Business > Efficiency

Time to think beyond channel shift: local government's digital opportunity

Published 16 March 2016

Meghan Benton, senior researcher in government innovation at Nesta, discusses the issues raised by the organisation's new Connected Councils report


Imagine if local councils were like tech startups: lean, agile, obsessively data-driven, and integrated within a web of partners and collaborators. Instead of digital being an afterthought, they'd use digital to 'do' - from tapping into citizen expertise to stimulating economic growth.

In Connected Councils: A Digital Vision of Local Government in 2025 , Nesta argues that digital should underpin four big shifts over the coming decade.

A seamless user experience

Councils have been working hard to move transactions online, but services are far from frictionless. You might be able to pay your council tax online, but the reminder will be sent by post and you still have to fill in your personal details from scratch when you register for a new service.

With rising expectations among service users - especially those who get their news from Facebook and expect getting a permit to be as easy as booking a flight online -local governments are trying to make online services easier to use, more personalised and interactive.

For instance, Harrow Council is borrowing customer segmentation techniques from online retail to deliver a more user-friendly experience. New York State is using location data to personalise its homepage: streaming information about local jobs and events alongside a seasonal picture of your city. And Bristol is developing the idea of a 'personal platform', where the council's online services will connect service users with other residents and businesses offering third-party services.

Moving away from 2D static websites is not just for show: it could ultimately help local government connect people with services instead of providing them directly.

Releasing pressures on relational services

Demographic change is putting unsustainable pressures on the social care budget. While these services will always rely heavily on face-to-face contact, digital could help citizens manage their own care, mobilise social action, and help service providers intervene earlier.

Numerous apps enable people to monitor their blood pressure, remind them to take their pills, talk them through daily physio exercises, track their physical mobility or provide support for anxiety and depression. Other apps improve the ease and incentives of volunteering. Slivers of Time makes it easier to find low-commitment volunteering opportunities. Spice encourages people to volunteer in return for 'time credits', which could eventually support their own care.

But the biggest gamechanger for councils is likely to be predictive algorithms: as Chicago and New York have shown, analysing big data sets can help environmental health teams solve problems before they arise. New Zealand, along with a handful of US states, is beginning to experiment with identifying children at risk of abuse and neglect at birth - and plan parenting support and interventions accordingly.

Handled sensitively, algorithmic-based service design could save money and lives.

Stimulating economic growth

Councils will not meet their funding gap by relying on data and communities alone. Although digital technologies aren't usually linked to councils' 'place-shaping' role, they provide an excellent vehicle to help councils grow local economies.

Digital portals such as Contracts Finder can make it easier for social enterprises and SMEs to win public contracts and widen the pool of providers. Challenge-based initiatives, where cities advertise for good ideas in areas such as public safety, have been put to good effect in Barcelona and Philadelphia. And New York City is helping startups locate or expand with a hyperlocal business atlas of demographic data, sales data, and traffic data.

Changing how councils work

The biggest opportunity from digital will be to the shape and structure of councils. Slowly but surely, local governments are adopting the best ideas from tech companies: smart use of data, agile methods, mobile working, flexible use of equipment and space, flat management structur, and creative approaches to meetings.

For instance, New York has a crack team of data scientists devoted to cleaning and sharing data across city services. Even smaller cities like New Orleans have used data to transform performance management: helping the workforce identify bottlenecks and backlogs as an alternative to traditional stick-based approaches to improving efficiency.

Public bodies like 18F, the US digital services agency, have realised that the only way to meet their technical skills needs is to allow people to work remotely. They are using the digital platform Slack to create 'water cooler moments'. And with fewer people in the office, councils could learn from Seoul's 'sharing city' approach, where public buildings are shared with social enterprises and the Mayor's Office rotates around neighbourhoods to solve local challenges.

Even more radically, some public bodies - such as the Dutch eldercare network, Buurtzorg - have used digital platforms to tap into the collective intelligence of the workforce. Instead of relying on layers of managers and back office processes, distributed teams of nurses make their own decisions and solve problems by sharing them on a digital platform. They have saved 40 percent off the cost of care.

The debate about digital local government has focused on moving transactions online and saving money through channel shift. However, our research suggests that the real prize from digital will be less tangible but potentially more groundbreaking: changing the business model of local government itself by becoming more citizen-focused and collaborative.

Connected Councils: a digital vision of local government in 2025 , from Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network, is available at

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