Why is Digital by Default so difficult to embrace?

18 March 2016

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Former Head of Digital Transformation

I have been watching with interest my local council’s outdated response to the cuts in funding being imposed by Whitehall. I won’t embarrass them by naming them outright, but to provide some context, the council is based in the southern Home Counties, is the home to a global mobile phone company and boasts one of the best horse racing centres in the country.


In December, the council announced it had to find savings of £10.8M and subsequently said this saving had increased to £18M as a result of the proposed reduction in the Revenue Support Grant. My frustration is not the fact they have to make savings, but in the unimaginative way they have responded to the challenge. They appear to have taken a very traditional approach to realising the savings required: reducing services and increasing charges. The number of libraries has reduced from 8 to 1, car parking charges have increased, the subsidy to the rural bus services has been cut – the list continues. As I said, a very traditional approach to responding to an ever decreasing budget and one that will have a disproportional adverse impact on the most vulnerable.

With the council positioned on the edge of the UK’s Silicon Valley I’m exasperated with their response. There is nothing in their communications about the digital delivery of services, digital by default or anything about technology being used as the enabler for change, and more importantly cost savings.

What is required is the digital reform of local services rather than a parochial approach to the challenges they face. Would it not have been more refreshing to hear about the full digitisation and digital integration of all the local public protection agencies, such as health and police, with the council? Sharing data, IT infrastructure and records at a local level. If that approach had been considered it would have been revolutionary and helped those that most need assistance.

I accept that digital cannot provide food and housing to those in need but it can enable them to be delivered more efficiently and effectively. Deployed correctly across agency boundaries, it could help public services to be delivered more capably and highlight when and where intervention is required. By linking together disparate providers of support services, from local communities to charities, digital can enable them to provide better support to those who are desperately in need of their help.

For me, the Chancellor’s spending review is forcing the need for change in local councils, with the expectation that services will be delivered digitally by default. Encouragingly some of my clients are already embracing this change. Social Workers at Surrey Council were wasting a cumulative 200 hours a week by having to travel back to their offices to complete important but tedious administration work. Through the implementation of a simple mobile solution they’re now able to complete these activities in the field, freeing up essential time to spend with those who need their help and assistance. In Barnsley, a similar solution has been deployed for tradespersons, allowing them to complete more jobs per shift.

I’m sure there are many other great examples of councils adopting innovative ways of responding to the spending challenges. I just remain frustrated that my own local council appears to be stuck in the past.


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