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Hardly a day goes by without being reminded of the march of digital technology, the move towards open data or the celebration of the next million pound app. And yet, over the past year there have been many headlines maligning local government in the digital sphere.

We are told councils are not making the most of digital. Namely they are wasting money through expensive IT systems, lack digital strategies, 13% of councils have no intention of creating one (Local Digital Today, DCLG and LGA 2013). Elsewhere councils are : over-reliant on paper-based systems, have front end web pages that are not fully integrated to the back office, and are missing the benefits of mobile devices (NDL Local Government surveys, 2012-14). Most alarming, though, is that as many as one-third of officers do not consider their elected members to be effectively leading the digital agenda (Dods 2013).

To Alpine – which has been providing strategic skills support to the Government Digital Service – this is digitally disturbing stuff. But from our experience of the LG sector, we also believed that it just didn’t ring true, particularly of the most digitally inspired and innovative areas. So earlier this month we sponsored a thought leadership event: ‘Securely unlocking your Digital Potential’ with the Association of North East Councils at Sunderland Civic Centre.

The session examined how digital can be an enabler for better quality customer services and new ways of working – that place the citizen at the centre. During the day council Leaders, elected mayors, elected members, and senior officers from across the 12 North East councils explored how to develop a transformative digital culture, whilst satisfying the robust data compliance standards set by the Public Sector Network and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Alpine identified expert speakers from central government and the commercial sector to illustrate demand-driven, agile services; and citizen engagement. Looking at case studies from central and local government, participants discussed the challenges councils face for minimising data and information management risks, and ensuring cyber security – particularly where the council holds sensitive personal data (e.g. from payment transactions, electoral registration and service delivery).

Here at Alpine, we were excited by the level of understanding and engagement of the ANEC elected members and officers generally.

The top three challenges participants highlighted were:
• The tension between making council websites secure but not inaccessible or off-putting to users
• The unique accountability of councils to securely handle, store and share personal sensitive data in the context of statutory safeguarding duties
• Demonstrating effective risk analysis when innovating or creating new ways of working.

The region is already engaged in innovative activity including: the Sunderland Software City hub; the UK’s first Faculty of Digital Civics at Newcastle University; superfast broadband projects across six authorities; and the GO On NE Digital Skills Charter – championed by Councillor Anne Schofield, digital inclusion lead for Newcastle. So the scope for local digital government is huge!

Effectively harnessing the potential of digital is not only a matter of good infrastructure and policy. It is also about bold leadership. This is a call to arms for elected members: digital needs you! For too long, technical officers have dominated the leadership space, where systems have failed to keep pace with changing citizen needs (NLGN 2014), and where councillors’ digital input has been restricted to the realms of social media rather than citizen participation and service excellence. Getting elected members take charge of digital strategy will be the game changer.

To help councils and elected members unlock their digital potential, Alpine has offered to support ANEC members to develop a killer app in a strategic priority area of their choice that will transform accessibility and new ways of working against locally shared objectives.

Cllr Paul Watson, Chair, Association of North East Councils, said: “The digital transformation leadership workshop provided a platform for Alpine to show how open data and digital technology can address real public sector priorities. In the North East councils will continue to demonstrate a leading edge transformation culture and we look forward to Alpine’s support in developing further new ways of working for the benefit of our citizens.”

Ruby Dixon heads Alpine’s Local Government Practice. Contact: rdixon@alpine.eu.com


Alpine is a leading provider of interim management, thought leadership and consultancy services. Our core values of integrity and transparency underpin everything we do.

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