Every year at this time writers ease themselves back into the blogging routine by putting on their Mystic Meg cloaks and looking forward to the coming year in an effort to predict the big things that might or might not happen. Most then hope that these are quietly forgotten about so that their rash forecasts and unrealised ideas aren’t brought up in twelve months’ time.
It is therefore with some trepidation that I present my own 12 predictions for 2015 with regards to how technology might affect local government. Please don’t hold it against me in 2016…
The Internet of Things
This term has sprung up over recent years, and has been used to describe everything from fridges which top themselves up to bins which report when they are full. The basic concept is to turn otherwise ‘dumb’ devices into smart ones by introducing sensors which talk to a central system and direct actions based on simple rules; were this to be rolled out at scale the possibilities are enormous.
However, this involves a significant amount of investment up front in order to realise these benefits, investment which is not likely in these times of austerity. Councils might love to have a network of street lights which automatically order repairs without the need for people to report them, but the reality is that they can’t yet afford them. Until someone comes up with an argument to demonstrate that a connected network of dumb devices will save significantly more than the cost to smarten them up, our neighbourhoods will remain stupid for now.
Wearable tech will still be searching for a niche
Everyone loves the idea of one piece of wearable tech or another, be it the sensors in your watch which check your health or simply the belt you wear which knows when it should loosen itself. Trouble is, at the more sophisticated end of the scale (which is getting all of the press) it feels very much like a technological development searching for a market.
Wearable tech holds the potential to improve the health and fitness of its wearers significantly and may therefore lead to real savings for not just local government but also the wider public service. Doctors would be able to know in real time whether the medication they prescribed was working, or call people in for a check-up based on their data. The trouble is, the only people buying these and using them in the way intended are those who already have a more than passing interest in health and fitness, the last people who will lead to increased financial savings. 2015 will see software developers stretching some of the things that these wearable devices can do but will not see them taken up by the mainstream despite the benefits they could lead to.
Open data will continue to quietly become the norm
2014 saw the launch of a range of open formats for the information published on gov.uk, something which was more important than many people give it credit for. Open data seems to be one of those things which everyone sees as good but few see as urgent in terms of priorities; as long as it’s on the internet in some format or other it’s fine. As more and more departments are effectively coerced into releasing their information using open formats, more and more clever people will be able to take this information and do more and more interesting and useful things with it.
Gov.uk Verify will take off
In case you missed it, GDS did another brilliant thing towards the end of 2014 when they launched Verify, the new way in which they are able to verify who you are online (do you see what they did there with the name? I told you they were clever…). It doesn’t try to get you to create yet another account and profile – instead it allows you to add a few bits of information and then it quizzes other verified and trusted sources to check that what you have said matches up. It’s so solid that it’s even allowing users to renew their passports online, something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Local government has always struggled with the field of verifying identities online; some are doing it well through the creation of master accounts with the council, though few of these are able (yet) to allow all of the myriad legacy systems to talk directly to these accounts. For those which are facing real problems, particularly around some more sensitive information, Verify may well be the way to go, and 2015 could see the first few councils taking this route.
Council websites will start to look better
For some reason, a huge number of council websites look like they are some form of strange homage to web design of the 90s; lots (and lots) of text, a couple of square pictures in frames, boxes containing everything and a colour palate that makes a nursery class wish for a little more subtlety.
Modern users expect every site they use to be comparable in terms of quality of look and feel, regardless of the scale or sector of the organisation behind it. 2015 will start to see more local authorities realising that a website needn’t be bland and boring to look at; form and function can in fact go hand in hand. Hopefully we’ll start to move away from these awful layouts and on to something which looks much, much better and more welcoming on screen. And that’s all screens, not just those on a desktop.
Attack of the Drones
There have been countless stories over the past year of how drones are going to change everything. I don’t think they are going to personally, at least not in the short term. I’ve seen too many science fiction dreams dashed on the rocks of reality to get my hopes up.
I do however see a number of uses for them in local government circles, particularly around enforcement. A drone with a camera, operated by a trained council officer, could be invaluable in enforcement inspections when access to a site is restricted. Want to know whether a waste company is complying with storage requirements but can’t see over their fence? Send in the drones! Want to get some birds eye views of a construction site? Drones are the answer! This year will see at least one council break out their remote controls and take to the skies.
Digital High Streets will become a thing
I’ve written in the past about how councils might be able to help local businesses get more digital and online, and now that business rates can be retained this may well give councils the extra incentive they need to take this more seriously. With a huge and ever increasing amount spent by consumers online it’s vital that as many local SMEs as possible get in the game.
2015 will see a couple of big schemes start looking at this and actually making it happen. And if they don’t, then they should; consider the gauntlet thrown down.
Criminals go where the money is, and this is no different online. In the past, cyber criminals have attacked institutions which hold financial information about people with the aim of accessing credit card information and spending big. In this day and age though there is something which is becoming increasingly valuable: data.
Councils may not hold much in the way of financial information but they hold an awful lot of data about individuals. In the past this would only be lost if it was left on a train on a memory stick; these days all that’s needed is a web connection. As more and more systems link up, hackers will increasingly become more interested in the data held within council systems and how they might exploit it: perhaps 2015 will see the first major hack of a council database?
Video meetings will become more common
Everyone is familiar with Skype, one of the underrated wonders of the digital world, and how it can make communication so much easier. Why then do we insist on limiting communication within councils to the spoken or written word?
Slowly but surely, council hardware and infrastructure is improving and opening up to allow video conferencing facilities to be viable; I've used it myself to have meetings with a council already. Councils will begin to encourage the use of video conferencing internally as a way of both improving communication as well as saving money and time on people travelling between meetings in different buildings.
Caring about sharing
Social sharing sites such as Airbnb – the site helping people find accommodation around the world – have very quickly become big, big business. To date these have met with mixed reactions from authorities; some have studiously ignored it, while others (most notably New York) have aggressively challenged its practices and the rules it may potentially be breaking.
As these sites continue to grow we will begin to see them rub up against some of the rules inherent in local government in the UK, around licensing, permitting and such like. I’ve no idea on which side the coin will land, but I expect some initial challenges to be made around how they operate.
The ongoing rise of mobile
The work I’ve been doing recently looking at council websites shows a trend we will all be familiar with – mobile is growing. Almost a third of some council sites are already accessed from mobiles, a figure which has been rising for several years and which shows no sign of slowing down. There are more smartphones in the UK than people, and increasingly their users are expecting to be able to access any and all council services and information online.
While I think 50% might be a bit too rapid a change, I can certainly see a number of local authorities pushing the 40% mark when it comes to accessing sites via mobiles.
3D or not 3D
At every gathering of innovative minds and unconference over the last few years, at least one room has been used to discuss 3D printers and the amazing potential they hold. Technology in this field has come a long, long way since the early days, with examples of surgeons printing fake versions of hearts to study before operations and tools being e-mailed to the International Space Station and printed off rather than sent up by rocket.
Local government is yet to find a practical use for this technology. However, as costs continue to fall and quality continues to rise, 2015 may see the first signs of a change in this area. Perhaps it will be street light repair vans being able to print parts on demand rather than going back to base to collect them, or on demand production of wheelie bins saving bulk purchasing and storage costs; there’s bound to be a handful of practical, viable uses for this amazing kit. Isn’t there?!
So that’s my twelve predictions for 2015. Some are big, some are small, but at least one of these will come true over the year, and if more than one does then I’m changing my official job title to Nostradamus.
As I mentioned last week I am a big fan of the LGIU briefings. One of the elements they provide is a useful summary of local stories regarding local government cuts in specific areas. A few months ago I started wondering whether the fact that these stories were in the briefing every day was inoculating me to their impact.
And so, in a moment of randomness, I decided to start saving any stories that related to cuts to local authority budgets. I only did it for a couple of months (October to December) but the below stories are from the key budget period as proposals tend to be shared with the public in the autumn time.
I recognise that these are also a limited selection of pieces from a smallish amount of councils and also are just one year’s announcements from a half decade of austerity but I hope that by presenting them in this way they demonstrate a pattern of cuts and some attached detail that perhaps hasn’t been presented in this way so far.
I’ve also included a couple of stories presenting the other side of the story – I guess the bureaucrat in me can’t stand to only present one side of the argument!
I’m not sure if this is interesting or helpful but I find seeing the reality of the cuts around the country a useful reminder of the reality of the savings.
Birmingham to cut jobs
More than 6,000 jobs are to be cut at Birmingham City Council in the next three years, including over half of the posts at its new £189m library. By 2018 it expects its workforce to be down to 7,000 compared with 20,000 in 2010. Sir Albert Bore, council leader, said the authority had already been cut to the bone and was "now scraping away" at the bones themselves.
The Times, Page: 4 The Birmingham Post, Page: 3 The Guardian, Page: 3
Jobs at risk at Isle of Wight Council
According to the BBC, more than 150 jobs could be lost at Isle of Wight Council which is looking to reduce its net spending by £13.5m in the next financial year. The council said it would consider job sharing, reduced hours, flexible retirement, voluntary retirement and voluntary redundancy "to keep compulsory redundancies to a minimum".
Cornwall approves savings plan
Cornwall Council has approved a four-year budget strategy aimed at cutting spending by nearly £200m. The full 123-seat council approved the strategy, designed to save £196m between 2015-2019, on Tuesday. The cabinet previously said the council had to make cuts as government spending squeezes were continuing and demand for services was growing.
Cardiff Council plans consultation
Cardiff Council is planning to consult with the public on proposals to save more than £48m. The seven week consultation begins today and lasts until January 12. The council is considering axing jobs, cutting leisure and park services, and ending funding for the city’s New Year celebration.
Cardiff council warned of “devastating” cuts
Unison has warned Cardiff council that the £32m in cuts it has planned will have “devastating consequences”, and has refused to rule out industrial action. Regional organiser Steve Belcher said: "It's never something we would wish for but ultimately sometimes it's something we have to look at", but stressed that the union has not yet given up on a deal. Cardiff is trying to plug a £48m budget shortfall; it is aiming to make £5m savings through over 20 potential redundancies, along with £7.9m trimmed from the health and social care budget.
Councils build up reserves of £2.3bn
According to analysis conducted by the FT, England’s councils have built up extra reserves of £2.3bn in the last financial year despite the coalition's austerity programme. The paper says local authorities have saved money partly through the loss of half a million staff since 2010 - about a sixth of the total - in contrast to minimal net job losses in central government. Before the last financial year England's 444 local authorities predicted they would have to eat into their reserves by £1.2bn. Instead they increased their total reserves by £2.3bn to £23.7bn in the 12 months to last April, according to data from the DCLG. Communities secretary Eric Pickles said: “Local authorities should of course maintain a healthy cushion when balancing the books, but such substantial reserves are completely unnecessary. They should be tapped into to protect frontline services." A separate article in the same paper details the cuts Harrow council has made since 2010-11. Elsewhere, the Guardian reports that the Treasury has asked senior officials at Whitehall to draw up details of how an extra £25-£30bn in public spending cuts could be imposed a year after the next general election.
Lancashire must make extra savings of £15m
Lancashire County Council has said it must make an extra £15m of savings because of increased costs and demand on services.
Services at risk
Libraries, parks and leisure centres could come under threat as councils are forced to consider unprecedented cuts to prevent the elderly care system collapsing, according to a study by the Local Government Association. An analysis of council budgets concludes that the amount of cash available for services other than adult social care and bin collection will fall by almost half by the end of this decade, as local authorities attempt to keep up with the needs of an ageing population. The LGA study predicts a £4.3bn black hole in social care budgets. The report estimates that the projected shortfall is the equivalent of almost a third of the current budget for adult social care in England. It predicts that the effects could be felt as early as next year when basic services may have to be "scaled back significantly" as councils try to balance the books while implementing reforms of the care system. The study calculates that local authorities have seen their overall funding effectively reduced by 40% since the beginning of the austerity measures in 2010.
Dorset council merge could save £6m
If West Dorset DC, North Dorset DC, Weymouth BC and Portland BC were to merge – as proposed – and share one executive and senior management team, up to £6m could be saved, according to the BBC.
Jobs and services at risk
The BBC reports that Cumbria County Council is considering cutting 1,800 jobs over the next three years as it looks to make savings of £83m. Meanwhile, Coventry City Council has warned of “unprecedented” cuts to services as it attempts to tackle a predicted £65m budget shortfall by 2018. The council expects to publish detailed plans of how jobs and services will be affected, later this year. Finally, Birmingham City Council has said that pest control and school crossing services may be cut as it looks to make £150m of savings in the next financial year.
Council jobs at risk
The BBC reveals that a number of councils are considering making job cuts to save money. Dudley Council has warned it could cut 300 jobs as it looks to save £57m over the next three years; Calderdale Council will cut up to 200 jobs by 2016 in a bid to save £40m; and more than 200 jobs could be lost at Middlesbrough Council next year as it attempts to axe £14m from its budget.
Gwynedd moves to three-weekly bin collection
The Mail reports that households in Gwynedd yesterday became the first in Wales to have some of their bins emptied on a three-weekly basis. Gwynedd Council approved the plan in April and claimed that the move would save it £350,000 a year as well as reducing landfill waste and encouraging recycling. Only general household rubbish is being switched to three-weekly collection. Food waste and recyclable products will still be collected weekly.
Daily Mail, Page: 27
Residents consulted on spending plans
Residents arebeing asked to take part in an online survey on priorities as East Riding Council plans further cost-cutting to save £54m in the next four years. Elsewhere, the Guardian reports that Durham County Council has devised a game for residents to play at public consultations. Designed to mimic the Monopoly board, the game is about cutting rather than spending money, and encourages players to find £100m-worth of savings to council services out of the budget of £400m.
Senior posts to be cut
The BBC reports that Lancashire County Council plans to cut more than 150 senior jobs in a bid to save money. The 157 posts, up to executive director level, will save the council £11.4m each year as part of its staff restructuring programme. The council says it has to save £300m over the next four years because of central government budget cuts.
The LGIU Daily Briefing is a valuable resource for local government officers and I try to make time to read it every day. Most days I find it a useful source of context and stories; some relevant to work and some just stored away in the memory bank for future reference.
Last week however, the briefing made me angry. The offending article was as follows:
Councillors fail to pay taxes
Spelthorne Council has admitted that six of its elected members have not paid their council tax for three years. The six, who cannot be identified due to the Data Protection Act, have fallen behind with their payments since 2011.
The Daily Telegraph, Page: 5
I know that councillors not paying their council tax is a fairly well-worn story beloved of local journalists but it is no less shocking even for its regularity. Plus, and more important in this context, I live in Spelthorne and as a local resident and taxpayer am just a little pi55ed off about that my local councillors have the bare faced cheek to not pay their taxes.
I know this is probably obvious but let me explain the reasons for my outrage:
1) The council sends me demands for me to pay my taxes. These demands come from decisions made by the council, as in the councillors. What right do they have to demand money from me if they are not paying it themselves
2) Surely people are elected as councillors because they care about local services. And if you care about council services how can you then not pay the taxes that fund those services? Anyone who would act in that way is probably not the sort of person who I want to represent me and to be honest I’m not even sure why they would bother to stand if they would act in this way?
3) They get paid by the council for being a councillor. At the very least the two could offset?
4) There is no punishment for not paying their taxes
5) I have no idea who it is who is not paying their taxes and thus I can’t vote against them.
Add all that together and you can understand why I am a little miffed.
What is more on a personal level I just don’t understand how someone elected as a councillor could have so little concern for the probity we expect of ordinary members of the public, let alone councillors, and could act like this. I know we want normal people with normal problems to be councillors but I think this is one expectation that is eminently reasonable.
There is, in my mind, a simple solution to this; if councillors fall behind with their tax they should be barred from taking part in any council meetings until their account is settled. We could also publicise the ‘banned’ list (which I hope would be empty) at the start of every meeting. It’s easy to do and I can’t imagine any member of the public objecting to it.
In fact with an election coming up does anyone want to join me in proposing this as something for the party manifestos?