Chapter 2

Developing and maintaining effective digital transformation strategies

The rationale for this report has been to better understand how local authorities see their priorities for digital transformation in the wake of the pandemic. Covid has shifted the dial on the adoption of digital technology with authorities now needing to assess how effectively they are serving the ‘new normal’.

The foremost feedback from member councils was how previous assumptions about the time to progress towards certain aspects of digital take-up by their communities – e.g. minimising travel by using virtual meeting facilities; moving towards cashless payments for some services – had been overturned as the circumstances of Covid forced immediate change:

“I heard Carrie Bishop [Chief Digital Officer, San Francisco], saying ‘it’s been like dog years’, hasn’t it? … we’ve fitted 14 years’ worth of stuff into the last 24 months!”

There was general agreement from those interviewed that in general the pandemic had accelerated digital transformation. However, it was also noted that other elements of local strategies – making major system purchases, for example – had been paused, sometimes indefinitely, as non-essential resources (both financial and staffing) were refocused on meeting the immediate needs of the Covid emergency.

Planning & Preparation

The experts from county authorities consulted for this report suggested that too often local authorities were caught out by what’s involved in the process of digital transformation and ensuring the right people are involved from the start. In some cases, this had even led to increased costs through buying additional external support, even though councils later found they may have already had the requisite skills in-house.

To help drive digital transformation, local government has looked to recruit more IT skills into the sector, with a degree of success. However, authorities need to be careful that these skills are not annexed into one specific team but better integrated across the council. Additionally, managers in all parts of a local authority increasingly need a basic understanding of IT to successfully effect change.

A key advantage of improving wider understanding of the capabilities of IT systems is it promotes better decision-making. Where there is less understanding, organisations become vulnerable to making poor commissioning choices less appropriate to their needs.


Often individual councils prioritised different aspects of digital transformation in their strategies. This led to a varied evolution of technology across authorities. One senior officer recalled a practice-sharing event they attended. Making choices based on bespoke funding, strategic direction, and community demands, was not in question:

“Everyone was doing something but no-one was doing everything. Choices may have been made due to resources, political priorities. If we did the whole package it could make a big difference.”

“[The] sense of the common platform and the sharing experience is really important but there will always be local variations either through local contacts, finances, local communities or local political appetite to focus on certain things.”

The issue was ensuring choices made over IT strategy, commissioning, and procurement were informed – with councils able to draw on the right expertise to make decisions.

Having more opportunities for local authorities to share best practice – cost mitigation, implementation strategies, and so on – could reduce the risk of effort duplication. The government may have a part

Core business, not a project

The overwhelming message regarding the experience of digital transformation is that it must not be seen as a time-limited project, but a constant and ongoing iterative process. Digital technology is constantly advancing and evolving, and strategies for digital transformation cannot be ‘task and finish’ exercises.

This can often be difficult for councils to appreciate as it represents a new and different way of working. As one officer noted:

“[The organisation has] a mindset… this idea of the edifice, a building. You go, you build a system, you walk away.”

They went on to highlight that successful digital transformation strategies do not think of installing a system as the ‘end’, but consider more widely how services and technology can better synergise, connect, and improve over time:

“… actually, most of us involved in some sort of implementation know that you struggle to get your first version over the line and then it’s that continuous improvement as you find out … how people use it, and what your teams want.”