043. What can cities do to improve take-up?

As set out in the section above, cities can work to remove or reduce unnecessary barriers to new investment and create more attractive opportunities to build a ‘world class’ digital infrastructure. But the value of this new ‘hardware’ – and that of the existing digital networks –  depends significantly on the ‘software’ available to it: namely the skills and capacity that enable individuals, firms, and cities to understand how to use the hardware to improve their lives, business or city services. The differing availability of this software across UK cities helps drive digital divides.

Take-up of superfast broadband varies across UK cities. The Government’s investment helped raise the availability of superfast broadband in UK cities to 94 per cent by May 2017. While take-up is growing, levels are still low in some cities: 36 per cent on Merseyside and Greater Manchester and 39 per cent in Newcastle by the end of 2017.37 Across UK cities,  take-up of this improved connectivity by households was 43 per cent, a take-up gap of 51 per cent. This highlights how the availability of connectivity or technology is necessary but not sufficient for its  take-up.

The take-up gap ranges from over 60 percent in Aberdeen to less than 40 per cent in Crawley. Take up will grow as older contracts expire and new speeds are available.

Figure 2: Gap between availability of superfast broadband and take-up (percentage points)

Ofcom (2017) Connected Nations

While there is a clear link between higher download speeds and greater data consumption up to 40Mbps, consumers with faster connections do not seem to have higher data usage.38 This indicates that many of those who subscribe to new super-fast broadband connections are not changing the way they use the Internet.

This section looks in two parts at what action cities can take to improve the take-up of digital technology and innovation:

  • Tackle the digital skills issue so that individuals and firms in cities can take advantage of new technology to increase productivity, wages and employment. In addition, this will ensure that new technology does not exacerbate existing digital exclusion.
  • Take the lead on digital innovation and upskilling by sharing and adopting best practice on the use of new technology to improve public services, procurement and open up data to take advantage of external expertise and ideas.

Tackle the digital skills issue

Operating at the same level as the local labour markets, cities have an important role to play in encouraging and facilitating the adoption of digital tools by local citizens, businesses and within their own organisations by:

  1. Help to coordinate and support existing digital skills programmes. The many national programmes and numerous private and public sector interventions aimed at improving skills more generally, and digital skills in particular, make understanding what is needed and available difficult,  even for those working in this area. Cities have a role to play in improving information for people and firms looking to develop new digital skills or increase their earnings and understand what is available, and for providers to ensure that they are providing those skills.
  2. Tackle digital exclusion. Historically, the benefits have been less extensive, and the downsides more pronounced for those without the skills to adapt to technological change. Improved digital connectivity has made activities such as paying council tax or finding out information about city services more convenient for those residents with digital skills and less costly for cities. Cities have a role to play in supporting those individuals who are digitally excluded.

Improve digital skills provision and co-ordination in cities

Greater digital connectivity, its role in displacing and creating jobs, and the rapid evolution of what constitutes digital skills have raised the importance of developing a more effective education and skills system that supports an ongoing process of life-long learning. Cities have an important role to play in the functioning of an effective skills system for those demanding and providing courses or training.

Failure to develop a skills system, including digital skills, that responds to changing labour market conditions39 will likely deepen economic, social and spatial divides that have grown over recent decades.

Devolution and flexibility

The Government recognised the importance of cities in skills when devolution deals for metro mayors included control of the Adult Education Budget.  But these powers have yet to be devolved by the Department for Education. Mayors Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands have made becoming digital hubs central to their ambitions for their city-region economies. But they are as yet unable to fully integrate improving adult skills into this vision, ensuring the workforce has the digital skills to attract technology firms, and adapt to the changing economy. The Government should devolve the adult education budget and flexibility over how it is used, as promised.

Information and awareness

Cities can further support digital skills by helping to make sense of the variety and complexity of provision and demand for these skills across the city. These informational problems for firms, workers and providers are bad for local economies.

From an individual’s and business’s point of view, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the digital skills courses that are on offer locally within a city or accessible online. Thousands of options ranging from three-year university degrees to online webinars and two-day courses make it hard to know what is most appropriate. A lack of knowledge of the skills that certain jobs require, or the wages they offer, affect individuals’ choices.

Providers also suffer from problems of information on the existing and forecast digital skills gaps in a local economy and the rewards for filling them. This information would allow them to devise and provide courses that will best help individuals to develop and retrain and businesses to grow and respond to the economic impacts of greater digital connectivity.

The importance of this task and the economic and financial costs to business and the national economy has seen multiple attempts at action and co-ordination by private and public actors to improve the situation over recent years, and research into effective digital skills provision from around the world.40 Business has been involved in various ways with Chambers of Commerce, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and new organisations such as Be the Business all looking at how to improve digital skills and productivity.

Cities should use their local knowledge and position as leaders of places to help overcome these informational problems. Applications to support this that use open data and user-friendly digital design and accessibility are being developed, and progress and experience should be shared. In Doncaster, funded by Innovate through the Open Data Institute, the city is working with Uscreates to bring the huge range of education and training data together into one place, presented in a way that aims to help young people make more informed career decisions.41

Co-ordination and collaboration

To support local co-ordination, the Government is also helping the formation of Local Digital Skills Partnerships (LDSPs) across the country, made up of public, private and third sector organisations to better understand existing provision, gaps and set shared priorities. LEPs (which should match functional economic areas) are the main local policy partner, and pilot LDSPs have been launched in Lancashire and Heart of the South West LEPs.

Box 5: The Digital Playbook

A ‘Digital Playbook’ for LDSPs is under development, led by the Good Things Foundation, a digital inclusion charity, and TechNation, a network for technology entrepreneurs. This playbook sets out what local areas should think about when setting up a partnership.  Rather than working in a limited group before publishing a finished document, the playbook allows local practitioners to engage and co-create the document, taking advantage of dispersed local knowledge and experience. Hosted as an open Google Docs sheet, contributors from across the country add to the living document to highlight best practice and debate successful strategies, taking advantage of digital connectivity.

While not complete, the playbook already offers links to new tools under development that will help cities to get started on a Local DSP. These include using DWP data to better understand skills demand to inform digital skills strategies. It also includes sections on different funding sources available and sets out the sorts of organisations that should be part of partnerships.


The aim of LDSPs is to reduce duplication in local activities, increase information and awareness among organisations working to improve digital skills locally and spread best practice in what works and how to attract in resources from organisations such as Google Digital Garage, TSB and Lloyds banks.

If they are to be effective, cities and business should engage fully with LDSPs, and ensure that digital skills programmes are evaluated and focus on those that have a clear positive impact for individuals, such as the Per Scholas programme below.

Case study 4: Per Scholas

 The shortage of digital skills and the productivity of workers who develop these skills is demonstrated by the remarkable results of the Per Scholas programme in the US.

The programme provided training and employment support for low-income individuals in the Bronx. Its five core features were:

  • Intensive screening of applicants for motivation, capability and need
  • pre-employment and career readiness services
  • occupational skills training that meets the needs of local employers (15 weeks at Per Scholas)
  • job development and placement services based on strong relationships with employers
  • post-employment retention and advancement services.

Three years on from the programme, Per Scholas has been found to have ‘large and growing’ impacts on employment and earnings, with participant earnings $4,800 or 27 per cent higher on average than the control group. This is an increase on the two previous years, with no effect on earnings in year one, and $3,700 in year two. Both effects were statistically significant and on the back of a large-scale, rigorous randomised control trial.

Cities and businesses working together through Digital Skills Partnerships should look to understand how these two US programmes have had such success and how similar schemes might work in UK cities.

Tackle digital exclusion

While for many the Internet is the first port of call if they have any query or to pay bills, still only 50 per cent of adults have completed government processes or looked for information on public services online, and 60 per cent have never paid council tax or for another local service online.42 The reason given by those who have not is that they are unaware (32 per cent) or unwilling (56 per cent) to do this online, preferring over the phone or physical methods. 8.6 million people (16 per cent of the population) are not able to fill out an online application form.43

Creating an easy to use and well-designed digital option for people to book pest control or pay for a parking permit is not just more convenient for residents but saves money for the council. At a time of austerity, as demonstrated in case study 5, raising the awareness, motivation and capacity of residents to use these services is important beyond simply social inclusion.

Case study 5: Digital You – How Salford is tackling digital exclusion

Digital You is a key element of Salford’s plan to tackle digital exclusion, aiming to engage those residents not going online. The local authority is working in partnership with the Good Things Foundation, a digital inclusion charity with experience and resources in addressing digital exclusion. Digital You operates in existing community settings to engage 8,000 digitally excluded people, aiming to build motivation to go online by using web-based training to show how to access different services that will make a tangible difference to their lives.

The programme also engages support from and coordinates the activities of a broad range of groups carrying out related schemes – from housing associations to Google, Talk Talk, Lloyds and Barclays – to increase the impact of each, avoid duplication and build a movement that is hoped to endure beyond its two-year funded course.

The Mayor of Salford launched the #DigitalSalford programme to take advantage of the growth in digital jobs at MediaCityUK, in order to transform the culture of the local authority and embrace the potential of digital connectivity from top to bottom. Alongside the aim to become ‘the most attractive city to digital companies’, Salford set a vision and took action to also reform how the council operates at every level and raise public awareness of what is possible through its ‘digital first customer strategy’.

This translates into pushing departments to take advantage of best practice and make digital the easiest option to interact with the council.44 Pest control can now be booked online, as can taxi licensing. These programmes have been designed with users to ensure they work well, that forms make sense and information is available at every stage. Staff have been trained to use technology, and Grounds Maintenance and Streetscene workers are now able to easily record and receive work requests through iPads while on the road. This is all aimed at improving services and reducing costs at a time when urban local authority budgets continue to fall.


Take the lead on innovation and upskilling

Connected digital devices, combined with a workforce and public confident in their skills to use them can substantially transform service delivery to improve quality, convenience and reduce costs. Cities that do so will at the same time demonstrate widely the benefits of greater take-up of technology to residents, and send out a clear signal of ambition. To take a lead on making the most out of digital connectivity, cities should:

  1. Adopt and encourage a culture of innovation, focusing on solving existing problems and addressing local priorities through a digital lens. This requires buy-in across all levels of the organisational hierarchy and a revision of procurement practices
  2. Demonstrate digital ambition with concrete actions that embrace innovation
  3. Open up data, to improve information-sharing across public services and allow insights from outside parties. Due consideration must be given to privacy concerns and data security.

Champion innovation

As this report makes clear, many cities are innovating in the use of digital tools to improve public services. But a significant change in how services are delivered carries risk both with the public and from within organisations. Strong leadership is required to prepare for innovation in advance of trialling new programmes and while they are underway.

US cities have shown different models for supporting public innovation. In the US innovation teams are becoming common. Philadelphia bases its innovation team outside the Mayor’s office45 to enjoy greater autonomy, while in Boston the innovation team works directly with city leadership as the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics.

Improve procurement systems to support  take-up of digital innovation

Better public procurement could help spread innovation in cities faster and further as well as potentially reduce costs. The LGA has highlighted the benefits of greater partnership working in procurement to make the most out of limited procurement resources.46

The Local Digital Declaration, published in July and backed by £7.5 million from the Government, sets out how local authorities and government can work collaboratively – including through procurement – to support digital innovation to improve local public services.47

For business, local government working at city-region scale would create contracts and financial returns large enough to encourage those that would not normally engage with the public sector to put in the effort to innovate new services. Many UK cities share similar challenges. Collaboration on procurement across the Northern Powerhouse, for instance, could open up new digital solutions to issues such as air pollution, and create one-stop-shop apps for smartphones to help residents and businesses easily pay taxes or access services. Internal procurement expertise could be maintained at the city-region level offering support to local authorities to reduce costs, improve quality and open up opportunities through procurement.

From the business side, firms are trying to bridge the gap between fragmented local government procurement and the difficulty smaller digital firms and start-ups face in trying to speak to local government. Examples include new businesses working in UrbanTech and GovTech, such as PUBLIC and Nitrous, which take stakes in firms and create connections with local government. Larger firms such as O2 incubate start-ups to help them use digital connectivity to improve public and private productivity and access clients.

Businesses have complained about the number of procurement frameworks and the number of council tenders. These businesses are unable to commit the resources to find let alone bid for all the local government contracts that may be available to them, reducing the options for cities.

The Government recognises this problem and in 2012 launched G-Cloud to make public sector procurement of cloud-related services quicker and more efficient. It offers more suppliers, clearer costs upfront for the public sector, greater interaction with vendors and no need for OJEU. Businesses in interviews gave a generally positive view of the G-Cloud Framework.

The Government should work to extend this format to reduce the number of frameworks and make it easier for more firms to tender for work with cities. This will allow cities to take up innovations made possible through better digital connectivity.

Demonstrate ambition

The effective rollout of physical digital infrastructure requires the coordination and support of many arms of local government, such as highways, planning and economic development teams. Ensuring each team understands what is required of them and how digital will benefit both them and the public, is vital to demonstrate that digital ambition of city leaders can be delivered at all levels. York and Milton Keynes view this as vital to their ongoing investment programme.

Cities should have clear internal communication in place to show how the greater use of digital connectivity can benefit residents and their organisation. Promises made by cities to businesses or network operators will rely on the local authority’s ability to deliver. This requires buy-in at all levels.

Cities should find out how other places are using digital connectivity to improve how they manage their city and provide services. Cities should use this knowledge to take concrete steps towards demonstrating their ambition. This could be by opening up data, transforming a service or website or opening meaningful dialogue about collaboration with other authorities or businesses.

For many cities or departments, making this ambition a reality will demand a considerable culture change and technological adaptation. To drive through this change and support workers to adapt to and embrace it, many leaders are now appointing Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) to create advocates for digital connectivity. CDOs have so far been tasked with driving the spread of digital innovation, attracting digital investment, reducing digital exclusion and improving infrastructure. However, their effectiveness will rely on the support shown from leadership once in position.

Strategies setting out how cities plan to embrace digital government can be useful, but delivering greater take-up of digital innovation should be viewed as the priority now that digital connectivity is so advanced. As well as affecting how soon a city gets investment in fibre and 5G, any local digital connectivity plan or strategy should ensure that cities, residents and businesses can avoid unnecessary costs and disruption to city life that digging up roads and pavements can bring.

Cities are already showing how digital connectivity can improve the performance of urban transport, or help residents make better decisions around social housing. These innovative uses of data supported by digital connectivity are often collected under the ‘smart cities’ heading.

Case study 6: West Midlands – developing a digital strategy

West Midlands Metro Mayor Andy Street has made increasing availability and take-up of digital connectivity a central theme of his mayoralty. He worked with the Combined Authority Digital Board, which brings together public and private sector representatives, to develop a digital strategy that will improve skills and infrastructure. The aim of the strategy is to make the West Midlands a globally recognised hub for digital. The strategy is working to coordinate disparate strands, each aiming to improve digital skills, infrastructure and embed the greater use of digital technology within business and local government.

A Chief Digital Officer is set to be appointed soon. Their primary task will be to deliver on these issues and encourage innovation and collaboration by pushing the agenda on GovTech innovation, a data sharing framework across public bodies, regional shared digital procurement, a labour-market-focused data analytics all contributing towards realising regional government as a platform.

The Mayor, in partnership with PUBLIC set up the Urban Challenge Award to procure technology-based solutions to one of four key urban challenges. These were wellbeing, housing, youth unemployment and digital citizenship. The joint-winners of the challenge, Novoville and Apptivism, focused on the issue of digital citizenship and delivered a citizen engagement platform allowing residents to engage with the council through a chatbot via Facebook messenger.


Open up data

Opening up and taking advantage of data is a central element of a number of cities’ digital strategies. The case study below shows how Transport for London (TfL) is opening up its data to improve the experience of customers in London and support its economy. Other cities across the country are already taking advantage of the wealth of data that has previously been out of bounds or stored in unwieldy formats, to deliver

greater productivity and financial, social, economic and environmental impacts.

Digital connectivity allows this data to be accessed by many more people and organisations, both within city government and without to try and identify problems, solutions or new services to benefit residents.

At the city level in the UK, Leeds48 has been at the forefront of opening up its data through Data Mill North and working with ODI Leeds to understand how it could be used to improve public information and services. One experimental use of administrative data gave residents a clear idea of how long it would take to be rehoused depending on the type of house and location they are requesting. This sort of information can inform decisions and put power in the hands of citizens

UK cities should work together to produce data in common formats with common rules on access and sharing, building on the national government’s Open Standards principles.49 This would make it as simple and scalable as possible for outside organisations and firms to analyse data from different cities. The Smart London Plan creates an Office for Data Analytics to support data sharing.50 Cities should be aware of the challenges of opening up data.

Not all data can or should be public, such as medical or criminal records under certain circumstances. But using digital connectivity to open up data to users across the public sector can improve the quality of services for the public and support the work of public servants.

Greater Manchester set up a data warehouse51 that brings together different data sources to give social workers more and better information about the people they are working with, improving the speed and quality of assessment and becoming less reliant on individual knowledge of a case. This has saved social workers three-to-four hours in completing an assessment, which over a year adds up to nearly two weeks’ work time.

Security of data and privacy have become increasingly important issues for citizens over recent years. Cities should be open and clear about what data is stored, for what reason and how it will be used or shared.

Case study 7: Transport for London (TfL) – how digital innovation is providing a better transport service

TfL has the budget, scale and, thanks to digital connectivity, the real-time data to innovate in how it helps move people around London efficiently, affordably and cleanly. The growth in smartphone usage among consumers has supported innovation in how customers are informed and can interact with the network. Falling budgets and revenues add to the drive to use data and innovation to squeeze more out of the existing network.

The most obvious innovation for travellers is the move from paper tickets, to Oyster, to contactless payment. It has made travelling easier for customers no longer having to buy tickets or top up accounts. It has reduced revenue collection costs by 50 per cent. Its popularity is such that 50 per cent of PAYG journeys are by contactless credit or debit card, or mobile phone.

Much of this innovation is shared and picked up by other cities who would otherwise not be able to trial these innovations. The contactless system has been sold internationally to cities such as New York and Boston.

Digital connectivity can change journey choices, supporting the network and public health. The location of every bus is measured in real time so people know how long their wait will be or when to leave the house or office. Depending on that time some may choose to walk instead of wait.

Much of this information now comes from apps using data opened up by TfL. This has allowed TfL to take take advantage of external expertise and innovation to improve customer experience — 42 per cent of London travellers now use an app to get information on journeys. Citymapper, which took advantage of the open data, has spread its operation to other cities around the world. The time travellers save by using these apps is worth £130 million to the economy, according to Deloitte.



  • 37 Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) 2018 : Table of local broadband projects: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Hs00bNsyRV1WoOt-fow3rsNXzpcKg26AsOWvk1bvJRk/edit#gid=0
  • 38 Ofcom (2017) Connected Nations Data Analysis 4. Fixed broadband networks and services
  • 39 Nesta is working with DCMS on how this system might work and is involved in the Digital Skills Partnership
  • 40 Orlik, J. (2018) Delivering Digital Skills, Nesta
  • 41 http://www.ukauthority.com/data4good/entry/8264/odi-calls-for-more-councils-to-address-open-data
  • 42 Ofcom (2018) Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report
  • 43 https://www.lloydsbank.com/banking-with-us/whats-happening/consumer-digital-index/key-findings.asp#digitalskills
  • 44  https://www.salford.gov.uk/digital-salford/results-so-far/
  • 45 Makin, C (2017) Adapting for the future: promoting innovation in city government, WCMT https://www.wcmt.org.uk/sites/default/files/report-documents/Makin%20C%20Report%202017%20Final.pdf
  • 46 LGA (2018) National Procurement Strategy 2018: Delivering the ambition
  • 47 MHCLG (2018) The Local Digital Declaration
  • 48 Data Mill North https://datamillnorth.org/
  • 49 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-standards-principles/open-standards-principles
  • 50 Smarter London Together https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/business-and-economy/supporting-londons-sectors/smart-london/smarter-london-together
  • 51 Symons, T (2016) ‘Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government’ Nesta, LGA