10th November 2023
Local authorities face a perfect storm of tighter budgets, a limited set of income streams, a cost of living which remains stubbornly high, and ever-growing citizen needs. Coupled with this, councils are stuck in a single-year funding cycle, which makes planning ahead even more difficult. Examples, such as the recent survey from the County Councils Network (CCN), which revealed that councils are forecasting overspend in 2023/24 by £639m – an average of £16m per council – are commonplace now.
While local authorities’ budgetary woes show no immediate signs of letting up, they do have one critical resource in abundance which could hold the key to relieving some of the financial burdens they face, as Civica’s Emily Douglin explains.
Seeing a new picture
Councils have lots of data. To be more precise, they have lots of different sets of data. Individually, these datasets offer crucial insights which can help solve problems. If you combine them however, they could offer a completely different perspective, which could help solve bigger problems. By combining data sets such as revenue and benefits with financials, for example, a local council can improve data quality, highlight fraud and streamline services all in one go.
To (mis)quote the old saying, where data is concerned, the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts. Combined datasets will allow local authority officers to see not just the ‘bigger picture’, but a whole new picture. Think about the different data sets you’ve got within your council. Which of these could you combine, and what could you start to see as a result? What could this mean for your council and the citizens you serve?
A single view to manage scarce resources
Having a clear, single view of data across any organisation will result in improved decision making, based on clearer insights. In the current tough financial climate, data-driven insights have a crucial role in helping councils decide how best to use scare resources. They will allow for predictive analytics, enabling local authority officers to optimise such things as demand management and grow the use of intelligent intervention, prioritising critical services where they are needed most.
For councils, this can offer crucial insights on the financial consequences of every decision and action, allowing for continuous improvement.
Dealing with debt through data
From council tax arrears to unpaid business rates, many people and businesses are struggling to pay, which has obvious financial repercussions for local authorities. Here, once again, data can play a critical role.
A more personalised, data-driven approach can enable councils to better understand the individual circumstances of those in debt. It can provide options to recover debt - where it is appropriate to do so. This could include tailored solutions to recover funds in a way that is both practical and sensitive to the situations that many citizens and businesses find themselves in.
Innovating from home
An ongoing challenge for local authorities is attracting and keeping the best talent. Local government workforce data published earlier this month by the LGA found that a massive 94% of councils were experiencing recruitment and retention difficulties.
With agile working now an established norm, geography and proximity to the office are no longer barriers to attracting top talent. Agile working, however, should be more than just giving officers the flexibility to work from home. It should be about empowering them to innovate from home. This is where data can play a crucial role. By harnessing high quality, data-driven insights and digital technologies, officers can develop creative solutions, whether they are in the council building or their own home. If you’re reading this from your home office or kitchen table, imagine what you could do differently if you could see that ‘new picture’ I mentioned earlier? What sort of ideas could it spark? What could it mean for the citizens and communities you serve?
Let’s crack the data dilemma together
The challenge of cracking the ‘data dilemma’ is not unique to local government. A recent survey of more than 550 civil servants commissioned by Civica revealed that Whitehall departments are similarly struggling to get to grips with their data. For the whole of the public sector, it is a challenge, but one which is absolutely surmountable.
Would you like to join the discussion on tackling financial resilience while safeguarding essential services? Would you like to learn more about how to improve data-driven insights to support your local citizens and communities? We’re bringing together senior leaders across the public sector at our Civica Leadership Forum in January 2024 * , where we’ll debate this and other issues facing the sector.
Emily Douglin is Director, Local Government at Civica.