Levelling up: the digital challenge

By Michael Burton | 12 April 2022

Among the many themes to emerge from an hour’s discussion with nine leading council chief executives from the Midlands and North of England one conclusion was paramount: that digital is not just technology but about culture, skills, attitude and creativity.

This did not impede the distinguished line-up from expressing forthright views about data needs and legacy systems or, indeed, whether it was wiser to get the basic technology sorted before moving onto transformation, imaginatively described as ‘peas and carrots versus dessert’.

The past two years have accelerated digital change in local government. As one participant commented: ‘We were on a transformation journey from 2018, but from 2020 it was overnight. Yet we didn’t miss a beat in service provision and since then have taken on staff who haven’t even been in one of our buildings.’ Another chief added: ‘We’ve had a digital team based at our libraries working on the tablet lending scheme which has made inroads into thousands of people who’ve been skilled up.’

The private sector was also transformed by the pandemic lockdowns. As BT’s Simon Haston said: ‘The last two years has challenged us. We realise we need to move faster. We’re a tech company but we need to bring with tech other stuff like skills and thinking. What we’ve seen is increased appetite to innovate and do things differently and a greater emphasis on connectivity. Our conclusion is connectivity is crucial but needs to be seen in the wider context of outcomes and capabilities and how we take a more holistic view of a place. The challenges are not necessarily technical. There are social, commercial and appetite challenges.’

There was agreement among the panel that returning to the old days was not an option but this was by no means assured. As one participant commented: ‘We have demonstrated what we can deliver in the past two years, as we had a shared priority and a real focus on what we needed to do. As soon as we go back to the day job though our priorities become more broader and stretched. Does recovery mean to go back to the way things were before? We can’t let that happen. We have to ensure we use all the good things from last two years to influence how we work and how we deliver services for the future.’

A major concern was skills, especially in deprived areas. There was initial discussion as to whether assuming the elderly or unskilled young were all digitally uneducated was a stereotype. One participant said: ‘We mustn’t assume old people aren’t digital. My parents are more digital than I am. Someone on low income and older can be far more digital than someone much younger.’ Another added: ‘We do tend to make sweeping generalisations about our communities. Some of our poorest communities are the most digitally savvy and see digital as a way out of economic challenges.’

There was a view that if people understand the purpose of digital innovation, they will more enthusiastically adapt to it, since digital is as much about attitude as technical knowledge. As one participant said: ‘Our role is to make technology relevant to our residents’ lives. If we digitise everything and leave our residents behind, we’ll just get load of complaints about how they can’t get the phone answered. And, as for young people, you can’t predict the jobs of the future as technology moves at such a pace, but you can think of qualities young people need such as being creative, adaptable, willing to go with new technology. ‘Another participant pointed out that a major social media employer looked for attitude and creativity from job applicants rather than tech skills.

Overall though, participants felt it was vital to ensure residents, especially those in poorer areas, were skilled up both to benefit from digital jobs and access digital public services. In turn, a skilled workforce is attractive to inward investors – key to levelling up. As one said: ‘We’ve got massively digitally literate clusters of experts and yet in communities five minutes across the road kids at worst with nil knowledge of technology needed for work. There’s a collision of digital opportunity with low skills and low aspiration. Hundreds of thousands are not benefitting. There’s still a big divide we’ve got to bridge.’

Another from a prosperous city added: ‘Our challenges are around skills, making sure our residents can take advantage of digital innovation. We’ve got expanding companies but they need a pipeline of skills to support them.’

All the participants are therefore engaged in various forms of digital roll-out. One chief executive, noting his area’s historic legacy of low wages and low skills said: ‘We need to take advantage of technological development so we don’t reinforce existing inequalities. Hence we’ve been strengthening digital infrastructure and leveraged our area network to attract investment from the private sector for full fibre connectivity which is key for our residents and businesses.’

Another city chief executive signed a contract with BT last year to develop a Local Full Fibre Network ‘with double the gigabit capability of the UK average, connecting 1400 units in the public sector estate with GP surgeries and schools as well as council buildings. That infrastructure delivery is really important for the economy of city and for inclusion’.

One issue that exercised the participants was the use, or not, of data, especially in health and care. One chief called for ‘a data revolution,’ adding: ‘We need to cleanse and revolutionise the quality of our data, so we can have mutual confidence in its integrity to give us the solid base for planning to meet the future needs of customers. Digital access to medical services isn’t going to go backwards. That data bonding hasn’t been there in the past and now we have a remarkable opportunity.’

Another said: ‘We know loads of stuff but don’t join it together especially well.’ A chief executive added: ‘The real issue is data and intel, especially in health and care bringing datasets together. If you start to overlay datasets then that leads to more informed analysis and questioning.’ One participant felt that too often data was used to look backwards, rather than inform service delivery forwards, saying: ‘I still feel we are very retrospective about data. Our teams are highly skilled but still focused on retrospective reporting. We’re good at describing how deprived we are but we need to turn to understanding and predicting future demand and drive service transformation around that.’

Finally, to the peas and carrots. Several chief executives remarked on problems with managing legacy systems. One explained: ‘We have massive challenges with legacy systems, and moving to a platform based approach where you make the best of data, you get people who don’t want to engage with the council being able to do so online. We have a big ongoing piece of work around that.’ Another added: ‘We have a legacy and culture of buying many times to meet service needs and we’ve invested in infrastructure and people and skills to build once and use many times so we have not only the right cloud based platforms, but skills to develop and implement our own software solutions on the back of that.’

The analogy was conjured up by one participant, Andy Rowe of BT, clearly with a sweet tooth, as ‘like a Sunday lunch in which the peas and carrots, getting the systems right, must first be consumed before moving to the sweet spot of transformation, the dessert’. He explained: ‘New and exciting is dessert at the end of lunch, but to get there you’ve got to eat your peas and carrots and these are the legacy systems and IT debt and less appetising conversations you need to work through to get to the dessert.’

Another participant said: ‘My big frustration is we need core revenue funding and we lack that. We don’t have the luxury of the dessert’, while a chief executive plaintively added ‘I don’t know what’s on the menu.’

But perhaps a key message for all to leave with was summed up by one chief executive who said: ‘There is still a strong desire for human contact so the question is how does technology support people to come together rather than supplant that.’

Round table participants

Chief executives

Andrew Balchin, Wakefield City Council

Andy Begley, Shropshire Council

Monica Fogarty, Warwickshire CC

Jacqui Gedman, Kirklees MBC

Denise Park, Blackburn with Darwen BC

Sheena Ramsey, Gateshead City Council

Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council

Pam Smith, Newcastle City Council

Tom Stannard, Salford City Council

From BT

Simon Haston, chief technology and information officer, regions and devolved government

Roger Craven, regional director, North East

Andy Rowe, director of central government


Michael Burton, The MJ

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Digital Innovation Transformation Skills Data Culture Health and Care Integration Technology