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COVID-19 has accelerated the use of digital technology in councils

Scotland graphic - Image credit: Holyrood

COVID-19 has accelerated the use of digital technology in councils

COVID has accelerated the adoption of digital technology in councils but more strategic planning, collaboration, leadership, staff capacity and skills are needed to make further progress, the Accounts Commission has said.

According to the Accounts Commission report ‘Digital progress in local government’, the coronavirus pandemic has moved councils’ digital plans forward by up to two to three years.

The report notes that councils are at different stages of digital transformation, but those which are further ahead are “beginning to exploit data and information to better understand their communities and staff, and deliver better services”.

“This transformation is still at an early stage, but progress is being made,” the report says.

Among the barriers to progress mentioned are a lack of involvement and lack digital literacy among councillors, legacy IT systems, and insufficient capacity and digital skills among staff.

To become a digital council, transformation needs to look outward at how technology can provide better services for citizens rather than being led by technology, the Accounts Commission says.

However, it reports that user research and service design methods are not well established in councils and that councils do not have the tools or sufficient staff with the skills required to carry out user research and involve users in service design.

The report also warns that the current model for the shared Digital Office for Scottish Local Government – which involves having a small staff team funded through subscriptions from councils and different councils leading on particular projects – is not sufficient to deliver the pace of change needed.

It also says that the Digital Office and the Scottish Local Government Digital Partnership have not delivered on their original goal to deliver common platforms and joint procurement of systems.

Greater collaboration, use of shared expertise, leadership at a national level, an agile and innovative approach, citizen engagement and strategic planning are needed to realise the potential of digital technology, the commission warns.

Although councils have responded to COVID-19 by using technology to ensure essential council services continue and supported council staff to work from home, the report states that further progress may be restricted due to a lack of staff with the right skills and insufficient workforce planning.

The Accounts Commission calls for a long-term focus on how digital technology can provide better opportunities and services for people across Scotland, with citizens placed at the heart of this process, but says careful planning is needed to ensure the expansion of digital services does not widen existing inequalities.

Andrew Cowie, a member of the Accounts Commission, said: “Now is the time for clear and decisive strategic planning with the refresh of Scotland’s national digital strategy.

“It is an opportunity that has to be seized to ensure there is a vision for digital transformation across all councils, with shared priorities, skills and knowledge.

“Councils have worked hard to increase the pace at which digital technology has been introduced due to COVID-19, enabling many vital services to continue.

“Now all councils must focus on putting all citizens at the heart of digital service design, empowering communities to thrive, not just survive.”

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