Viewpoint | 22 Feb 2023

How and why local governments should use tech to improve their communities

Claire Harris, Vodafone's UK Head of Small, Medium and Enterprise Business, explains why and how local governments should embrace new technologies.

When is your next bus due? How full are your local litter bins? How clean is the air where you live? How many parking spaces are available in this part of town right now? If a council can measure something, it can improve it with data-driven services. And those services can soon be faster, more accessible to the public, more efficient and better targeted thanks to the rollout of 5G technology across the country. The promise of fully digitalised local government, offering new and better services, delivered more efficiently, in ways tailored to the needs of residents, has never been closer.

There has undoubtedly been progress, not least because of changes to the way so many of us now expect to interact with businesses and public services. A large majority of resident contact received by councils now come through online and digital channels, although some of the residents whose needs are greatest are least able to access digital technology.

Some councils are using tablets in the delivery of social care or installing smart monitoring around council and social housing. Others are using smart devices on streets and in neighbourhoods to provide key insights to improve residents’ services, such as waste management.

But some local authorities are better placed than others to make the most of the digital future, with levels of take-up and implementation of digitalisation varying widely across the country. For example, only one-in-six are currently trying out predictive analysis techniques, such as using smart bins to improve the efficiency of waste collection routes or using sensors to manage parking spaces.

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It’s easy to see why so many councils have not invested as much as they might have done in digitalisation. Local government has seen its funding from central government cut by an average of 50% over the last 12 years, and while some councils have taken this as a spur to digital innovation, not all have been in a position to invest in new technology: frontline services rightly have the first call on limited resources, even when longer-term investments can mean saving money in the future.

Lack of money is a barrier, but so is a disconnect between Whitehall and local government in terms of the incentives, organisation and guidance around digitalisation. Too often, there has been a tendency to design digitalisation guidance for central government and presume such guidance also applies to local council digitalisation. Too often, local government digital leaders are simply not involved in the development of new digital initiatives or applications.

That is why Vodafone is proposing the creation of a new layer of digital support at a regional level but above local councils: Regional Innovation and Technology Offices (RITOs), led by digital leaders with a successful track record in local government who could help to guide the rollout of full fibre and full 5G infrastructure.

'We must build 5G in rural as well as urban areas'

In a version of an article that first appeared on Mobile UK's website, Vodafone Network Director Andrea Dona argues that 5G offers great potential in rural areas as well as in towns and cities, and calls for legislators and regulators to adopt a more investment-friendly approach.

But there’s no point pretending that money isn’t a critical part of the solution. And so, we are also proposing a new central pot, the Local Government Digitalisation Fund, to which councils could apply to carry out specific digital projects. Combined with 5G investment plans created by each council, and a central target for 5G local government rollout, this could go a long way towards closing the adoption gap between public and private sectors on 5G private networks and the wide variety of new opportunities they create. And encouraging pre-engagement between local government and commercial suppliers can help to ensure that services are properly focused on residents and their needs, not just on tech for tech’s sake.

Getting this right now won’t just help councils improve their services for residents. By helping them to predict and pre-empt problems, investing in digitalisation can create efficiency savings in the years ahead. At a time when all budgets are under pressure, thinking about the long term – about whether our councils are fully exploiting the potential of data, and about what we want local government to look like in the decades to come – is more important than ever.

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