Iouri Prokhorov 27 August 2021

Breaking the technical debt cycle in local government

Breaking the technical debt cycle in local government image

Despite little kernels of progress being made steadily here and there, when it comes to digitisation, it sometimes feels as if local government has been treading water.

In a recent report, the National Audit Office (NAO) summarised the public sector’s decades-long struggle bluntly: 'Despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, our reports show a consistent pattern of underperformance.'

As readers of this publication will be well aware, the sector is mired in technical debt. Legacy technology absorbs IT resources like a blackhole; a complex set of organisations, processes and policies, evolved over decades, has made digital transformation a mammoth and mercurial struggle and - while citizens might increasingly expect Monzo-like customer experiences from any of their interactions online - unique requirements mean solutions cannot be quickly or easily repurposed from the private sector.

If nothing changes, the cycle or 'consistent pattern of underperformance' will not only continue, the wheels could fall off the cart altogether. Technology will continue to be installed piecemeal across local government bodies, further complicating complex and disjointed infrastructure.

It’s time to leave the comfort zone

For effective digital transformation to take root and to tackle technical debt, local government organisations need to learn from previous mistakes and habits. They should strive towards a mindset change at stakeholder level, where agile, scalable and well-integrated technological investments are seen as better value for money than low-cost solutions.

Committing to this change in mindset carries perceived risk, and that’s why many are hesitant. In any digital change programme, it’s the technology that’s most often cast as the primary reason for failure, despite there rarely being a single, isolated reason which causes critical programmes to flop. According to the NAO, most often, digital transformation projects are derailed by shifting business requirements during implementation and deployment, unrealistic expectations, insufficient supplier support or direction and, significantly, the lack of digital experience and capabilities at the senior or operational level.

In reality, the majority of permanent secretaries and other senior officials do not have first-hand experience of digital organisational change and therefore lack a solid understanding of technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible. Many project impasses stem from the inability or reluctance of decision-makers to engage with the difficult decisions required to implement tech-enabled change.

Put this way, the task of breaking the cycle of technical debt sounds insurmountable - there are so many variables and uncertainties that could lead to further dead ends. But the answer for local government lies in procurement, and making it a positive and proactive part of the digital transformation process.

Timeliness and cost-effectiveness of a product, partner or service must be weighed against a balance sheet of technical debt, and considered within the wider picture of how it will help to reduce it over time. The best solution won’t arrive on a platter, but could take a combination of multiple partners or services, such as a software developer and consultancy, who can collaborate to explore options and potential.

This is where digital partnerships play an important role. Local authorities need to work with organisations that can form a deeper understanding of the organisation, its current processes, challenges and goals, and the overall skills and knowledge of personnel. Working with experienced partners will help to bridge the gap between commissioner and digital change manager to help guide successful, long-lasting deployments that break the cycle of technical debt, and can suggest versatile open-source solutions that both promote knowledge - and technology-sharing in local government and don’t lock organisations into tight contracts with specific vendors.

Technical debt is a burden that cannot be alleviated overnight. However, this doesn’t mean local government organisations can’t take immediate actions that will help address it. By implementing smart, light touch and open source solutions, created in close collaboration with experts, councils can ensure their services are fit for purpose, benefiting citizens and producing value for money.

Iouri Prokhorov is CEO and founder of Helastel

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