Squaring the circle: saving public services in an era of spending cuts
By Natalie Duffield
The numbers don’t lie. Central government funding for local authorities fell by more than 50 per cent between 2010-11 and 2020-21. At the same time, demand for key services such as social care has risen. Some councils are spending up to 80 per cent of their core funding on these services, . Yet there is still unmet need. How on earth do you square this circle, so vicious in its human costs?
The answer can be found in innovation. In this blog for techUK’s Local Public Services Innovation Week, I will illustrate how this can be achieved through collaboration and procurement by using the example of digital connectivity. These can spread the adoption of smart new technologies to help tackle the social and economic challenges exposed by a decade of spending cuts.
With public finances coming under sustained pressure, it is unsurprising that many local authorities will be looking to the cheapest option when they come to procure broadband services. Cost is of course an important consideration but it is not everything. Councils will have their own digital strategies and these will be at different levels of maturity but gigabit broadband will soon become essential infrastructure and should absolutely be seen as an investment rather than a cost.
This is where collaboration comes in. Networks were never intended for single users. The more users they have, the stronger they become. Local authorities occupy central positions in the communities they serve. They act as conveners in bringing people and organisations together. A network offering ultrafast connectivity has the power to unite everybody living and working in a place and deliver public sector and private sector services in imaginative new ways.
A gigabit network for a town and city has multiple potential uses: it can supply free data to the disadvantaged to help close the digital divide; it can power digital health services for the NHS and help clear the backlog; it can help tech entrepreneurs to grow companies and create jobs; it can drive smart waste collection (why collect a bin if it’s only half empty?); it can improve traffic flow and reduce congestion and pollution; it can connect pupils with classrooms and employees with workplaces; it can enable cashless payments for retail and leisure businesses and it can enhance safety and efficiency with real-time street lighting.
Growing numbers of people are fully engaged with the digital world. According to Ofcom, at least 94 per cent of households have internet access. More and more aspects of life are migrating online – we work and play in pixels. People expect public services to be online where the rest of their lives are. That’s why local authorities need to invest in future-proof digital infrastructure like that can quickly enable innovation. They can collaborate with partners in the public and private sector with a need for speed to build business cases for the procurement of new networks.
For local authorities themselves, the opportunities are many. Investing in a gigabit network can increase efficiency and productivity within town and city halls, liberating employees from time-consuming paper-based processes so they can focus on more meaningful work. The digitisation of many public-facing services can also have benefits. Digital public services are available 24-7, cost less money to deliver and save time for citizens, according to management consultancy McKinsey.
The pandemic turbocharged the take-up of remote work, remote education and remote healthcare. But with average UK download speeds of barely 50 megabits per second, we have barely scratched the surface of what’s capable with emerging technologies. The large providers are building out gigabit-capable fibre networks but the process is painfully slow and the government has had to revise down manifesto commitments for full coverage. The promised that gigabit broadband would be available nationwide by 2030.
There is an opportunity cost for towns and cities and their citizens and businesses in waiting the best part of a decade for the advantages of ultrafast digital connectivity. In the meantime, demand for key public services is only going in one direction. Communities can’t afford to be left behind. Local authorities have the power to act by investing in forward-facing digital infrastructure that’s available here and now.
Natalie Duffield is CEO of WeLink Communications, a gigabit-capable wireless broadband provider, and vice chair of techUK’s Local Public Services Committee