The reaction to the announcement in June’s Comprehensive Spending Review that local authority budgets would be cut by a further 10% in 2015-16 was curiously muted. The Local Government Association described it as “over the top”. It was as if the sector was resigned to further cuts on top of the 26% they have already had to absorb since the Coalition came to power.
Indeed, the local government sector has had to absorb more change since 2010 than almost any other group in the UK. As David Sparks, the LGA vice-chairman, said in June, the announcement means some councils have seen their funding cut by 40% in five years. "People will wake up in two or three years' time and in many cases their local council will not be there as they know it," he declared.
While this has for the most part been a painful process for local authorities, one positive effect has been to unleash a wave of innovation across the local government sector. Local authorities have had to radically reimagine the way they deliver services. For some this has been partnering with another local authority, perhaps sharing services or even a chief executive. For some this has been spurring greater engagement and involvement from citizens.
Most local authorities have been looking into the savings that can be made through digital delivery and communication. Many have been surprised to discover the service enhancements that they can make at the same time.
For example, West Somerset Council can boast nearly 600 likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter. It uses those sites to tell citizens about initiatives such as free dog microchipping, the status of its services after adverse weather conditions such as the October storm, and recognition for citizens giving up time for their local communities.
Not only is this a significantly cheaper method of distributing a message than printing and delivering leaflets, or putting up posters, or buying radio ad space, but it also reaches the merging youth demographic who rarely use the same media as their parents or grandparents.
It enfranchises the youth market for whom e-mail is outdated, and it gives West Somerset Council a platform on which to communicate with them. In this way that Council and others like it can find out about the needs of this merging citizen group, and so actively design their services for the future.
There is much more that can be done. Almost 15% of local authorities have no digital strategy and no plans to create one, according to a survey of 178 local authority chiefs. The report released in October 2013 by UKAuthority on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government also revealed that 40 per cent of councils still haven’t saved any money through the use of digital tools.
Perhaps once the reality of this latest 10% budget cut starts to bite in 2015/16 those remaining digital sceptics will begin to act. It could be that this is just the beginning of the era of the digital citizen.