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Transforming service delivery through digital: the potential benefits for local authorities

Published 26 February 2018

Kathy Valdes, managing director of Digital Unite, says only by working to address the issues of digital exclusion in communities can councils take proper advantage of digital transformation


With councils experiencing unprecedented budget cuts since 2010 and ever-widening funding gaps, the drive for digital transformation has never been more critical. Increasingly more will need to be done with less. 

When it costs just 9p to transact with a customer online compared with £8.21 for a face to face contact focusing on digital first is where the greatest savings can be made.

Many local authorities are already reaping the rewards of a digitally transformative approach. The LGA’s report on their digital transformation programme highlighted over £41m of direct savings from over 50 case studies. Notable examples in the report included:

•             Online self-service payments generated savings of £91,500 for East Riding of Yorkshire Council

•             The London Borough of Harrow saved £1.55m over four years through a wide range of online services

•             A resident engagement mobile app saved Spelthorne Borough Council £43,800 in the first year

So it seems that work by councils to improve their digital channels, from more interactive and streamlined websites to resident portals and online billing, is well underway.

But when there are an estimated 11m people across the UK without the skills to use those new and improved websites or resident portals how do you actually bring your residents with you into this digital era? Digital skills aren’t a thing you can learn once, like riding a bike; most people need ongoing support in order to feel confident, be updated and get useful reminders.

Building a council’s capability and capacity to exploit the potential amongst its communities to transform public services is vital to the success of any digital strategy. Digital skills are essential to the ongoing efforts to achieve a channel shift of service delivery to enable efficiencies and cost savings.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest recognised this conundrum as part of their Assisted Digital Strategy. The strategy aims to see 95 per cent of Waltham Forest residents online and taking daily advantage of the benefits that digital technology offers.

In the past year they have created a community of around 60 Digital Champions who are helping to embed a programme of digital skills support across the borough. These trained and supported Champions are working with residents via free drop in sessions in libraries, community centres and doctors’ surgeries.

The Council has also co-developed an interactive online course for their frontline staff to provide digital skills support via every day customer interactions. The course increases the understanding amongst staff of the importance of digital skills and builds their confidence to engage people with the internet and promote sources of help.

They have also produced guidance for councillors to help them to embrace the digital age, from running virtual surgeries and managing their own social media profiles, to guiding constituents to local digital skills support.

With these initiatives Waltham Forest is looking to maximise the role of ‘trusted intermediaries’ - staff, volunteers or councillors - who already interact with the people the Council wants to deliver better digital skills to. This transformational and sustainable approach to their digital strategy makes perfect sense.

As Christopher Hutson, Project Manager for Waltham Forest Digital Champions Network explains, “Our Digital Champions are an invaluable resource for the local community and are helping our residents to lead a better quality of life through the benefits of digital. In turn this engagement will help the whole borough to fulfil its digital ambitions.”

Whilst digital technology doesn’t offer a universal cure for the funding challenges faced by local government it does provide part of the answer. But online services need to work for everyone and those with low levels of digital literacy or limited internet access continue to remain at the periphery. Only by working to address the issues of digital exclusion in their communities can councils take full advantage of the far-reaching benefits of digital transformation.

Kathy Valdes is managing director of Digital Unite


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