Local councils 'cannot afford to stand still’ on transforming public services

Inevitable socio-economic economic challenges ahead means local councils “cannot afford to stand still” when it comes to delivering and transforming public services, said Tony Travers, Director of The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and visiting professor in the Department of Government. 

Addressing a packed room of local authorities at the TechnologyOne conference in London last week, Travers said: “with ongoing cuts to local government budgets, a growing population and rising public expectations for better services, there is an urgent need for local councils to ‘invest to save’ and to deploy existing resources even more effectively. This means a greater focus on efficiency through innovation and technology.”

Despite the gloomy socio-economic outlook, Travers reflected on how well local councils have navigated major spending pressures over the past thirteen years. He pointed out that public confidence in local government has remained “remarkably” high in spite of recent headwinds. "Data shows that local government has managed to sustain a high level of public satisfaction with its services - significantly more so than other parts of government." 

A report by the LSE shows that since the pandemic, public trust in local government and feelings of local unity have remained higher than at national level. Just a minority have doubted the competence of their local council, and distrust in local MPs has also remained low (around 33% to 36%) throughout 2020 and 2021. 

Travers explained that local councils have been able to achieve significant productivity improvements in recent years by creating more efficient working practices, including greater use of technology and data to understand the local ecosystem and the adoption of AI and Machine Learning to interact more effectively with the public.

“There’s been a big leap forward there in terms of accessing and delivering local services online like collecting taxation, and so on. Most importantly, there’s been a database understanding of service spending drivers and the capacity for learning about new technology like AI has dramatically increased.”

However, Travers warned that with more spending cuts on the horizon, local governments cannot rest here: “they cannot afford to stand still…the pressure on spending is not going to go away and the challenge facing local government is that there is virtually no chance of revenue expenditure returning to its pre 2010 level.”

Against this backdrop, he said local authorities are "going to have to look at improving innovation and efficiency from year to year," with technology as a key driver of improving access to the public while reducing costs.  

“I think we'll see an increased use of technology and data to ensure efficient links between the public and the providers, as well as a  better understanding of cost drivers to improve the understanding of the local ecosystem. Getting that ecosystem to work more efficiently will be hugely important in order to make sure people who are getting what they want out of public services are going to have a voice.”

Travers noted that cybersecurity remains a major challenge. A number of local councils in recent weeks have been the target of online attacks, which significantly affect public access to their services and to delivery, he explained.

Leveraging public trust 

Faced with these challenges and opportunities, Travers reflected on the potential for local governments to leverage public confidence and new technology like AI to “reimagine” more efficient ways to deliver services: “it’s about finding a way to do more with less.”

“People have a lot of trust in local government and they value council services. This means there is a huge opportunity here for local councils to develop new approaches to meet these inevitable changes and challenges.”

He concluded: “My final final thoughts on this is that local councils are much better at this than the rest of government. If you look at what has been achieved in the last 30 years, it is clear that local authorities remain incredibly resilient and incredibly capable.” 

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