James Paton 20 August 2020

COVID-19 spotlights information management shortcomings in local government

Disruption caused by the pandemic has put smart workforce collaboration, records integration, and data processing at the heart of local government – but it has also exposed inefficiencies as teams try to access the information they need to progress workloads.

Across many councils, work is already underway to support smart workforce collaboration, integrating records, systems and data into a single view. But this must accelerate – the research study ‘Information in Transition: Smarter Working in the new Normal’, revealed that 60% of respondents still rely on paper records to some extent. The research ranged across the public sector – 38% of respondents came from local government.

It is clear that workers are widely using unconnected, legacy information systems supplemented with paper-based systems in parts of their operations, making flexible, remote working a stretch goal for many local authorities.

In a data-led public sector, the speed and efficiency with which employees can access information is absolutely critical to performance and quality of service. Yet, almost three quarters of those who responded (73%) cited the use of multiple systems across their organisation as the single biggest reason they found it difficult to access information. In fact, 38% of respondents said they had to log into 16 or more information systems in the course of a working day, taking five minutes each time.

Typically, workers will spend 6.6 hours each week waiting for search results to be returned – or more if those searches are spread across multiple systems. Respondents also reported that quality of the application interfaces they are using is a factor in how easily and thoroughly they can search. A quarter (26%) of respondents say their information search facility is ‘not at all intuitive’. This contributes hugely to service delays and performance issues.

Practical action

The research reveals that councils are facing and broadly negotiating day-to-day business process management challenges successfully, despite outdated or over-complex information management systems, siloed data repositories, poor record keeping and concerns about security and data governance.

Yet, refining and improving information search processes is vital, if councils are to deliver the maximum possible benefit to their service users. Those that are more advanced on their digital journey are already taking advantage of controlled repositories that allow better use of unstructured data via metadata search and retrieval, smarter indexing, and technology that is able to identify and extract key data.

Emerging technologies are already available from a number of cloud providers that accelerate and refine these processes still further by adding tools such as natural language processing and machine automation. As a result, research efficiency is expanding to include files and documents outside structured data repositories.

There is no doubt that transforming to automated document management and streamlined information retrieval brings enormous cost and efficiency benefits. But the corresponding process of cultural change can be every bit as complex as the digital transformation. A major overhaul of business processes translates into a significant change to employees’ day-to-day working lives.

It is important to communicate to employees the benefits to them and the service they are providing. It is key to allay fears that automation will threaten jobs and get employee buy-in to change – otherwise investment in technology may not deliver the hoped-for efficiency gains. This is not a one-off exercise. Councils must enable employees to provide feedback on the solution and to allow them to access ongoing, on-the-job training in new systems and processes.

Supporting remote collaboration

As councils transition to delivering services in a ‘new normal’ that will almost certainly feature workplaces and working relationships that are more fluid, dynamic and adaptive, the need for digital operations supporting remote collaboration is becoming increasingly important. As a result, platforms that aggregate information quickly, efficiently and reliably and make it available wherever required have become prerequisite for effective business process management.

James Paton is CEO of SynApps Solutions

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