Critical to delivering essential services and providing support to communities across the country, local authorities are a vital aspect of our lives. Placed under considerable pressure by the coronavirus pandemic, they’re now tasked with reinvigorating those same communities, bringing growth and jobs to each area, while providing inclusive opportunities for all.
Before the pandemic, local authorities were already recognising the positive impact technology can have in connecting people, supporting businesses, and bonding communities, but there’s no doubt that the last 18 months have seen digital adoption accelerate. Technology has empowered local authorities to keep delivering vital services and now there’s an opportunity to expand its reach to benefit more people and bring new growth.
What’s needed is a digital fabric, an underlying foundation built on converged connectivity – fixed and mobile – that supports an overlay of devices, data, skills and applications. This digital fabric can help drive better social and economic outcomes, such as inclusive growth, productivity, green recovery, while supporting better access to health & wellbeing services. In other words, it will enable the next generation of digital services.
But establishing such a layer isn’t as simple as just switching deployments on. They require planning, managed execution, and ongoing support from partners, as well as buy-in from all stakeholders. There’s also arguably the biggest challenge to overcome – a change in culture.
So, how can local authorities build a digital fabric that supports the future of their communities? Through following five fundamental steps.
1. Clarify and communicate the vision
To ensure universal buy-in and that everyone is working toward the same goal, it’s vital that all parties share a single vision for the area and community. Decisions can’t be made in silos, the bigger picture must always be apparent. Sharing a mid- to long-term vision helps provide valuable context around investments needed to deliver objectives.
Local authority chief executives have an important role to play in defining this vision and communicating it among the various stakeholders. But driving the cultural shift that comes with a new way of doing things means those visions have to be truly accepted, both internally and externally. To help progress such a task, guidance from a partner with a track record of driving change throughout organisations can unblock points of resistance through engagement and communicating the true value add of technology.
As a critical national enabler, BT is working with several local authorities to accelerate digital transformation in their regions. With its ‘100% Digital Leeds’ campaign, for example, Leeds City Council is working toward a future in which there are no barriers to digital inclusion. As part of this, BT’s Local Full Fibre Programme aims to give all 285 schools in the district access to the best possible connectivity, along with 293 other council-owned buildings, 156 NHS properties, and council housing across the city.
Elsewhere, Hertfordshire County Council’s ‘Living Lab’ project is transforming Hatfield Business Park into a model ‘smart place’ through the introduction of an open and experimental digital ecosystem. Providing the Lab’s 5G network, BT is supporting the development of new sustainable, smart services through real-time data-driven decision making and enabling the council to identify new areas where 5G technology can boost the region.
2. Continue learning from cutting-edge innovation
Fulfilling a local authority’s vision of delivering a digitally-enabled future for its citizens depends on access to continuous innovation, insight and research. But, given the growing shortfall in funding they face, raising the investment this needs can be a challenge that requires assistance from the private sector.
With a long history of innovation, BT makes significant investments to develop existing offerings and create new opportunities for its partners. For instance, BT has spent £2.5bn on R&D over the past five years, and currently employs 4,000 ‘innovation scouts’ whose role is to discern how the future will look.
One example of how BT is currently exploring breakthrough innovations to support the public sector is its Green Tech Innovation Platform. The initiative, launched in June 2020 in partnership with US-based innovation platform Plug and Play, was designed to uncover new green technology solutions that can support the public sector’s efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions. To date, it has focused on three areas: smart streets, smart buildings, and remote working – technologies that could potentially transform local communities for the better.
3. Demonstrate the value of investing in digital
The pandemic has had a serious impact on public sector finances. As they recover and look to rebuild their communities, there’s a risk that local authorities could see digital technology as a cost rather than as an investment. But, if their visions are to become reality, the cost-saving benefits of investing in digital technology must be made clear to those who remain unconvinced.
To help local authorities achieve this, there’s a growing need for their partners to provide clear business cases, supported by evidence of how technology investments can drive value. Sharing best practice advice on how technology deployments can bolster areas such as inclusive growth, sustainability and health and wellbeing, will provide local authority leaders with a tangible sense of how those technologies could benefit their communities, and allow them to consider how they might be replicated. Indeed, the Green Tech Innovation Platform provides an open space in which different local councils can collaborate and organisations can avoid doubling up on efforts to deliver on the same strategy and vision.
4. Take time to establish partnerships
When it comes to partnering with those who can help them deliver on their visions, local authorities are in the driving seat because of their community knowledge, understanding and engagement. It’s essential that they choose partners they can rely upon – trusted organisations with solid credentials, knowledge, and a demonstrable track record of serving communities.
When considering sustainable initiatives, for instance, choose a partner that has led the way on corporate climate action as a top sustainability leader in the FTSE 100, and is playing an active role in the Government’s 2050 zero emissions target for the economy. In the UK, 100% of the energy BT directly purchases is renewably sourced, it’s decarbonising its buildings and fleet, and it’s collaborating with its supply chain – responsible for two thirds of overall emissions – to cut usage too.
What’s more, its innovative technology helps customers to address their emissions through avoiding travel and being more efficient; in 2020, BT’s customers avoided around 13 million tonnes of carbon using its solutions. And it partners with industry leading names to develop cutting-edge innovation that makes the world a greener place.
5. Keep community in mind
We’ve seen throughout the course of the pandemic just how important community is in times of crisis. A combination of local knowledge, and valuable relationships and networks have enabled communities to provide their citizens with what they need, when they’ve needed it. The increased levels of community engagement during this time have also given local authorities a greater insight into the support that’s required of them.
The delivery of this support – and the impact it can have on people’s home and work lives – can be vastly improved through digital transformation. Technology is, after all, a powerful enabler. But as places become better connected, people must have the skills and confidence to use digital technology to its full value, which also helps reduce the widening of the digital divide. Local authorities therefore need to work with partners who can help deliver the training needed to boost a community’s digital skills.
BT’s ‘Skills for Tomorrow’ programme seeks to empower millions of people with the skills required to flourish in the digital future. As part of this, BT partnered with the Chartered Institute of IT and its Computing at School network on the Barefoot initiative, fulfilling its mission to give five million children the tech skills they need for the future by 2025. To date, the programme has reached over two million pupils and 70,000 teachers in more than 65 percent of primary schools across the UK.
Ultimately, digital transformation is key to revitalising communities feeling the impacts of the pandemic, and local authorities when flanked by key partners who align to their goals can drive this. Creating a digital fabric requires systematic change, the result of shared visions and collaboration that ensures a wide breadth of expertise and technology know-how.
Strong partnerships ensure projects keep moving forward, overcoming obstacles as they appear and engaging with every stakeholder. They are key to connecting for good and unlocking the evolution of public services.
Visit bt.com/localgov for more information on how BT are supporting local authorities