John Shewell: Stepping up to the challenge of digital

'The future civil service will be faster, smaller and provide more services online.' These were the words of Katherine Kerswell, the director-general of civil service reform at the cabinet office published in the Guardian recently.

John Shewell: It's time to move forward on digital
John Shewell: It's time to move forward on digital

A week later, the leader of Lewes District Council, James Page, wrote a piece in the same paper calling for greater collaboration inside and outside local government, and involving people in the design and delivery of services.

Local public service comms teams must step up to the challenge and harness the opportunities that digital technologies present to improve engagement and reputation.

Brighton & Hove City Council has been one of the few at the forefront of driving forward the digital agenda in local government, particularly in scaling social media across the organisation in an effort to increase resident engagement.

The council has succeeded in integrating social as part of its business – mostly in terms of aiding the organisation move more services online by proactively encouraging staff at all levels to connect with citizens.

But this was first generation. Now it’s time to move further forward.

A report published last year by Booz & Co estimated that UK plc could have generated £63billion in 2011 through better use of digital technology, but what is holding us back is the capability and capacity to harness these tools.

Booz & Co predict that "[B]y the year 2020, an entire generation, Generation C (for "connected"), will have grown up in a primarily digital world...And their familiarity with technology, reliance on mobile communications, and desire to remain in contact with large networks of family members, friends, and business contacts will transform how we work and how we consume."

The message is simple: digital by default. The Government realises this is an opportunity to improve public service delivery, boost employment and connect with citizens better through digital technology.

For local public service comms teams, this is a golden opportunity to strengthen the reputation of their organisation by applying digital to connect better with citizens by bringing the organisation closer to their communities to help improve services.

Even the private sector can achieve the same results – communities can be built around brands by understanding the networks and creating the bridging capital to connect more meaningfully.

Therein lies another opportunity in which brands can explore opportunities with their communities to design and deliver social outcomes, thus strengthening their reputation.

This taps into a wider opportunity in which state, private and third sectors come together to innovate and deliver better social outcomes. This essentially becomes a ‘race to the top’.

There is a growing consciousness in which citizens (local, national and global) want institutions to deliver positive social change – and many people are already collaborating.

For example, Brighton-based social business pioneer Tom Nixon recently set-up a citizen-led initiative called "Brightoneers"  to create a local economy that was 'not just for the people, but owned by the people – the workers and citizens.'

Change is happening and digital can provide the platform to make this happen – both inside organisations and outside, but the challenge is understanding how to connect and bridge the networks to improve outcomes for all.

Local public service comms teams must seize the opportunity and drive forward this agenda to connect more meaningfully with their communities and help improve service delivery. By doing so they also improve the reputation of their organisation.


John Shewell is head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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