benefits to be derived from developing holistic, citizen-focused, digitally transformed services, co-designed and co-delivered locally.”

Socitm believes that it is "Relationships not transactions that need to be addressed, where users become part of the solution in redesigning services and drawing on diverse resources to transform the way in which their needs are met and outcomes are radically changed for the better.”

Digital transformation can present a nirvana for cash-strapped local councils. The problem, however, remains in defining, designing and delivering it.

A recent local newspaper article reported that more than £800,000 has been committed to transforming the digital infrastructure of two councils. It went on to ask: will this investment reap returns for taxpayers?

The same question could be asked of councils up and down the country. ‘Digital’ means different things to different organisations. While some local authorities are looking to adopt extensive change programmes, the less ambitious but necessary reality, for the majority, is a desire to shift high volume transactions to more cost-effective channels.

Kable found that the top services local authorities are prioritising for channel shift over the next 12–24 months are environmental services (such as reporting fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour), waste, council and democracy, and leisure and culture.

Many local authorities trying to understand the benefits of channel shift are conducting audits examining their cost per transaction. Differences in salaries, service scope and complexity, however, mean that the cost per transaction for one council, for a particular service, is likely to differ from that of another.

Despite these differences, recent analysis of these audits, by Kable, has shown that the average cost of face-to-face contact, £10.16, is more than three times more expensive than telephone contact. Both channels are, in turn, significantly more expensive than carrying out an online transaction, which costs just 20p.

The figures present a strong argument for councils to move towards creating self-service channels for citizens. Many now expect around-the-clock access to council services, just as they expect it from utilities. If your childrens’ library books are overdue, for instance, you expect to be able to renew them online.

Although these appear compelling reasons for change, digital transformation remains difficult to achieve. Several hurdles are preventing this progress.

The first is no surprise: funding. Despite its promise, digital transformation carries an element of experimentation. Finding the money to innovate can be hard, even in the face of potential financial reward. Councils must be able to free up money and also possess the will to invest in digital services.

Some do appear to have it. Birmingham City Council, for example, recently issued a pre-tender for a soft market exercise for the provision of a secure online customer portal. This will authenticate citizens in order for them to access public services such as benefit applications, for instance.

Another obstacle is the human factor. Council leaders must ensure that both employees and citizens alike support these initiatives. Senior leaders should own, run and drive change as opposed to delegating such important tasks. If you simply delegate channel shift to the customer service, IT or Web teams, you will probably get an overly technical view of transformation rather than necessary organisation change.

For digital transformation to be effective, leaders must not only be able to drive the process, but the rest of the organisation must also be behind the initiative. Effective digital transformation, in any organisation, is more likely when there are digital champions pushing for change. Service line managers - in social care, housing, and transport, for example - need to define the process and champion it within their lines of business. They also need to take into consideration the service users that they engage with.

Two other hurdles must also be considered: legacy and the lack of co-ordination across government. Local government typically purchases several different applications to support the way it delivers services. Because these applications are configured to support those services this, in turn, tends to reinforce siloed ways of working.

The final potential stumbling block is co-ordination. Digital enthusiasts are passionate about what they do, but the volunteering ethos only goes so far. There is a real need for digital best practice to be developed and shared. Finding the best mechanism to achieve this remains an issue - as does paying for it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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