Covid-19 has accelerated the rate of digital transformation among Scotland’s 32 local authorities but there has been different rates of progress across the country, a new report has found.

The Accounts Commission – a national audit body – has highlighted the need for greater collaboration, use of shared expertise, citizen engagement and strategic planning in order to fully realise the potential of digital technology.

The long-term focus should now be on how digital technology can provide better opportunities and services for people across Scotland, with citizens placed at the heart of this process, the Digital Progress in Local Government report found.

Councils have responded to Covid-19 by using technology to ensure many essential council services continue and supported thousands of council staff to work from home. But further progress may be restricted due to a lack of staff with the right skills and insufficient workforce planning. Careful planning is needed to ensure the expansion of digital services does not widen existing inequalities.

The Commission indicated that the current work of the Scottish Government and COSLA to refresh the national digital strategy provides an opportunity to drive digital transformation across all Scotland’s 32 councils. Strong leadership and co-ordination at a national level is essential, to provide a consistent vision and clear direction, the report found.

It states: “Each council has started from a different position depending on its available resources (money and people), the state of its existing systems and its culture. These factors will determine the level of future investment required and how quickly a council can transform. The level of investment will vary greatly across councils as a result. To become a digital council, investment will be required in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure (hardware, software and cloud services), council staff and digital leadership.

However, in terms of obstacles to digitising services, the report found that ‘insufficient staff capacity and digital skills are the most significant barriers to progress’, adding: “Councils do not have enough staff with the required digital skills to implement their digital plans successfully. ICT teams have faced resource pressures in recent years, with some downsizing their ICT teams. At the same time the skills set needed to support digital transformation is changing.”

Andrew Cowie, member of the Accounts Commission, said: “Now is the time for clear and decisive strategic planning with the refresh of Scotland’s national digital strategy. It is an opportunity that has to be seized to ensure there is a vision for digital transformation across all councils, with shared priorities, skills and knowledge.

“Councils have worked hard to increase the pace at which digital technology has been introduced due to Covid-19, enabling many vital services to continue. Now all councils must focus on putting all citizens at the heart of digital service design, empowering communities to thrive, not just survive.”

In 2015, the Scottish Local Government Digital Partnership (Digital Partnership) was established by SOLACE and the Local Government Transformation Board to drive the ambition for all councils to be digital businesses by 2020. It is a collaboration between all local government organisations involved in digital transformation, including all 32 councils in Scotland.

In October 2016 the Digital Partnership established the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government (Digital Office). It supports councils to become digital businesses through delivery of a work programme focused on Digital Leadership, Digital Foundations and Digital Services. It has a small core team that provides support and digital expertise.