Bridging the Digital Divide: A lens on Local Government

James Wells — Local Government Lead, Virgin Media O2 Business

Bridging the Digital Divide: A lens on Local Government

8 minutes

18th October 2023

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The pandemic accelerated the need for digital transformation in public services, with citizens increasingly expecting seamless access to essential services online. Local authorities are truly bought in and not without ambition; nobody doubts the ability of digital transformation to make council services more accessible and cost-efficient.


But with local budgets stretched thin, a lot of stakeholders to appease, and a high level of digital skills required, all while continuing to make progress on the levelling up agenda, it’s truly a balancing act. There are a lot of priorities to manage before desired investments in connectivity can become a reality.


To shed light on the intricacies of these issues, we hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with prominent figures from the local authorities across the country, in partnership with Government Business.


It was an honour to be a part of the discussion and to hear how some of the most senior digital leaders from across the public sector are tackling digital transformation against significant financial strain and how they can work with IT partners to make the most of their investment decisions.

Funding Challenges

Mark Lumley, Director of ICT and Digital at the London Borough of Hounslow, initiated the conversation by addressing the pressing issue of funding for digital transformation. While there is an expectation that going digital will automatically save money, this isn't necessarily the case.


“There’s an expectation that digital will magically save money and that isn’t necessarily the case. Getting the money out of the budget areas is a challenge and a barrier to us all doing more in the space. Often when battling for revenue funding, we are up against the kids’ playground, the potholes, the schools. The things that will actually win the members’ votes.”


Ian Brooks, Finance & Commercial Director at Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, highlighted the need for education within local government to help decision-makers understand the value of these digital investments.


“Members don’t understand digital as well as other services, such as road and highways, adult social care etc. There’s an education that needs to happen internally to help people understand the benefits of digital to the people approving the decisions.”


Paul Boyd, Chief Information Officer at Medway Council, shared his perspective, stating, “In my experience, it’s been very difficult to articulate that improving our processes will be immediately linked to revenue savings of XYZ, detailed down to the penny. It’s such a difficult thing to quantify. It isn’t like buying something that’s going to replace staff - it’s more conceptual.”


Sandra Taylor, Asst Director for IT & Digital at Worcester County Council, highlighted the recurring issue of political turnover hampering progress. New leaders who may not be as digitally engaged can slow down advancements. She stated, "Because of the political process, we are constantly getting new people in, often of the generation that aren’t engaged in digital and don’t understand it."


"The Local Government Association has produced guidance for members, but from what I can see, take up of that is low. We need to keep focus on making sure our leaders understand the importance. Cybersecurity, for instance, is often really challenging with councillors. They are often quite dismissive of it."


Funding issues are exacerbated by having to continually deal with the ongoing challenges of legacy technology.


Outdated systems are costly to maintain and often lack essential security features like multi-factor authentication and single-sign-on, which are crucial for enabling hybrid working.


Cassandra Poll, Digital & Channels Lead at Oldham Council, highlighted the difficulties in overcoming procurement, information governance, and testing hurdles when adopting new technology. She stated, "We have a lot of legacy tech, but the process of getting new technology over the line is tricky. You have procurement, internal governance, testing. These act as barriers to trying new things and can be demotivating for staff to not get these things over the line as quickly as you’d hope."

Then there’s a skills challenge: Attracting and Retaining Talent

A significant challenge on a digital journey is the need for local government agencies to maintain a skilled IT workforce. In contrast to the private sector's financial incentives, the public sector faces limitations in offering competitive salaries and bonuses.


Jamie-Lee Fox, Technology Services Business Partner at Essex County Council, mentioned that the public sector's advantage used to be its flexibility, but now private companies offer similar work arrangements. Additionally, the appeal of local government tech roles to graduates has waned, necessitating efforts to make these roles more enticing.


Sandra emphasised the potential of apprenticeships to address the skills gap. She stated, "The salary increases in local government are far behind what’s going on in the private sector, but in terms of the skills, local authorities are in a fantastic place to grow their own. We can offer great alternatives to university."


"If you bring on people through apprenticeships, even sandwiched with university, you can get some real loyalty in those people. We can give people huge opportunities."


Cassandra Poll, Digital & Channels Lead at Oldham Council, underscored the importance of hybrid working to attract talent. She stated, "In attracting skills from the private sector, we need to be more aware of hybrid working. We need to harness that power. While we can’t compete on salaries, young people are looking for a work/life balance."


My colleague Wyn Roberts, who leads Public Sector Strategy at Virgin Media O2 Business, noted how working in the public sector can be more fulfilling.


"When we sell into the public sector, from the outset we try and find out the reason. Then you see the benefit to the public, which has a real impact on peoples’ lives. It’s much more exciting, and you don’t get that in the private sector."

Bridging the Digital Divide

The deployment of connectivity infrastructure is crucial for economic development, education, healthcare, and overall quality of life. Regulatory processes can sometimes hinder progress in this area, and it's essential to tailor solutions to different geographical contexts.


For example, Hounslow's approach involved engaging with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to encourage investment, resulting in a significant reduction in premises with poor broadband reception. They also launched 'Hounslow Gets Digital' events opened sites to the public, educating them about available digital services, teaching digital skills, and promoting connectivity solutions. However, the panel recognised that defining "digital" can be a challenge in itself.


Cheshire faces different challenges, with tens of thousands of residences still experiencing connectivity issues. The region is making improvements through Gigabit projects and voucher schemes.


The discussion then shifted to the demand side, highlighting affordability, skills, and attitudinal issues as key challenges.


Sandra suggested investing in Digital Inclusion officers to assist digitally excluded individuals, involving staff and NHS partners to address various issues, from connectivity to language barriers.


Paul Boyd emphasised customer choice and the importance of improving digital offerings while also enhancing telephony and face-to-face services. He stated, "We want to improve our digital offering, so it’s easy to use and customers wouldn’t want to use anything else. However, we also want to use technology to improve telephony and face to face. So, it’s not seen as trying to move people. It’s offering that choice, but we know that people will naturally move."


Jamie-Lee mentioned efforts to bridge generational gaps in digital literacy, with young people helping older generations navigate digital services through workshops and community programs.


This bridging of the digital divide is something that the public sector doesn’t have to pursue alone. At Virgin Media O2 Business, we have our nationwide "Connect More" Programme which, in collaboration with local authorities such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, allows employees to dedicate five paid volunteering days per year to help digitally enable citizens in their local communities.

Partnerships for Social Value

Such public-private sector partnerships play a pivotal role in driving social value initiatives. These partnerships can provide resources, expertise, and funding to maximize the impact of social value efforts.


Jamie-Lee said that social value accounts for approximately 20% of every procurement in Essex, with suppliers required to submit action plans to deliver tangible social value.


Indeed, my own discussions with local authorities have evolved from technology-focused conversations to more comprehensive discussions about location data, demographics, spending power, and their role in local economic development. So when we speak to our customers, we can help articulate that and help bridge internal governance gaps.




The roundtable discussion shed light on the multifaceted challenges facing local government as they strive to embark on digital transformation journeys in the post-COVID era. Funding constraints, skills shortages, connectivity issues and legacy technology are the most pressing concerns.


Yes, the road to more efficient and digitally enabled local government is going to be a bumpy one, but the dialogue highlighted the potential for collaboration and partnership to address these challenges, ultimately creating a more inclusive, equitable, and connected society for all citizens.


To find out more about how local authorities are capitalising on digital transformation post-pandemic, read our report here.


Thanks to all those who participated in our roundtable:


  • Paul Boyd - Chief Information Officer, Medway Council
  • Cassandra Poll - Digital & Channels Lead, Oldham Council
  • Ian Brooks - Finance & Commercial Director, Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership
  • Sandra Taylor - Asst Director for IT & Digital, Worcester County Council
  • Jamie-Lee Fox - Technology Services Business Partner, Essex County Council
  • Wyn Roberts - Public Sector Strategy, Virgin Media O2 Business
  • James Wells - Local Government Lead, Virgin Media O2 Business