D&S column: smart digital services from your local council

AN elderly friend recently asked me to help them renew their passport.

Of course, I was happy to help but I confess my heart sank. I remembered the last time I renewed my own passport. Frankly, it was a pain, starting with the lengthy form which had to be checked and double checked, queuing for the photobooth, cutting the picture down to exactly the right-size for the form and getting the back of it signed. What a palaver!

But I needn’t have worried. Renewing my friend’s passport turned out to be really easy via the online GOV.UK portal. It took ten minutes to fill in the form, upload the picture I’d taken with my camera phone and make the payment. The online guidance was intuitive and easy to follow. Just ten days after sending the old passport back, my friend had his new one.

The process was quick, simple and efficient - a model for how all our interactions with government should be I thought.

It reminded me of my time before I was an MP when I lived and studied in California’s Silicon Valley where technology businesses took this very common sense approach – how can we make people’s lives easier by using digital technology to do the boring stuff.

That really easy passport application was very much in my mind when, as Minister for Local Government, I recently launched the £7.5m Digital Innovation Fund for local councils.

All local authorities have been invited to bid for a slice of this money to help them provide the best solutions for their council taxpayers.

The money will be awarded to councils to use technology in ingenious ways to improve services for the public and improve their back office IT so save council taxpayers money.

Whether it’s an app to report fly-tipping, a slick web solution to pay for a parking permit, or a way to shift the council’s IT to the cloud using low-cost, flexible pieces of software instead of expensive, cumbersome versions, we want to know the best ideas so we can help to make them happen – and spread best practice around the country.

The fund will also be used to provide digital skills training for at least 1,000 staff working on digital solutions at councils.

I think our local councils are already doing a good job with their online services. As a resident of Hambleton I do all my business with the council through the website which I find easy to use and responsive.

Whether it is paying my council tax or renewing my garden waste subscription, I can do it all from home without needing to visit a council office.

That’s important because one council found that every time someone came into a council building, it cost them nearly £14. But when they rang up it was £4 and if they did it online it cost just 30p. By moving transactions online, they saved £3 million in just three years. And that’s money that can be spent on services that people really value.

Although I don’t have personal experience of using it, Richmondshire’s digital service is equally good and I recently noted how its re-designed website was rated among the top three local authority websites in the UK for quality and accessibility.

That’s exactly what I’m trying to encourage all councils to do: to innovate to meet the needs of residents, to make the boring stuff quick and simple and provide high quality online services.