Local Council Digital Projects Show Data Exchange Concerns

Local council digital pilot projects have made significant savings but also uncovered problems including security issues

Local governments are making significant savings and improving the quality of services including social care and council tax services through the use of pilot digital projects, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales.

At the same time, the LGA said the projects had underscored challenges including the difficulty of linking disparate systems together and the potential for unexpected costs to arise, including costs related to security issues.

Digital Experts

Networking globe

The group said 13 of the 27 digital projects funded through the Digital Experts programme, established in March of last year, have now reached a level of maturity allowing them to demonstrate appreciable benefits in an interim evaluation.

The projects, which involve 42 councils around the UK, are intended to allow councils to use digital tools and techniques already successfully applied elsewhere. The LGA awarded a total of £390,000, with single councils receiving £10,000 and groups of councils being given £25,000.

“We want to support the sector to share these assets more effectively so there will be bigger benefits for more councils,” said councilor David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA’s improvement and innovation board, in a statement.

The LGA highlighted a project involving the three councils of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith & Fulham, who saved an estimated £2 million using mobile technology to collect, review and update case information for adult social care visits.

The technology cut staff travel time while allowing them to look up information about a resident while in their home and show them online information and resources, encouraging self-sufficiency, the association said.

“The application of technology has enabled staff in the three organisations to work together more effectively and has reduced the cost of providing these services, the acid test of the use of digital technology in providing services in the public sector,” stated councilor Warwick Lightfoot, Kensington and Chelsea Council cabinet member for finance and strategy.

Smartphone app

A smartphone application called MyStaffsApp offered by Staffordshire County Council, offering a range of services provided by both county and district councils, has been used in 40,000 sessions, according to the LGA. The council estimated savings of £22,000 if only one-fifth of these avoided the need for a telephone call.

Investment in a live web chat system by Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council saved more than £7,000 from April 2015 to January 2016 by cutting the use of more costly methods of contact, the LGA said.

Test Valley Council processed 420 electronic council tax change notifications from December 2015 to mid-March 2016, with an estimated savings of more than £2,000 if every notification received avoided a telephone call and back-office work.

The council said its digital Citizen Access council tax tool reduced the time needed to set up accounts on house moves from three to four weeks to the same day.

Digital pitfalls

At the same time, the pilot projects indicated the difficulties of linking different systems and transferring information, as well as unexpected costs such as the need to buy extra software licences to administer tools, to print transaction reports or to review computer security, the LGA said.

Lincolnshire County Council was hit by a malware attack in February that forced it to revert to pen and paper for most of a week. The council shut down its IT systems on a Tuesday when it detected the attack, which was triggered when a member of staff opened a malicious attachment in an email.

The zero-day attack exploited a previously undiscovered vulnerability, meaning up-to-date security systems were unable to defend against it, the council said.

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