SENIOR councillors will be asked on Thursday to approve a new £11.5million digital strategy to boost IT interactions with residents and protect the town hall from cyber attacks.

The blueprint will be debated by Blackburn with Darwen Council's Executive Board on Thursday.

In a report introducing the borough's Digital Strategy (2021 – 2024) Cllr Quesir Mahmood, its customer services boss, tells colleagues up-to-date IT is vital to repel hackers.

It says: "Implementing the strategy will enable the council to deliver simple and effective online services.

"The back-end infrastructure that supports the computing environment is critical to the effective running of council services.

"A number of local authorities have suffered from high-profile cyber-attacks, in some cases it has taken a period of months to return to business as usual.

"It is therefore critical that we continue to invest in the right IT infrastructure.

"Risks around service continuity will need to be managed as we embark on increased levels of technology-enabled change."

The strategy outlines and costs four work streams for the next four years:

* digital first services : £3.5m capital, £0.5m revenue;

* transformation for staff : £1.5m capital, £2m revenue;

* data driven organisation : £0.3m capital, £0.7m revenue; and

* secure and resilient technology : £2m capital, £1m revenue.

The report says: "We have an advanced starting point after implementing a new customer portal, equipping our workforce with mobile computing, strengthening our IT infrastructure and beginning a move to the Cloud for our key systems.

"Covid has provided us many challenges but also presented opportunities, particularly around increasing the pace of digitally-enabled change.

"In 2020 the use of online chat with our customers has doubled to over 14,000 interactions and our website now regularly has over 130,000 visits per month.

"We have over 34,000 customers signed up and using our new Digital Customer Portal, with over 11,000 forms received per month during Covid.

"These shifts have resulted in reductions in both emails and phone calls to our customer services teams.

"By continuing this shift to online services, we can dedicate valuable face-to-face and phone support to those that really need it."

Cllr Neil Slater, the Conservative group's digital spokesman, said: "£11.5m is a lot of money and we need to scrutinise carefully how it is spent and ensure that those who are not signed up to the digital agenda are not left behind - particularly those learning difficulties and the elderly."