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Devolution demands digital delivery

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Devolution is unstoppable. Not only devolution from Whitehall to the UK regions, but within regions to cities and down through the tiers of government. It will give more choice and autonomy to communities and to all of us as individual citizens, redefining the importance of ‘place’ – the importance of where we live and work. It will impact greatly on local authorities and their digital agenda.

By Jos Creese, Socitm Associate Director

Here are some of my devolution predictions:

  • It will force new shared models in local public services. After all, what is the point of devolution if not to create a better way of joining up services which are more relevant and meaningful to local communities? Community budgets will be part of this, moving away from what is one of the most centralised local government finance systems in the world, giving local authorities the power to make sure that public money is spent on the things that matter locally.
  • It will be resisted and supported by Whitehall at the same time – a true dilemma! Successful devolution is about moving power and decision making – typically from Whitehall to cities and to UK regions. That has been promised (and never really delivered) since I started working in the public sector in the 1980s and will continue to be resisted. But at the same time devolution will be encouraged by Whitehall, since moving part of the problem of austerity and delivering change to local government, will deflect public criticism from the centre, appeal to political fashion and at the same time create new ways to make cuts.
  • Councils will initially be euphoric in taking on the new powers, with local politicians excited about the opportunity it will give them to join up and improve things for their communities. They will see the benefit of self-determination around local issues and priorities – things that matter to them. But this will not mean more money is available, and there will be strings attached. Both devolution and sharing will lead to better outcomes at lower cost, and whether that is true or not, there will be less money for our public services. So a new, devolved model for public services will assume a yet lower cost base and effective join up of services such as health and social care, which, when the challenge becomes clearer, may soon dampen the euphoria.
  • It will be much more than passing power from Whitehall to local government. It will be a longer, more complex journey, where responsibilities are devolved to communities, volunteers, the private sector, charities, specialist organisations and to all of us as individuals. The local public service supply chain will in other words become much more complex but more adaptable, and in terms of managing the risks and the governance, this is a 10 to 20-year journey, with ‘digital’ in its engine.
  • It will change democratic structures. Devolution, shared services and changes to resource allocation, all require new models of governance and administration of our public services. This is sensitive territory where ambition and political interest has, in the past, sometimes trumped public interest. Politics, people, processes and policies are the blockers to change, nationally and locally, and devolution will force these things into the open to create a new democracy. We are already seeing this with Health and Social Care joint boards, but it’s very early days.
  • In the short-term, we are likely to see a patchwork of new boards emerging to oversee the patchwork of new local service bodies collaborating together, as if we don’t have enough local boards for services already for the management of local services. These structures will only be partially effective because of conflicting allegiance to the different services and because budgets are only aligned, rather than integrated. I predict that they will be amended and adjusted repeatedly over the next decade or so.

The implication of devolution is immense for public service leaders therefore. It will affect democratic processes and accountability, as well as how local services are designed, managed and delivered. It will force collaboration and integration across areas such as health, police, councils and charities whilst adopting national systems for data sharing and security. The point of devolution is not to give power to local politicians. It’s about local choice and connecting people better with the services they use. This is so much more than overcoming the artificiality and confusion of two-tier council areas or sponsoring more ‘smart city’ regions.

Technology such as social media can allow the citizens to take a more active role in decision making and they will expect to do so with the new devolved public services. ‘Digital’ can empower us all to be more involved in local matters and decisions which affect us. It can allow a wider and more inclusive perspective to be taken on topics such as environmental protection, educational standards, public protection and infrastructure. It may just be that devolution combined with digital delivery, far from threatening UK democracy as some believe, will invigorate it.

But to make the most of this, services need to change to adopt true digital working:

  • To focus more on digital inclusion in the way digital services are designed, especially for disadvantaged groups.
  • To introduce new digital governance to replace the traditional hierarchy of command and control that still exists in public authorities.
  • To shift the emphasis of delivery of services to a ‘digital by design’ mind-set, in a way that does not de-personalise or disenfranchise people.

It will require a new architecture of shared digital infrastructure, building on the Public Services Network (PSN), but going much further in sharing data and systems securely, rationalising the range of separately managed and often proprietary technologies currently in place. This is much more than the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) vision of Government as a Platform GaaP, but is not dissimilar. It’s about using and sharing digital services, such as cloud, mobile systems, cyber security, social media and data analytics. It’s about adopting common and open standards. It’s about pooling IT capacity, removing the patchwork of data centres and sprawl of local IT professionals and IT departments. It’s about modern, digital ways of working.

I see the opportunity for technology to drive devolution in the following ways:

  • The safe and easy interchange of data between systems, organisations and geographies – data and information are critical for successful devolution, unlocked information from within proprietary, legacy or bespoke applications.
  • The transparency and tracking of the value from investments made locally – addressing the worry that devolving money down the ‘feeding chain’ will result in its dilution, waste, misuse or even abuse, let alone an inability to do ‘big stuff’.
  • The use of simple, collaboration tools to join up professionals around the tiers of government – changing the culture of organisational and professional silos, by moving to a model of virtual teams working in an area around individual community and citizen needs.
  • Better use of information, addressing the issues of security, protective marking, privacy and the primacy citizen ownership of data. This will be essential in retaining public trust in the data held by public services, and ultimately trust in public services.
  • The adoption of common standards for interoperability and open architectures, taking the plunge and challenging the proprietary lock-in of data when it restricts. This includes accepting a common architecture of digital design – such as policies and principles for high quality digital solutions. There is no reason I can see why the vision created by the GDS could not be subscribed to by devolved services without compromising local priorities and delivery – devolution does not mean abandonment of national solutions if they make sense.
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