Do councils have the time and skills to keep up with tech?

Listen to leaders

19th April 2023

Smart cloud tech and data use is fundamental to the future success of local government. But there are big challenges ahead, as Civica’s Paul Bradbury explains

The benefits of emerging technology for local government are huge. From immersive AI to machine learning and connected devices enabling smart cities of the future, the growth potential is enormous. According to Statista, the forecast worldwide spend on smart city initiatives in 2023 will be $190 billion, up 134% since 2018. However, our councils are struggling to keep up with the innovation which is already here – let alone the opportunities and developments to come.

With so much fast-paced innovation, it’s now vital that council leaders take action and think differently to ensure the sector isn’t left behind. So at our recent Civica and Solace workshop in Manchester, with Chief Executives and aspiring leaders on Solace’s Springboard programme, we put emerging tech under the spotlight; aiming to uncover the barriers to introducing new solutions into local government, and the huge future benefits this could bring.

‘We’re often too busy being busy’

The right technology can save time – alongside building better connected services and offering an improved citizen experience. However finding this time to innovate seemed to be a key issue around the table. There was a definite sense that teams need to engage more and make space for thinking time, sharing ideas and problem solving. And if we want to reflect the varied needs of our communities, it’s crucial to have a diverse mix of people discussing how technology can help and the best approach to take.

It’s also important to show the outcomes of new technology initiatives. As Maya Ellis from Lancashire County Council said: “We’ve seen huge adoption of new technologies in recent years but the focus must now be on what it’s enabled. If we shift our focus from tech adoption to understanding how it’s changed behaviours, we can build much stronger public services.”

This can be achieved through telling a more compelling story around how tech can help – from improved bin collections via smart sensors to better air quality in a city using connected devices – these are real benefits for citizens which are easy to understand.

Get better with data

Data is still a major challenge for local government; how it’s collected, managed and shared. Our leaders agreed that they still needed to get the right systems in place to help improve data analysis and insight and build more resilient, responsive services. While the previous focus might have been on processes and productivity, we should now be concentrating on unlocking the huge potential in data.

But there are challenges around securing funding for projects which are less tangible: such as using data differently for more positive citizen outcomes, rather than purchasing a new piece of technology. With constant scrutiny of council spending, it’s a long-term education process to prove the value of such projects – even when the joined-up view which better data management enables would prove invaluable.

Sarah Bullock,

Cheshire East Council

We’re very data rich yet intelligence poor. Without this ‘one picture’ of our residents and businesses, we’re less effective around predicting people’s needs. The smart cities approach is a very important and exciting development area for local authorities, but let’s get the right technology and data approach in place first.

While new tech can seem like the best fix, it’s important to look at the processes which already exist and make sure they are fit for purpose before bolting on a new system.

Don’t be afraid to fail

There was widespread agreement that better data use and emerging tech can help build improved local spaces and services in future. From council chat bots to smart homes for residents, immersive learning in schools and AI in hospitals, the opportunities to transform how citizens live and engage with public services are almost endless.

But to achieve this, we now need to ‘up our game’. The big takeaway for me was that local leaders need to be more agile, build transformational leadership and create more of an innovation culture where councils are not afraid to fail. Even more crucially, staff and citizens need to be on the journey too – both engaged in the innovation process and understanding the true benefits that this tech could bring for us all.

Paul Bradbury is Executive Director at Civica. In partnership with Solace, this workshop forms part of a series of #FutureOfLocalGov sessions where we discuss challenges facing local government and getting future ready.

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