Pull together a room full of tech specialists, from across the public and private sector, and a surprising theme emerges. ‘I hate technology. That is my dilemma every day of the week.’ There is a surprising level of consensus in the room when the declaration is made.
We are at the London headquarters of recruitment firm Penna for a round table on digital and IT. ‘I have a slight fear that the movie Terminator is not a film at all but a documentary from the future,’ one debater quips.
Another declares himself a ‘technophobe’ rather than a ‘technologist’ – he is less interested in IT for the sake of it, and more interested in what it can do for people. It is the crux of the issue for everyone round the table.
Local government – along with everyone else – is facing the fast pace of digital change and often struggles to keep up. You need to be ‘agile and adaptive’, and you need to accept there is no ‘finite’ investment in a tech system that will tick all the boxes so you can move on to something else. It is evolving, ‘a journey with no destination’.
In contrast, one debater suggests that when they started in local government they would create a short-term plan, a medium-term plan and a long-term plan. ‘With austerity, we are looking one year ahead at most.’
‘We need to work in a digital, agile universe, but instead we are still working in a Victorian way,’ one of our guests opines. He cites the example of the London underground. We use the creaking historical infrastructure when ‘we should have a 21st century metro system’.
Trying to re-engineer existing IT systems and infrastructure is not ideal. As one of our technologists says: ‘We are repairing the engine when we are still doing 70 mph down the motorway.’
Building the infrastructure needed to support technology will require leadership and no one is taking charge. Lots of authorities are individually spending money, but not creating anything that can be ‘scaled up’.
‘Where is the leadership from Governments?’ someone queries.
When it comes to their own technology, organisations – both public and private, are often no better. So caught up in what they are doing, they often fail to consider what they are actually trying to achieve. One debaters suggests websites are tested by ‘someone who is nine and someone who is 90’ to check they are functioning properly.
While developers should be focused on the function, they are often caught up in ‘making sure it looks sexy’, we hear. And the vision from the top is not always as clear as it should be. ‘When a chief executive announces they are going digital, they have no idea what that means’ it is claimed.
Local government is not alone in this. There are equal issues with the private sector.
‘I’ve worked in a number of private corporations,’ one of our guests says. ‘It is the same as the public sector in that it is obsessed by uniqueness. Standardise, standardise, standardise! Standardisation will unlock so much.’
At a time when we have all gone through the pain of GDPR, one technologist suggests he has ‘worked with so many data standards over the years…you can always find one to do what you want.’
While people are fearful of data use, in reality it is not the data that is the problem but the people who make decisions about it. It is suggested: ‘Lots of people don’t trust data but it is about getting people to use it and let them feel in control.’
But in the era of austerity, local authorities need to think about monetising the vast mine of data they own. ‘When local authorities think about monetisation,’ we hear, ‘they think “we will build a building and rent it out”. We have an asset we can mine.’
Ethics are an issue, but not for everything. ‘It depends on how we use the data. If you are using my data in a way that is not threatening me, I don’t mind. That’s something the sector is up for, but it has got to be transparent with the public. We have to be clear about how personal it gets.’
Then there is the reliability. ‘There is an underlying level of toxicity in every data set – public and private. You have to put a line in the sand – start today with clean data.’
Perhaps the biggest issue facing local authorities is the mind set. ‘We are still not learning from our mistakes. We need a culture change,’ it is claimed. ‘We need a different set of people and we need to let them flourish.’
When it comes to staff, it is a male-dominated sector – but it is ageing too. Talent retention is tough, with the average tenure of a data protection officer – a role that is in demand – at just nine months.
‘All institutions are remarkably similar, whether they are corporations or public sector. For every good person you bring in who is willing to learn and grow, there are individuals in the institution who don’t want to change. They are the natural handbrakes to change.’
But whether they like it or not, technological change is here to stay.