Making the Digital Pledge work

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Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak recently launched a ‘digital pledge’ for local authorities and a £7.5 million fund to help them transform their online services. It’s an interesting move and one I hope will unlock innovation as intended.    

Local councils are under such pressure to save money that an investment like this could kick start some fresh thinking and new approaches to solving problems that plague budgets. However, signing a declaration to say that your council will apply digital technology to problem solving is one thing, making technology really work hard for you is another.    

There are so many causes worth applying technology to. As the announcement signaled, apps that bring councils up to date with the way people live their lives will be a boon. If I can pay my council tax bill quickly with an app then I’m happy. And of course, it means that the council is making an active effort to shorten processes so that money flows in quicker. An efficient council will then have more chance of being more efficient in how it gathers and uses my money.    

There are other public gripes like fly tipping or blocked drains. An app to help report blockages so floods are prevented, or to provide tip-offs and stem the flow of law breakers would help protect funds for things that people need like better social care when leaving hospital.    

No one wants a blot on the landscape, or a flooded road, just as no one wants their relative to be vulnerable at home. Tough choices as to which to invest in first could be helped with this new approach to using technology.    

That said, technology moves on quickly and as much as councils need to consider the present requirements they also need to look to the future. Artificial Intelligence could help with so many of the tasks that should and could be automated, whether they be citizen facing or behind the scenes.     Repetitive tasks, such as managing traffic congestion, that councils do up and down the country could be done with machine learning, freeing up clerks to do something more valuable for the community, and in turn save money.    

If a machine can find patterns in traffic data that a human would take weeks to find and analyse then the job of town planning would be become easier and more efficient. You have comprehensive data sets and intelligent insight to guide your decision-making. It would help develop new models for smart cities and provide a better ROI for the public.   

But one of the most crucial is managing public data. We have to get this right and Government-run bodies need to set the example. I know plenty of people who would be unhappy if their case notes, those of a loved one, or any other sensitive data was breached and potentially common knowledge.     Yet, despite the two-year run up to GDPR, it appears that local councils will be up against it when it comes to data privacy and security.

A worthy investment

Research from an Exonar Freedom of Information request on the public sector found that the cost to local councils managing a single request for personal data already runs as high as £596 in some councils, and that is only the direct costs, it doesn’t include the cost of staff taking time out from their other essential duties to locate and review information to be produced.    

Exonar’s research found that between 2014-2016, each of the 418 local government bodies across the UK receives on average 138 requests for data per year from the public. With the average SAR costing £136.95 to complete, we’re looking at a bill of £7.9million for managing requests – a number that already surpasses the sum pledged in the new digital fund.    

However, the number of SARs is almost certain to increase as more people become aware of their rights under GDPR. In fact, Exonar’s research that found once GDPR and the term SAR was explained to members of the public, 57 per cent said they would raise a SAR.   

It seems crazy that the figure for completing a SAR should be so high, but the manual process of finding all of a person’s data across the various databases, and faculties that a person deals with is time consuming. In fact, the research shows that it takes 23 days to turn around freedom of information requests on average, so we can’t expect requests under GDPR to be any different if the same processes are relied upon.    

It needn’t be that way though. Technology can simplify finding data on your network, in databases, on laptops and retrieve it, even in systems you’ve forgotten about, and artificial intelligence can help categorise and organise it for you. In minutes, not tens of days.    

It’s an investment that is well worth it, because it can be used for all kinds of information including ‘unstructured’ data such as written case notes. So if I was a visionary in a council, that’s what I would want to spend my money on. It’s an investment that would save money and time. And it’s one I could persuade others to invest in to share the cost.    

It’s also one that would make councils more secure. If you know where your data is and how sensitive it is, you can grade it from public to highly confidential. You are then in a better position to secure it accordingly.     The highly sensitive data is ring-fenced and secured with the best cyber security products and strategy, whilst low risk data is protected more so that it’s not a gateway to the sensitive data.     Once again, it’s about efficiency - helping councils spend money on the security they actually need rather than taking a broad brush approach just in case.    

Quick wins

With these few use cases you can see how the initiative could make a huge difference. But they do highlight that money has to be spent wisely. And so I hope councils will get the guidance to help them identify where and how to spend money, and therefore calculate the sums they will need to bid for, and the ROI.    

A shiny app to stop unsightly fly tipping and report blocked drains would be welcomed by me. They are quick wins to illustrate to the public that you are doing something about the problems.    

But knowing my data is secure is higher up the list for me at the moment, especially in light of the breaches we’ve heard about in public and private sectors. There will be more data thefts and exposés I’m sure, so getting ahead of the cyber criminals and having my data in order is just the sort of issue I’d want to see the council investing in.   

So a strategic approach to the digital pledge is what it will take to make it work and ensure the money is spent wisely. And, I would hope, in the long-term ensure repeat funding. Otherwise I fear it will be the equivalent to pouring money down the drain.  

Adrian Barrett, CEO and founder, Exonar
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy