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Camden’s Theo Blackwell wants devolution to be ‘smart’ and ‘digital’

David Bicknell Published 20 September 2016

Council’s Cabinet member warns of “missed opportunity” for reform but notes all of devolution deals signed off so far mention data-sharing, “a crucial component of joined-up services”


Camden Council’s Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth Theo Blackwell has called for a “fuller and more meaningful discussion about digital transformation” in the context of devolving power from Whitehall to local and regional government.

In a detailed blog post , the influential Blackwell recounted his examination of the available devolution deals and how digital change is being addressed in them.

He found that the devolution deals tended not to have a strong or coherent digital proposition. He said, “This is not to say that the individual authorities negotiating deals lack digital capability or vision?—?some of them lead the country in innovation in data, transformation or support for the digital economy—rather, that digital has not been central to devolution discussions between Whitehall and Town Hall so far.”

He argued that this is a “missed opportunity”, and went on to suggest that granding more powers to cities and regions   needs to be “smart devolution”.

“Digital transformation (using digital technology to redesign and rebuild services to be simpler, clearer and faster for people to use) is increasingly critical to effective public service delivery: developing services designed around user need; saving money by increasing automation and reducing duplication; and allowing government and the public to see how effective interventions are and what level of government is most appropriate to solve problems (subsidiarity).

“An understanding of how digital is changing the economy is fundamental to growth, another concern of local government. If these objectives are to be delivered, then city and regional mayors will need new tools, teams and thinking to match their new powers,” he said.

Blackwell pointed out that the government has agreed devolution deals all across the country. The devolution deal with Greater Manchester has been “further extended” and there are also deals with Cornwall, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, North East, Merseyside City Region, the West Midlands, West of England, East Anglia and Greater Lincolnshire. Meanwhile, devolution in London is covered both by agreements between Whitehall and City Hall, as well as between boroughs and the Mayor and is a work in progress.

Blackwell admits that there is no requirement for “devolution deals” to consider digital. Indeed, as Blackwell says, the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) insists deals should not be ‘top-down’ or prescriptive, but an expression of local needs as agreed with Whitehall.

Looking at what the deals do and don’t say on digital transformation, Blackwell points out that digital transformation as a term is not specifically mentioned in any of the deals.  Indeed the deals also “fall short”, in Blackwell’s view, on expressing ambitions around common standards, digital governance arrangements or anything more than a general assurance around integration.

“The suspicion here is that where deals do talk about sharing or ‘joining-up’ they are really talking a language of administrative decentralisation rather than digital change.

“But let’s start with a real positive: all of the deals signed off so far do mention data-sharing, a crucial component of joined-up services, in one way or another. These are expressed either specifically in relation to government departments such as the DWP or DH/NHS or more generally. Statements of ambition and delivery, compared to other areas (skills, housing) are relatively limited.”

Blackwell points out that East Anglia‘s deal expresses an ambition for work between DWP and the Combined Authority and other partners to put in place “workable data sharing arrangements which enable the integration of services and reduce duplication in order to support more people into work.”

In perhaps the strongest articulation found so far, argues Blackwell, the deal states, “Integrating such complex services will require re-shaping the whole system, which can only be achieved through careful planning, a shared vision and strong cooperation between local partners. This Devolution Deal signals a commitment to take forward the goal of improving local services and building resilience for future generations” and plans to “explore innovative and integrated approaches to redesigning sustainable public services across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with a focus on prevention and early help.”

Blackwell argues that in practice, if data sharing is not seen as a particularly ‘top-tier’ issue by the government or the combined authorities, it may well be expressed in the future in the detail of agreements, in the form of memoranda of understanding.  For example, Manchester’s specific deal around justice requires “a more integrated approach and transformational changes in the way in which services are delivered across Greater Manchester. “

To facilitate this, a memorandum of understanding has been put in place to create “a transparent framework for achieving co-commissioning, possible delegation and potential devolution of agreed and specified justice and rehabilitation responsibilities to accountable, statutory organisations in Greater Manchester. Decision making will be underpinned by transparency and the open sharing of information between all relevant parties.”

Blackwell’s blog goes on to discuss smart cities, digital infrastructure, innovation and the digital economy, as well as  digital and workforce skills.

Looking ahead, Blackwell argues that newly elected mayors and combined authorities will need to be able to join up, analyse and act upon data from across their areas to identify the problems they seek to tackle and the service demand they aim to meet. “They need to consider how smart cities work can be progressed?—?alongside better broadband infrastructure, support for hi-tech businesses, workforce and broader digital skills.”

He added, “Devolution presents a rare opportunity to express ambitions for digital transformation and leadership. While the above account shows that deals do mention important digital transformation and technology issues, their patchwork approach is a reflection of a wider disconnect in digital leadership between Whitehall and town halls.

“It’s pretty clear that HM Treasury, the ultimate arbiter of these deals, has not placed a big emphasis on the digital agenda during negotiations,” Blackwell suggests.

He goes on to argue a key role for the government’s forthcoming digital strategy. “The existing UK Digital Strategy is now three years old and relates only to Whitehall departments. The delayed 2016 Digital Strategy should express a clear ambition for government departments and local government towards open data, data sharing, digital infrastructure, skills and the economy.

“The March 2015 budget gave GDS the remit to support local government, how this manifests itself has yet to be seen. But since then the DCLG cut the Local Digital Partnership work in March 2016, the function of which are now supported voluntarily by councils, now supported by the London Borough of Camden (the Coalition’s Action Plan articulates the views of leading authorities in this space). Compare this to Scotland where there is a clear expression of the needs for effective digital transformation from Holyrood and where they have recently appointed a chief digital officer to champion integration and a chief technology officer to oversee the operational side.”

Blackwell notes that the Mayor of London has proposed a chief digital officer for City Hall, primarily a strategic authority for the largest city in the country, to co-ordinate the digital governance across 32 London (unitary) boroughs who are responsible for the delivery of services. The question remains, Blackwell asks, ‘How exactly this will be joined up?’

He adds that while the current DCLG/HM Treasury policy is ‘resistant to prescription’ in deals, “the importance of the digital agenda is such that there is greater public interest in agreeing some common principles to accelerate reform.”

He suggests consideration of a series of points, including:

  • Every deal should also contain a political commitment for a senior elected digital leader in each area who sits on the Board.
  • New digital governance through chief digital and technology officers?—?and teams?—?should be empowered to develop deals in more detail setting out common standards and data-sharing agreements with other local public services and, by necessity, central government departments.
  • Every deal should have an aspiration for an Open Data Charter and plans which express commitment across public services operating in the region to be ‘open by default.’
  • Discovery missions to all public services with the aim of reducing/simplifying the number of IT systems to share resources and co-ordinate procurement more effectively. A future ambition here could be shared services.
  • Adopt the Local Government Service Standard and Local Digital Coalition Action Plan and commit to sharing code and interfaces with other public bodies to enable them to use our development to help them improve public services.
  • Commit to changing how vulnerable households should be supported across public services, enabled by integrated IT systems that can help remove duplication of activity and streamline casework. By joining-up information and using business intelligence tools wisely authorities will have a better chance of spotting complex needs sooner.
  • Express clearer ambitions over connectivity and Internet of Things, including how the devolved area will work with providers to shape planning policy and capital investment.

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