I was delighted by the response to the Local Government Digital Fund (LGDF), but I was not at all surprised. Over the course of the launch events it was clear that there is a real appetite for change among councils. The interest they showed in the Digital Fund, and the ideas that were already being discussed at the launch events, proved to me that there is a huge amount of innovative thinking just waiting to be unleashed at councils all over the UK.
This chimes with my own experience as a member of Slough Borough Council’s Wellbeing Board. I know just how much commitment there is to improving services and creating better opportunities for citizens, even with dramatically reduced resources.
For those who have not come across the Digital Fund already, it’s our programme to kick start digital innovation for local councils. We’re awarding a total of £250,000 worth of Telefónica’s digital services, expertise and solutions to the best ideas put forward by Local Authorities. We want them to show us how they will use digital technology to transform the way they work and the way they engage with citizens.
You may recall that we ran a similar programme last year, called the Local Government Future Fund. This year, we very deliberately changed ‘Future’ to ‘Digital’, because we believe strongly that digital technology is defining the future.
More than two thirds of the UK population own a smartphone now. The mobile device really is becoming the remote control for life. So councils have to embrace this cultural change. They have to put digital and mobile at the heart of their strategies for engagement with the citizens and communities they serve.
One example of the kind of innovation I’m talking about is reflected in Wayra, the Telefónica initiative to promote innovation and new talent in the new digital world. Wayra provides technological tools, qualified mentors and funding to accelerate the growth of start-ups, helping to foster entrepreneurial thinking and generate new sources of growth for the economy. It’s working internationally, but it’s the kind of idea that can just as easily inject new energy into a local economy.
We launched the Digital Fund at three events in London, Birmingham and Glasgow. They were over-subscribed and provided us with a wealth of insight into how councils are approaching the possibilities that digital creates.
Of course, the story that has shaped Local Government over the past few years has been all about massive budget cuts. I wonder how many private sector companies could cope with a sudden and unavoidable cut of 30% from their strategic budgets? Especially when Government, media and citizens are all expecting much higher levels of service, much of it delivered through digital channels.
This is the scenario that councils have had to confront. It’s a stark choice. Do you make massive cuts, or do you find innovative ways of doing more with what you have left? For me, it’s clear that the cuts have turned UK Local Government into a hothouse of innovation and, judging by what I heard at the launch events, they’re all set to go. The financial injection provided by the Digital Fund will be just what they need.
From what I’ve seen as the LGDF has taken shape, is that councils absolutely recognise the importance of this. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with when they submit their ideas for a digital future.