Scottish councils ‘recognising the potential of digital’

A new report published by Scotland’s local government spending watchdog says councils are recognising the potential of digital solutions to deliver savings and make services more efficient.

The Accounts Commission says finding savings is now “increasingly critical” for councils dealing with ongoing reductions in funding.

Councils are balancing a real terms funding cut of 9.6 per cent over the last eight years with increasing demand, particularly from a growing older population. And the local authority watchdog says that councils need to clearly set out the impact budget reductions are having so they can plan for the future.

The annual report looking at the challenges facing councils and how they are performing found that:

  • Some councils have maintained or improved their performance in a number of areas despite budget reductions. For example, councils are spending less on secondary schools but pupils from all backgrounds are performing better;
  • Other evidence suggests that budget cuts are having a negative impact, with public satisfaction falling in areas such as refuse collection, street cleaning and libraries;
  • Adult social care services are not keeping up with demand, with older people facing long waits for an assessment of their needs and a further wait to receive their care package;
  • Some services have borne the brunt of funding reductions. For example, planning department staff numbers have been cut by over 20 per cent in the last decade, and environmental staff by eight per cent between 2016 and 2017.

Under the current funding formula, some councils face receiving less cash from government as their total population falls but the number of old people – and associated demand for services – increases. Without service redesign or policy changes councils could be spending nearly 80 per cent of their budgets on education and social work alone by 2025/26.


Digital transformation

The report says that digital solutions are a key element of most councils’ transformation activity, especially when considering how technologies and solutions are affecting and changing human interactions and delivering efficiency savings.

Councils are incorporating digital solutions in a variety of ways. As councils become more mature users of digital, they are adopting more innovative ways of integrating digital into how they deliver services.

Many councils are pursuing greater efficiency by integrating digital into how they deliver their services. For example, the Moray Council reports it has made its housing repair service more efficient by introducing mobile working. This has cut travel time to jobs, reduced missed appointments, and allowed seven team members to be reallocated to other areas. North Ayrshire Council increased customer satisfaction from 91 per cent to 98 per cent by improving the digital channels that people can use to access services.

Elsewhere, councils are working to make their digital infrastructure more efficient. This involves joining up systems and data that are held by different services and creating systems that are able to share data. Aberdeen City Council, for example, has developed a digital transformation programme that prioritises these tasks. One of the anticipated outcomes of this programme is that customers will only have to provide information once to the council, and this information will automatically update data already held by the organisation.


Awareness of digital exclusion

The report does however warn that councils need to balance improving digital access to services with an awareness that not everyone can access or operate digital technologies. Others will be limited in how they can access digital technology; for example, some may only have access to the internet using their mobile phone. Limited access to digital technology is most likely to affect vulnerable and excluded groups. Digital should not become the only way to access council services, but it should be an efficient and easy option of communication for those who choose to use it.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Graham Sharp, chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “Councils are facing the major challenge of reducing costs, maintaining services for an ageing population and putting significant policy and legislative change into practice – all at a time of increasing uncertainty.

“They have done a lot to manage the impact of budget reductions, but with forecast funding gaps higher than current levels of reserves for some councils the delivery of savings is now increasingly critical.

“Decisive leadership, innovative thinking around service delivery, and robust planning based on community engagement is now more important than ever to ensure council services stay sustainable.”

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