Labour’s Digital Government Review should kickstart delivery of the digital state

This digital transition is going to be uncomfortable for many of us.

This digital transition is going to be uncomfortable for many of us

The 18-year-olds who vote at next May’s general election will never have known a world without the internet. They will be the first voters whose secondary school years were spent with broadband internet connection seen as just another utility.

This matters, because like many others they will expect services to reflect their way of life and for much of it to be available in the palm of their hand.

As Jon Cruddas set out in his speech yesterday, and as Labour’s Digital Government Review – launched by ChiOnwurah this week – addresses, this new world requires a different, digital mindset than the one that has dominated Whitehall, Westminster and local government up until now.

Like many other cities, Liverpool has started that journey to addressing the three priorities Jon laid out of digital inclusion, open data and digital democracy.

In creating the position of Mayoral Lead for Energy and Smart City, Mayor Anderson hopes to have sent out a message that Liverpool wants to be engaged in this agenda and the digital revolution is crucial in addressing the challenges of the present day and the future.

We see this as seeking to address social challenges with better use of technology. Health, wellbeing and social care sit alongside the more traditionally digitally driven issues of transport and economic regeneration. Thankfully I am building on work colleagues have led on before me.

Digital inclusion was recognised as an issue early on. In one year, Liverpool’s ‘Go On: It’s Liverpool’ project reduced the amount of people who had never been online by over 40 per cent. It took a great deal of effort and focus from a range of organisations but it showed that with political leadership and engagement, such things can be done. Faced with 29 per cent of the city never having been online in any form, that was an excellent start but there is much more that needs doing.

It isn’t just about getting access, it is also about getting the right access. Many people now access the internet through a smart phone, but as one person said to me recently, ‘Have you ever tried to write a CV on a phone?’

Liverpool’s iNnovation Network (iN) brings togethercommissioners, service providers, user-led organisations,creatives and technologists to unpick some of the big challenges facing the delivery of quality health and social care services in the face of drastic coalition budget cuts.

We held the UK’s first Adult Social Care Hack day and Unconference. A Liverpool company (Red Ninja) has developed really useful social apps that help elderly with their shopping (Helping Hands) and young people with their wellbeing (In Hand). In both cases, they used a co-creation approach which engaged the users in the design. It is very much the approach we like in this city.

The universities and businesses I speak to here in Liverpool see a real advantage in local, public sector organisations opening up their data. It is the fuel of the modern economy. In local and national government we are data rich and information poor – much of what government does only makes a small use of the wealth of data it holds but others can help us.

Safeguards need to be in place to ensure personal information remains so, but I look to places like Helsinki and Detroit and see the approaches they have taken which demonstrate the potential of open data.

Digital democracy brings with it challenges that many involved in day-to-day politics may not be prepared for, but it is right we rise to the challenge. Citizens of today, never mind tomorrow, require better access and control over their information and the way they interact with decision-makers.

Liverpool’s online budget tool which fed into the Mayor’s budget-setting process is a start. However, engagement will need to go much further.

There is also a lot we are doing in Liverpool including in energy, sensors and other digital technologies but we recognise, just as Labour’s Digital Government Review does, that we are near the beginning of this long but exciting road. I would add to Jon’s list that there is a fourth priority of the physical infrastructure needed to support our digital future. Some cities simply don’t have the fibres in the ground and some parts of the country wish for a better phone signal, never mind broadband.

This digital transition is going to be uncomfortable for many of us. Uncomfortable for politicians who will have to give up power; uneasy for civil servants and officials who will rightly be challenged on how they operate and how they hold data; and difficult for some of the public who will be faced with a whole new way to interact with services and the state.

Those 18-year-olds going to the polls will probably wonder why they couldn’t just vote by smartphone. They’d be right. It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that we rise to suchchallenges they will be setting us. Jon, Chi and others realise that Westminster and our town halls are changing or desperately need to change.

Labour’s Digital Government Review should help kickstart how we as a party deliver that digital state. The citizens of today are beginning to demand it; the citizen of tomorrow will settle for nothing less.

Cllr James Noakes is mayoral lead for energy and smart city on Liverpool City Council

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