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This article was originally published in the MJ

There is no doubt that some councils are in the vanguard of organisations exploiting digital in any sector. Arguably they need to be, given the enormous pressures in the public sector to protect critical services in the face of unprecedented cuts.

Recent reports suggest that some of the most innovative CIOs and most competent IT teams for example, are to be found in local government– that is certainly my experience too.

However, recent research by Eduserv also indicates that many council IT teams still don’t understand the digital agenda well-enough to harness the potential benefits. There is a continuing reluctance, for example, to use cloud services or to give up internal data centres. This reticence stems largely from concerns about data security and confidentiality, although there are also complexities to overcome in systems integration, support, access management and federated identity control.

Avoiding new delivery models such as cloud comes at a price – cloud services, if properly deployed, can reduce running costs, avoid future capital investment, increase staff productivity and establish a more flexible, accessible and adaptable IT service. This is not to say that councils should rush to put everything into the cloud, but they should have cloud adoption policies and IT strategic plans for how cloud can be effectively used to address risks and to manage the technology changes.

Eduserv found that 44% of councils had no policy or strategy at all for using cloud services. 63% said they relied instead on two or more on premise data centres, with a third saying they made no use of any external data centre services.

Of course, cloud use does not make a digital council. But low adoption is symptomatic of a reluctance to move to new IT delivery models or to address the risks and cost of change in so doing. In fact, the research also identified that despite the apparent priority to protect data by not using cloud, 27% of councils could not give a breakdown of where their data resides, suggesting weak information management which would have to be addressed before using cloud services.

The findings do need treating with care. Whilst many councils said they do not use any cloud, this is likely to be little more than a ‘blind spot’ in the IT department. Dropbox alone is apparently used in every council in the UK, and then there are services such as survey monkey and many free apps which are widely available and used. The IT department can’t block these even if it tries – ‘shadow IT’ use is out there, and its growing.

Digital maturity can certainly be encouraged by the IT team – supporting new ways of working, adopting cloud, approving apps and assisting with information governance. IT can also help the understanding of digital risk and the management of digital working, assisting in building business cases for change programmes enabled by technology.

But this is just not enough. Digital maturity is mostly not about the IT department. It’s about changing business models and leadership methods outside IT. Technology matters and can be a barrier, but if the Board and elected members don’t own the digital agenda it is unlikely to succeed. Digital skills outside the IT department are key to digital maturity.

Time is running out. Councils face even greater financial pressure over the next 4 years and simply investing in great technology will neither be enough nor will it signify true digital maturity. Councils need to fundamentally rethink what they do and how they do it, using digital methods, and this includes harnessing the power of cloud. Those that succeed will be the future digital leaders. Those that do not, may simply cease to exist.

Download the report - How cloud ready at the leading UK councils? for full research findings.

About the author

Jos Creese

As Principal Analyst, Jos acts as the face of our Local Government Executive Briefing programme, independently educating IT and business leaders on a range of business issues and technological challenges. Jos is an independent consultant specialising in helping organisations shift to digital operating models, especially in the public sector. With over 25 years' IT management experience, he has held a number of CIO and non-executive director positions, including with Hampshire County Council as CIO and CDO, supporting business change programmes enabled by IT and leading many IT shared services and IT partnerships in the region. He was president of the Society of IT Management in 2010 and is current president of BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT). He has been named the ‘most influential and innovative UK CIO’ listed in the ‘Top 100 CIO’ since its inception.

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