Digital Takes Centre Stage

Digital transformation has been put in the spotlight with the announcement of the Local Digital Declaration (LDD) aimed at promoting joined-up thinking among local authorities on digital infrastructure and projects.

At the launch of the declaration, which took place at this year's annual Local Government Association conference, Rishi Sunak MP said an understanding of digital is no longer something solely for the IT department. "It doesn’t belong in the basement, it belongs in the boardroom," he said.

The aim of the declaration is to allow councils and other government bodies to co-create the conditions for the next generation of local public services, with technology is an enabler rather than a barrier to service improvements.

At the time of launch, the declaration had more than 40 signatories as co-publishers, a full list of which can be found online (https://localdigital.gov.uk/declaration/). These co-publishers and signatories met in August to discuss the process for administering and distributing the £7.5m fund behind the LDD, which will be exclusively available to signatories. The grant will also fund key leaders from the sector to take part in a digital leadership programme currently being created.

Dr Gavin Beckett, Director of Service Transformation at digital consultancy Perform Green, former Chief Digital Officer in Bristol City Council and member of LocalGov Digital, has been part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) Local Digital team - the creators of the LDD. Dr Beckett said the reception towards the Declaration has been very positive, with the MHCLG receiving ten applications to sign the declaration within the first 48 hours of its launch.

"Our main focus since launch has been on designing the application process for the £7.5m fund and the shape and delivery approach for the new Digital Leadership learning and development offer. We expect an increase in signatories once the details are announced as only councils signed up to the Declaration will be able to apply for the funds and places on the course," explained Dr Beckett.

All signatories are asked to show their commitment to the declaration by contributing at least one project to the cause. The project could be anything from redesigning a digital service to training staff to deliver better digital services. The project has to exemplify the principles of the declaration. It should promote common standards, draw on work already done, share its lessons with the community and, ideally, be delivered in collaboration with at least one other organisation.

Dr Andrew Larner, Chief Executive at iESE, believes the LDD is an important step forward. "More needs to be done to get the public sector working together so that they can maximise their leverage and combined buying power," he said. "There is a need to avoid digital being seen as a separate, technical subject, for the specialist staff within individual organisations. The approach needs to set out the golden threads that can be used throughout all areas of the organisation."

One criticism is that the £7.5m funding is meaningless when split between the UK's 418 local authorities. It has also been highlighted that over the years there has been huge investment at different times in digital.

John Comber, an associate at iESE, former Chief Executive at the Royal Borough of Greenwich and non-exec director of Solace, said: "There has been huge investment at different times by government in digital and you can't really see the sum of that total today, but I cannot see that an authority signing up to the Declaration is doing anything other than saying that they are going to try to use digital to solve the challenges they are facing. That is a powerful message to the public - that we are working together to try to get this right."

While the overall investment in digital may be hard to see, it has been previously proven that by coming together, local authorities can make a big difference. It was local government that saw the need for digital mapping first and bought the UK digital mapping. Local government also created a public private partnership for a computer hub that licensed three resellers to sell information to solicitors from 300 linked local authorities, HM Land Registry, the Coal Authority, the British Geological Survey and another 15 or so sources of information. 

Dr Beckett pointed out that the £7.5m fund is aimed at allowing signatories to benefit the sector as a whole, without spending local funds on tasks such as preparing user research to be openly published and documenting service patterns so they can be understood easily by others. "This is what the fund is aimed at, adding the money and capacity needed to do the things that are valuable to the whole sector, not just to the local council. In that light, we think a lot can be achieved with £7.5m."

He encouraged councils to sign up to benefit residents and businesses. "Teams will spend less time on things that have already been created in other councils, and more time on the specific differences of their population. Maybe your area has more younger people than another, or perhaps car parking is more or less important due to your geography than in a neighbouring council. Whichever of these services is relevant, you will be able to find the user research, service patterns, technical solutions to common integration or data problems, and information on how to specify and commission through the digital marketplace without having to start from a blank sheet of paper."

To sign up: https://localdigital.gov.uk/sign/

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