What should Local Gov be doing next digitally?

Sarah Lay

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in an event for managers from three Nottinghamshire district councils. It was one part of a longer programme of talks and workshops for them as they explored different areas of organisational process and strategic direction.

Hosted by Dr Stephen Jeffares, a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Birmingham my part was to be interviewed about all things digital and share some of my experience and thoughts with the group.

I really enjoyed the chat and talking not only about my most recent work at Nottinghamshire County Council on Digital First but further back over the 12 years I’ve been in local government, further back to the other experience of working online in private sector and as a regular user, and also to the founding and growth of LocalGov Digital.

There were lots of good questions from the group about situations they could see or had experienced in their own organisations and there was one question which really got me thinking: if back in 2008/2009 I was working at getting local authorities to recognise they should and could use social media and that’s now happening, what is it I’m tell councils they should be doing next, digitally?

There was a slightly flippant reply from me that councils while better at social media (and I include other areas of digital engagement in this term, such as email and text message) still weren’t making the most of it, generally, and certainly not keeping pace with the expectations of the public in this area. If they had started using it, they were still falling back to broadcast mode on many occasions, and it was a rare example indeed that had moved toward an fully integrated use of social media; in my view they are often using the technology as an informing tool but were not valuing the conversation for intelligence and influence. And just for clarity – when I talk of intelligence and influence I mean not manipulation but rather then leaving ego and ‘authority’ at the log-in and taking the relevant and appropriate place in online communities.

In terms of what I thought they should be looking to next – well, again, a lot of the ideas and statements of the last 12 years still stand summarised as: build better public services, stop doing the wrong digital things in a fairly average way.

But, again, this is flippant of me. What does that really mean? Well, at the time I said something about how councils need to stop thinking of digital as a presentation layer and move toward service design where digital is one, albeit quite powerful, means of delivery. I think local government needs to stop seeing digital as a prettier web page that will magically mean channel shift occurs and start to understand something more fundamental, more difficult – that harsh times and a changed world need radical redesign of services. They need to challenge themselves, or be challenged, to design better public services from the inside out.

So, that’s the what I think. The how?  Well it starts with not containing digital to a ‘digital team’ but seeing service design as a wider activity. It’s something that needs to take in procurement, and contracting, and IT, and HR, and leadership, and the community, and the service. It needs to be co-produced – not just tested with real users. We need to learn that services built in silos are experienced in bits – and this is never going to be best for the user, and if it’s not best for them it won’t unlock the things the organisation wants; savings and satisfaction.

There is no ‘quick win’, or silver bullet, or any of those other buzz words for short cut.

What do I think council’s need to do next? Arguably what they should have long ago done – stop thinking about ‘doing digital’ and start thinking about ‘better services first, better digital delivery as an outcome.’

Much thanks to Dr Stephen Jeffares for inviting me to be interviewed and to the group for their time and questions!

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Sarah Lay is the co-founder of LocalGov Digital.  You can find her on Twitter and find out more about her recent work with Nottinghamshire County Council on their blog.

This blog was first published on  www.sarahlay.com.

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