The high-tech council
Despite the terrible financial settlement imposed on us by the government, Brent is aiming to be the most technologically cutting-edge authority in the public sector and is helping its residents, despite the draconian cuts, to overcome the digital divide and embrace technology so that it saves the council money but also helps residents upskill into employment opportunities that are arising in the digital world.
Speaking in September David Cameron praised local councils ‘for what they have done so far to make efficiencies without hitting frontline services. They can go on doing that.’ With statements like that you can see why it’s easy to pin the ‘out of touch’ label on him. The reality is that councils’ funding from central government will have been cut by up to 42 per cent. In comparison, Whitehall departments will have faced average reductions of 12 per cent. Council leaders have frequently warned that this pattern cannot be repeated without it having a serious impact on local services and people. Conservative Merrick Cockell, the head of the Local Government Association, warned that councils in England and Wales have ‘run out of money and the system is bust’.
In Brent we’ve made £54.6m in savings since 2010. Hundreds of staff have been lost as our Labour administration works tirelessly to transform and rationalise services while continuing to protect the most vulnerable residents of the borough. While Cameron describes the cuts as ‘modest’, Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent council, has said that ‘I do not ever recall seeing such a dreadful impact on people.’
By the end of the coalition’s five-year term in office local government will be a drastically different beast. Against such kamikaze cuts you can understand the temptation to hold up your hands in despair. Many of our Liberal Democrat opponents, not to mention Sarah Teather MP, have done exactly that, fleeing the borough or standing down.
Yet, while there are no silver bullet solutions to the near-lethal austerity being imposed on local government, there is still room for embracing innovation and, in particular, the use of new technologies to protect services. Indeed, Jon Cruddas said at an event in my ward recently that Labour-run councils are showing Labour values and ideas in action, and it is only through embracing new technologies that we will be able to continue doing so.
In Brent we’ve used a host of pioneering tools to help protect services.
The most obvious of these is the move from a series of disparate old buildings into one modern civic centre. Bringing all Brent’s staff into one place saves staff time, property and resources costs, saving up to £2.5m a year. This is the greenest council building in the UK using a combination of solar shading, natural ventilation, a high-performance façade, and a combined cooling, heating and power system which utilises waste oil.
Inside the building we’ve utilised the first-ever council hologram to help direct people around our registration and nationality service. Shanice cost a one-off payment of £12,000 – far less than would have been spent recruiting a member of staff. Our finance team has moved from a departmental model to a single integrated system to drive HR, payroll, procurement and finance onto the same platform. The civic centre has a digital postroom which scans and emails all incoming mail, saving money by removing the need to have it physically delivered across the building.
Brent council is the first authority in London to integrate Twitter with livestreaming of its meetings. The initiative, advertised with a Hollywood-style trailer, will be launched to mark Local Democracy Week this month. People watching the webcasts will be able to tweet and interact with councillors in the meeting. Importantly, this initiative is costing nothing for council taxpayers as the technology is being paid for by the hire of the civic centre for weddings and events, and will also be used to stream those events.
Connecting council business to the wider public is crucial at this time of draconian cuts. We’ve complemented the web streaming with an online budget calculator which allows people to plainly see the challenge in front of their representatives and select their priorities for future budgets. The calculator shows how future cuts equate to a 19.1 per cent hike in council tax bills although it doesn’t highlight how the 2011 Localism Act requires a referendum on any increase of over two per cent.
From community budgets and council-crowdsourced funding for individual projects to Wi-Fi enabled high streets, smartphone apps to report flytipping, Brent police using SmartWater booby traps, council computers that block payday loan websites and instead direct users to credit unions and further integration with the digital economy, there are a host of opportunities for innovation in 21st-century local government. However, the challenge for all councils is to balance planning for the medium term with short-term survival. Technology can help with both. The future for local authorities looks increasingly likely to be in facilitating considerate cooperative models rather than directly delivering large-scale services, making it all the more important that local leaders recognise the power of new technologies to rapidly increase connectivity and help formulate news ways of working.
James Denselow is a councillor and member of Brent’s executive. He tweets @cllrjdenselow
cuts, local government, technology