Digital is the future and it’s high time local authorities got with the programme.

Challenges to going digital at a local government level

In a recent blog we discussed the importance of going digital at a local level, noting that councils need to be more innovative in their delivery of public services. Why so? Well, they face the same issues now under a Conservative majority, as they did under the Tory-LIb Dem coalition - the need to do more with less. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No.

However, as a recent example highlights, trying to get a consensus over this is easier said than done. While one would assume that the facts speak for themselves - a digital-first local authority is a modernising, resourceful and efficient one - there is evidence you still need to build a business case to get everyone onboard.

Let’s expand this case in point. Morpeth Town Council - whose area was once described by the Guardian as being “the town with most to fear from public sector cuts" - has been examining its approach to technology. More specifically, it has been looking into how paper-centric certain functions are and if there is a need for it.

The local paper, the Morpeth Gazette, revealed that the council’s communications group had finally delivered a report into the matter, the findings of which were discussed at a meeting involving the finance and general purposes committee.

It concluded in a surprising manner, with the authors stating that while certain elements within the local authority can benefit from becoming paper-lite, it is of the opinion that no significant savings in terms of time and cost will come from going completely paperless.

Needless to say, some councillors were less than impressed with this analysis, arguing - and quite rightly - that the trials carried out during the trial period simply did not go far. Such a pronouncement, therefore, is too hasty.

Ken Brown, a local councillor and former mayor of Morpeth, was quoted by the online news provider as saying that a cost analysis should have been carried out on the measures that were tested (such as working with electronic documents).

“I think we can significantly reduce the amount of paper we use and it will be of great benefit to the council,” he explained. “I recognise the legal constraints when it comes to official documents for councillors, but we can take steps to promote using as little paper as possible. For example, if a councillor wants a sheet of paper printed out, they should have to pay for it.”

Some of the arguments in support of paper are ones that have occupied the debate over whether organisations can completely eradicate it - we still need it, whether it’s to make notes or simply for convenience and to be paperless seems counterproductive.

That’s valid, although only up to a point. Paper will always be around - as a “technology” it is outstanding, hence its persistence. However, it’s no longer central to work. Paper is secondary and should be used fleetingly and in support of a tech-focused, digital-first framework.

Still, as this example demonstrates, not everyone is yet convinced. In the interim, such individuals, especially those higher up and with the power to affect change, need to be persuaded. Digital is the future and it’s high time local authorities got with the programme. Otherwise, it’s business as usual and, as of late, that has been hard going.

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