Do councils have the IT it takes to make the most of devolution?
Microsoft makes the case for local councils to move to the cloud
Councils have long been lobbying to increase their control over education, transport, healthcare, housing and economic development – and according to chancellor George Osborne, this government is giving them the “once-in-generation opportunity” to seize these kinds of powers.
But the devolution agenda has sharpened the focus on technology: do councils have the right systems and skills in place to make the most of the opportunity?
One of the main objectives of devolution is to be able to offer much more joined up public services. Collaboration is essential, especially with central government grants due to fall by a further 56%, and local authorities will need to find ways to synchronise their data and ways of working if they’re to develop effective and efficient services.
“It’s about having that open systems approach … having the standards in place to enable different systems to talk to each other,” says Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm. Organisations need to develop open standards, in terms of how names and addresses of residents or patients are recorded and inputted, for example – or the rules around data security. This is critical to transferring data safely and simply between different systems, says Ferguson.
One of the reasons for the failure of the costly project to upgrade the NHS patient record system – launched in 2002 and abandoned in 2011 – was because it attempted to impose a huge, complex system on localities. “Of course it didn’t work,” says Ferguson, “it was too big.”
There are 433 UK local authorities and a typical council delivers 400 to 600 services, many of which will have their own bespoke IT systems – often procured on long-term contracts. Whitehall will be passing responsibility for a wider range of IT spending decisions to councils from 2016, and with budgets unlikely to get any bigger, councils will have to stretch IT budgets even further.
Although it welcomes local government’s new responsibilities, Socitm has long argued that government spending on IT is too centralised. “There’s a total lack of attention to the local public services environment,” says Ferguson. The body, which promotes efficient use of IT in local government, has criticised the decision announced in the spending review to focus most of the £1.8bn invested in digital on central government services.
The inability of local government to access central government sources of data also constrains its ability to make radical changes to public services, he says.
However, Ferguson says the challenge “is less about the technology and more about the people”; local authorities must be willing to combine, cooperate and collaborate. He stresses the importance of digital leadership, and particularly collaborative leadership that brings together the skills, data and resources of different partners to address complex issues, such as isolation.
Isolation in communities is a focal point for Leeds city council, one of the pioneers of health and social care integration – an area where the consequences of not joining up data and services could be serious and costly. Dylan Roberts, chief information officer at Leeds, lists issues of boundaries and control, siloed toolkits and approaches, the lack of place-based funding and lack of skills and understanding in technology departments among the technological challenges posed by the integration of health and social care.
But it’s essential to get it right, says Roberts. “We are moving to a diverse and mixed economy of providers of information and technology services, not only for public service organisations but also citizens themselves.”
Microsoft is well-placed for the task of facilitating collaboration because so many organisations already use its services: it’s easier and quicker to join up Microsoft to Microsoft.
The company advocates cloud technology. Many organisations are turning to cloud-based technology because it doesn’t require them to own IT infrastructure, it is low-cost, and it offers a platform for information to be accessed anywhere and on any device – perfect for the kind of joint working and information-sharing soon be essential in sectors such as health and social care.
The flexibility offered by cloud technology is also important, because local authorities across the country often have to deal with vastly different priorities, whether it’s a growing urban population, an increase in traffic congestion or persistent crime.
Using old IT systems can impact heavily on productivity. Essex county council decided to move its legacy IT infrastructure to the cloud, because average log-on times for its staff were two and a half minutes, and up to 25 minutes in some locations. Newcastle city council decided to adopt cloud technology, because its IT system was becoming overly complex, and technical staff spent much of their time fixing problems rather than concentrating on higher level tasks.
But although there are many examples of councils displaying the kind of digital leadership necessary to push through change, the local government sector still needs to overcome widespread apprehension towards adopting digital ways of working, according to Microsoft.
A recent survey of senior government leaders found that more than 75% of them believe their organisation does not have an IT strategy fit for future needs, and 75% say their employees don’t understand the importance of IT.
In a climate of cuts, public sector workers can be reluctant to advocate digital efficiencies for fear of losing their own jobs. But a Microsoft official says this is far from the reality, with the reputation of staff delivering transformation now increasing and IT being seen as a value-added service.
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