It’s hard to be precise about the size of local government technology spending. The most recent government figures show that £12.8bn has been spent by the public sector overall on G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace alone, so it’s clearly a significant amount at a time when local government budgets are more restricted than ever.
Yet how much of this technology is truly effective? That’s also hard to assess but I would suggest that there are many digital platforms and solutions that are barely used in local government. How can such wastage be avoided, and local government maximise the value from its tech spend?
While local government has been encouraged to invest in new digital technologies to ensure more efficient delivery of public services and to modernise legacy backend systems, it also must keep a lid on expenditure. This balance is something the Government is looking to address with its recently announced Government Technology Innovation Strategy.
This contains detailed plans for how emerging digital technology can be better deployed, focusing on people, process and data and technology and covering new investments in digital technology as well as legacy tech. It’s a welcome strategy, and there undoubtedly needs to be more focus on people and process, as these can be major barriers to the effective deploying of tech.
New technology can seem very attractive. If a local health authority is having issues with getting drivers to take patients to and from hospitals at the right time, then a tool that tells drivers exactly when and where they are required can seem like an effective proposition.
But is it really technology that’s causing the issues? In this example, the actual problem might be a lack of planning and forethought. While drivers are given the correct times to pick patients up, they were given only an approximate time for the return journey. Medical appointments can take longer than expected for many reasons and this led to drivers waiting around. This is not a problem that would be addressed by new technology.
A better approach would be to look at the processes and management that surround a technology. This is something that should take place before all local government IT investment and focus on the underlying and existing behaviours. This is vital, because if they are not addressed then there will be no real improvement and any investment will not deliver the desired ROI.
It’s rare that any technology is used in isolation and will almost certainly need to connect to existing systems. Its success will also depend on how users in that particular department deploy technology in their job…or do not. For example, if a local health authority implements a new digital booking system, it needs to connect with existing systems and be deployed effectively by users. This requires due diligence into those existing systems and the working habits of the employees. A new bookings system could be required, but if staff are primarily using another incompatible system for a related function, then the new system would not be effective.
It can certainly be a viable option to make better use of existing systems rather than investing in something new. Sometimes by changing processes or behaviours an improvement could be made, so it becomes important to ask what purpose a new technology will serve?
We regularly come across cupboards full of broken technology and new systems which provide lots of data but very little insight. Managers still struggle to understand why productivity hasn’t improved and service levels remain stubbornly at previous levels.
Technology can add enormous value to local government, creating efficiencies and improving productivity, but throwing money at tech is not necessarily the answer. By focusing on the people, processes and behaviours around technology, local government can make its IT investment go much further.
David Beggs is practice director at Managementors