Technology and data have radically changed how public services are delivered.
From the dawn of the ‘e-government’ era, we have seen the power of the internet make it easier for our residents to access services, the potential to make those services simpler and more efficient, and how data can help us better understand our residents’ needs.
Too often though, local government’s digital toolkit can still look frighteningly familiar to what we would have seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In too many cases the market is continuing to offer the same choices we had 20 years ago, with creaking legacy technology struggling to respond to the potential and demands of the modern digital era. Even where the potential to transform is more readily available, it is too easy to miss opportunities and make the most of them.
In Hackney we have been working hard to play our part in pushing digital local government forward and contributing energetically to cross-sector collaborations such as the Local Digital Declaration and the London Office of Technology and Innovation is a vital part of that.
While the challenges of transforming organisations as complex as local government are significant, we have an almost unique opportunity compared to most other sectors in our ability to come together to share our ambition, energy and resources to make a real impact.
Our ambitious digital work meant that when the worst happened in October 2020 and many of our vitally important systems were hit by a serious, criminal cyber attack, we were still able to carry out our critical functions and respond to the huge challenges with which we were faced.
It would be hard to persuade a Hackney resident or colleague that the impact of the attack could have been worse, but having uninterrupted access to our email, website, telephony, staff computers and other essential systems demonstrated the importance of our cloud strategy.
At the heart of our digital ambition is the work we have done to build a strong, capable in-house team. We all know how challenging it is to recruit in the highly competitive market for digital talent, and one of the most important ways we are tackling this is through our ambitious digital apprenticeship programme.
More than 50 people have now come through this programme and we are currently developing our plans for the third cohort which we will launch later this year.
We are enormously proud of the talented people who have taken part in our apprenticeships – all local residents or educated in Hackney – many of whom are now well on their way to successful digital careers within our team or those of other employers.
Through the pandemic lockdowns councils provided vital support for residents, with pace and innovation that would be the envy of many commercial businesses. Perhaps the most inspiring example of what ‘digital transformation’ can mean for our residents is the service that we have developed out of the support we provided for people who were shielding during lockdown.
Our Here to Help service is showing the impact we can have where we combine a fleet of digital tools, a willingness to rethink the way our services work and redesign them around the needs of our residents, and use of data to identify needs and target our interventions.
The service has worked together with our Benefits & Housing Needs service to launch a new Money Hub in response to the cost of living crisis that is hitting our residents so hard. This has helped us target our crisis support funds effectively, provided support to help residents manage huge financial challenges, and in five months has already directly increased residents’ incomes by £370,000, with a target of £1m by the autumn.
Becoming a modern digital council was never going to be easy, and making the most of the opportunities is about much more than the technologies we use. But, by being ambitious for our residents and doing the hard work to deliver real, long-term change and transformation, we are confident we can help deliver local public services that really are fit for the next digital age.
Philip Glanville is mayor and cabinet member for digital, and Rob Miller is strategic director, customer and workplace at Hackney LBC