Digital Future: Moving beyond channel shift

Suzanne McArdle

Wednesday, September 10th 2014
Author: Suzanne McArdle, Head of Digital

Suzanne McArdle looks at channel shift, the changing landscape and digital future for Local Authorities.

Suzanne McArdle looks at the changing landscape and the future of digital for Local Authorities.


As someone who has recently left the commercial sector I find the language and culture around public sector digital services to be rather quaint. I love the concept of “channel shift” that somehow talking to your customers is wasting money and there is some magic website that can be built that the public will just flock to and “transact” (another rather amusing word try using it in a conversation down the pub). Digital is a fundamentally social medium. It is about conversations with your customers and continually improving the services you offer. Your website should be a sleek efficient well designed tool, but it is just that a tool not the end goal. Encourage your customers to just see you as providing short digital transactions and all you are is a faceless bureaucrat behind a form.

I wouldn’t have joined Westco and Westminster City Council if the culture was not already different. The council has spent the last few years fundamentally re-designing the infrastructure that underpins the whole of their customer contact. We have built on the foundations set by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in developing websites and services around user needs, and the guidance from SOCITM, but we wish to take it to the next level and beyond. We believe this will be the model for all councils to redefine their role. An element we fear is missing from the GDS goal of more streamlined user transactions is that of engaging with users and redefining their relationship with their local leaders of place – their local authority. On the face of it we have built a website that is responsive to being viewed on mobile phones, but underneath we have built a service that is responsive to the ever changing needs of our public.

Digital Principles

To set out our new agenda we have six digital principles:

1. We meet user needs: User needs to be fully met and at the heart of our initial work in redesigning services

2. We unlock user and organisational potential: Addressing user needs is only one part of the picture. We have to unlock the capacity of our users, and organisations we work with, to take responsibility rather than look to us to service their needs.

3. We achieve transparency and user consent over being clever with the use of data: We have to proceed with the consent of users in the management of their data in an open and transparent way

4. We drive and lead culture change: We are not just building a website – we are changing the culture of the organisation

5. We test the outcome of our work through vigorous research and evaluation, but never allow this to constrain our creativity: Through experimentation and monitoring we test our ideas but ensure we allow ourselves the space to come up with the ideas in the first place. The end user will have some ideas but we will have some too. If something doesn’t work we understand the reasons why and try again

6. We showcase Westminster City Council as a digital leader: Our users and others will see that we are at the forefront of the use of digital and will expect the highest standards

I’m looking forward to putting digital at the heart of the transformation Westminster City Council is undertaking, and through Westco moving the sector on from the rather simplistic arguments that are currently occurring that miss the bigger picture of the true power of digital.