Earlier this week I wrote for Guardian Public Leaders on the way digital advances had changed local government, and how future technology might  further transform the sector.

The article seems to have resonated with quite a few people who have got in touch by email, on Twitter or on G+ to share their thoughts (and I’d love to hear more views so do leave a comment or get in touch on one of the aforementioned networks). The overall message coming through echoing the point I wanted to make in my article – that the digital advances are underway and are still coming but taken as a sector local government is now falling behind on what should be basic, is still limited by cautious thinking on what the real potential is.

So while the reality is that local government may be hamstrung by budget, imagination and courage when it comes to digital technology it doesn’t hurt to lift your eyes to the horizon every once in a while and ponder on what could be.

So, here’s some more of my thoughts on future digital advances and how they could (if we’re brave and open to innovation and change) transform local government services.

The Internet of Things

A couple of people have been in touch with me about my mention of an Internet of Things in my article and I’ve had some interesting discussions that have helped me clarify my thinking about networking local government assets such as streetlights and bins.

One part of that is about linking these assets to people in the real world through an interface – a while back QR codes were the ticket for that sort of thing but the truth is they’re so poorly used by people they’re unlikely to be a widespread of long term link.

So what is? Well, near field communication provides some possibilities. If all you had to do was hold your device close the asset or touch it to the surface would this be preferable to opening the camera or an app and scanning a code? Maybe. It’s one less step for people anyway, one less barrier of inconvenience.

Whatever the link the real test will be what the asset does when the connection is made – does it pre-populate a form for reporting, or subscribe you to a list that updates you on fixes because a report has already been made, does it help a council prioritise work by number of reports made? It could all be possible.

One of the people who got in touch was from a research unit looking at making a citizen-centric internet of things – check out sociotal.eu. It might be at a research stage but some of this stuff is happening already and is something the channel shift crew would do well to keep an eye on.

And it could be taken further to think about the small matter of digital inclusion. I gave some examples of how better technology, more intelligently used could help bridge the divide in the article but it’s perhaps linked with the Internet of Things in the fact that local government assets could be used to create clouds of public wifi (stick routers in lamp-posts, for example) which would not only add convenience for those already digitally enabled in some way, but also begin to help people who can’t / won’t get a rolling broadband contract too.

Augmented Reality

While I mentioned Google Glass in my article (and linked to this great post by Hel Reynolds in the comments) and also mentioned wearable tech I didn’t get chance to explore this area much further.

With services such as libraries, museums and country parks under pressure to remain relevant and justify a budget there’s some ideas around augmented reality which may help with that cause. As tech in a smartphone or tablet makes it possible to add a digital layer over the real world as you look at it, In some ways this may just use digital advances to modernise the display boards or it may be a way of sharing knowledge about a place with reduced numbers of people to pass it on.

It could be a way of re-invigorating the high street by showing you all the details you need about the places you can see in front of you – opening hours, facilities, reviews from other customers, discounts, and even whether anyone you’re connected to online is in the vicinity in your physical world.

And this overlay could be via an app using a camera or it could be in something wearable like Google Glass.

Demand planning and preparedness

While I wrote about how social media has been adopted for communication and engagement I didn’t get a chance to explore how that could develop in the future. This will probably move through a greater deal of listening to understand sentiment for impact on reputation before it gets to trend mapping.

For public health there has already been examples of how chatter of social networks is being used to map the spread of illness – there was a map of Swine Flu break-outs based on people tweeting, for example. Given more sophisticated parametres and some analysis this type of mapping is already starting to be used for greater preparedness and demand planning.

There’s a possibility of this becoming even more two way as trials in emergency situations have already shown that you can change the way people react through the flow of information available to them. So, use social networks to be more prepared and react more quickly and in a focused way when something happens, then provide information to help people through it as best you can, getting continuous feedback to adapt the approach, and so on.

I imagine Ben Proctor has shared some thinking around this already.

The ‘I’m Spartacus’ work force

In the article I mentioned how digital offers ways to transform the work force of local government, through systems like Skype for mobilisation and distributed working.

Technology could support a new model for local government though – and meet needs thrown up by councils becoming more about co-production (sorry for the jargon bomb) and commissioning rather than delivery. Carl Haggerty talks about what this model of local government may look like in his Digital Framework for Local Public services (check it out).

In the future the delivery of public services may be the responsibility of society and communities as much (or more) than a council with a paid work force. I’ve just decided to call this the “I’m Spartacus” work force, because we would all have to stand together and share that identity, that responsibility. There’s probably a better way of summing it up, but let’s roll with Spartacus for now.

So, if we’re all responsible we need ways of sharing what we’re doing. There are examples of this happening between professionals at different agencies (see, FutureGov’s Patchwork product) but the idea could be adapted for other purposes, for different types of people.

And as well as sharing information it may be about using digital advances to provide tools to deliver services. While 3d printing is transforming manufacture across a number of industries it could also be used by communities to provide things for themselves. An example? OK, how about being able to manufacture equipment for schools or to help people live at home independently. One community owned printer and access to the blueprints for this stuff could help self-sufficiency if (maybe when) local government is less able to provide.

Rewiring local democracy

One of the comments under the Guardian article pulled me up, quite rightly, on failing to mention the potential for democracy. And yes, the potential is there – Carl Whistlecraft and Dave McKenna are leading great work on digital democracy for LocalGov Digital right now.

I’ve no doubt that either one of them would be able to give a better summary of how digital is, and could, improve democracy at a national and local level. There’s the stuff that should be happening already (but like digital service delivery is pretty patchy when looked at across the sector as a whole) such as using digital for engagement between councillors and the electorate (let’s call them ‘people’); making it easier for people to participate with consultation and debate through opening up access; and perhaps even disrupting the current democratic model.

One of the current issues (as I see it) is with apathy towards democracy. People aren’t motivated to participate until something directly impacts on their life, and then they may not know how to best get their voice heard. Perhaps digital provides an opportunity for local government to be proactive on getting people involved in democratic processes before that individual pressure point is reached? Perhaps greater use of game thinking in participatory process is one way democracy could be improved?

A pretty vague idea from me but one I’m sure Carl and Dave can look at through the work they’re doing – get involved in their Digital Democracy Discovery days to explore this area of local government further.


Is this all just visions from an idealist? Maybe. For me local government has a few challenges to overcome if any of this has a chance to become reality – the biggest two (IMO) are to escape analogue processes and proprietary systems which immobilise development and suck up wodges of cash; and dreaming bigger to make innovation a part of the every day, by seeing opportunity in tight budgets to do things differently and better.

Read my article for the Guardian in the new Public Leaders Digital Hub and leave me a comment here or on Twitter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the sector could benefit from digital advances – I’ll leave it to your discretion whether you temper your future gazing with reality!

3 thoughts on “Back to the Future – going deeper into how digital advances could transform local government

  1. Thanks for this Sarah – and the link to the Gdn piece which I’d missed. Good to read something positive, after I saw a presentation last week from SOCITM which left me fairly low about the overall state of local government websites. The evidence shown was damning, little progress even in success with basic tasks (and yes, I accept that a thorough analysis of the overall methodology of their review is probably worth a whole raft of other blog posts).
    It seemed fairly accepted by the audience that a GOV.UK style solution would simply never work in the loval gov context – simply too complex, too many legacy systems and complete lack of political will, This jarred with me, as there were similar feelings in the centre, and look where we are now.
    While I recognise the easy arguments about ideas that were put forward in the past – eg centralised visions of websites that were not flexible enough to meet the urban/rural differing needs, the SOCITM report showed that there are also some massively common needs – and I was left feeling if only some of these could be met, that would leave individual teams to tackle unique or specialised needs.
    So – a long comment – but I really hope some of the ideas explored in your piece dont go the way of websites – and residents are left with a postcode lottery as to whether their council learns from and reuses the best, or doggedly goes it alone, re-inventing the wheel for everything and spending/wasting lots of money.

  2. Some great ideas here Sarah, perhaps the best being “the electorate – let’s call them people”.

    The idea for community-owned 3D printers is already being trialled in the form of FabLabs http://www.fablabsuk.co.uk/ There is one in Sheffield if you want to have a look http://refab-space.org/w/doku.php

    Here is something I wrote 2 years ago now, but still relevant I think, about digital and engaging people in local democracy http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com/2012/03/the-hyperlocal-jeremy-paxmans-are-out-there-we-just-need-to-find-them/ And I know the likes of Sharon O’Dea and James Cattell are working on #votecamp

  3. Thanks John – I wasn’t aware of the FabLabs trials so will check it out!

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