The growth of digital technology in the last few decades is unprecedented, leading to a new age of digital inclusion.
Never before has it been easier to communicate with the other side of the world in less than a minute, undertake financial transactions in just a matter of seconds and order fruit with just the touch of a few buttons. That these operations can save valuable time, cost less money, and alleviate pressure should all be heralded as the achievements of this generation.
The challenges that technological expansion brings with it should not be underestimated. From a heightened suspicion of electronic fraud to the increased threat of global terrorism, technological growth is also something that can be easily subverted. Utilising technology is like driving a car; if you go recklessly crashing everywhere, it just isn’t going to work.
I spent eight incredible weeks researching and compiling the evidence-base for a local authority digitalisation agenda. Local councils administer numerous enquiries every week. This is incredible as it comes against a backdrop of local government pressure to streamline resources, commercialise services, and to create even more value for money.
The underpinning philosophy which grounds all of this is the claim that there is no such thing as government money – that each pound that they spend represents a pound that individuals have paid over for services that benefit them and their communities.
Traditionally, local government economics has been viewed as the allocation of quantifiable financial resources between different departments. In response to reductions in central government funding, this role has been partly reformed and extended.
Now, councils are also responsible for revenue creation and generating inward investment. Through identifying gaps in the market, they are now given more responsibility to develop new revenue streams. This requires a great deal of know-how.
There are two primary strategies that can be employed to enable this transition to be undertaken more effectively. Firstly, there is the process of commissioning where outside services and agencies are invited to compete for a ‘commission’ to provide community facilities on behalf of local residents. This can range from park management to waste and refuse collection, as well as human resources and computer security. The benefit of this is that local authorities pay one lump sum to the agency which undertakes the work, rather than for the facilities and staff on a closer basis. As a result, finances become more streamlined, and expenses become even more reasonable.
The second process is that of digitalisation and online expansion. Developing upon the theme of self-help, this puts an incentive upon the shoulders of local people to undertake operations online or over the phone. This includes paying for council tax, applying for housing benefit, renewing business licenses, and reporting fly tipping. This approach seeks to make the best out of modern technology whilst also embedding a sense of active citizenship within the local community.
There are individuals who require additional support in undertaking some more complex operations. Where this is required, an appropriate level of help should be available. This should not, however, deter the development of self-service mechanisms from happening. An approach whereby individuals are provided the tools to help themselves is one which could have very beneficial outcomes for all.
Organisations that use a web-chat feature as part of their digital offer can enable individuals to ‘go online’ for help rather than resort to more traditional contact mechanisms. Through a process which embeds citizens into the online world, and offers guidance on utilising technology, individuals become familiar with digital settings. In turn, they develop a sense of online independence.
This transition towards technological inclusion is one which is implicitly attached to the theme of social justice. By improving digital infrastructure, and enabling individuals to have a ‘buy’ into the digital world, they develop a sense of ownership and digital identify. In turn, this has the potential to enhance social well-being and community cohesion.
Simultaneously, embarking on a journey which moves an organisation’s digital offer beyond the realms of online advertising towards online engagement and participation embeds individuals within their outreach. The outcome of this is that they are not only enabled to locate information online, but are empowered to engage in a digital democracy. They can have an active presence in shaping an organisation’s operations and activities.
The third and public sectors will indefinitely depend upon individuals to help enhance their local communities. Nonetheless, using technology to empower individuals to take an active role in shaping policy, and serving themselves, is just one example of how communities can be sustained in an unprecedentedly fragmented society.