The local government sector has gone through some dramatic changes in recent years. These have been driven in part by financial pressures, devolution and, since last year, Brexit. But the new digital landscape has also been a key factor, and digitisation - to a greater or lesser degree - is being taken up by councils across the country.
A recent joint survey from The MJ and BT on digital and the delivery of local public services has produced a number of intriguing results, not the least of which was that over 55% of chief executives see themselves as heading their organisations’ digital transformation programme. This was more than twice the number of chief digital officers (21.2%) who saw themselves in that same role.
To find out more, The MJ and BT hosted a round table debate between a group of chief executives and one councillor on the future of local government transformation during a time of austerity, a discussion which produced some useful insights into the ever-shifting terrain of transformation.
There was consensus among the CEOs as to the potential of digitisation. As one put it, digital technology was an ‘enabler’ for fundamentally transforming local government public services and building ‘workforces of the future’ that could focus more carefully on place and deliver more integrated services.
It could also be used to drive out ‘transactional inefficiency’ and support flexible working (‘much more than just being able to use your computer at home’). The delivery of services through automated processes was also making strides, thanks largely to the adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI). This latter point could be significant for hard-pressed social care services, one contributor noted, pointing to the use Japan makes of robotics in care.
However, there were concerns that transformation had been characterised for too long by a focus on organisational shape and the need to save money, to the detriment of connectivity — an issue one CEO described as a ‘huge existential risk for us in the public sector.’
Consumers of council services in the not-too-distant future will expect to be able to carry out the majority of transactions with their local authority through a digital channel rather than in person. As one contributor noted, nobody queues up to do their taxes at the Post Office when it can be done online. Councils had to recognise this, someone else agreed, or else they would be in danger of becoming ‘archaic in the way they operate’.
Acknowledging the importance of connectivity, one chief executive reminded her colleagues it was the quality of customer service offered by councils that was the most crucial point to remember. ‘The role of the council,’ she said, ‘is still absolutely fundamental to the quality of the place and the aspirations of the lives of people.’ It was vital, she continued, that residents would still be able to get through to the council on the phone or talk with someone face to face. This prevented the authority from seeming ‘aloof’ and helped to build trust.
True, another chief executive responded. However, financial constraints meant anything that could be done digitally should be done so if it meant money could be saved.
The local government workforce also expect their authorities to be on the front line of digital transformation. One CEO noted council staff wanted access to technology that was up-to-date and reflected their experience outside of work. They did not wish to work with clunky hardware when they owned a smart phone.
But she also raised the downside of automation: job losses. ‘Our professional staff get the idea, and they want these systems,’ she said, ‘but I don’t think they’ve quite worked out what that will mean for them and their jobs.’ On a more positive note, one CEO said his council had found it very useful to bring more young people on board via apprenticeships because they brought ‘a huge amount of energy and good ideas’, especially when it came to digital.
Cost is a crucial factor where technological changes are concerned, agreed most of the contributors. The capital investment for large scale digital transformation is huge, especially during a time of cuts, even when it means potential savings in the future. And there is always the risk of across-the-board failure when everything is so integrated. As one CEO said: ‘It fails every five years, so be it. But more than once a year is totally unacceptable.’
On top of this, the ever-changing tech landscape can be a struggle to keep up with. Responding to this point, a representative from BT said having a good relationship with your supplier was key because they have a good idea what is ‘around the corner’ in the market. ‘What you really need to have is a number of strategic partners you can rely on to deliver those services for you,’ he said, ‘so when that technology changes the supplier can help you to make that change.’
One danger highlighted related to the technology side of transformation. It was a risk to see everything through the ‘lens of technology’, said a number of the CEOs. Instead, transformation should be about culture and getting professionals to work together,’ one noted. There needs to be ‘massive cultural change’ within local authorities because without a well established digital platform, transformation would be unsuccessful.
And this should be led from the top, one contributor insisted, in a point going back to the findings of The MJ/BT survey. CEOs should lead by example and work to ensure that the digital transformation agenda was being pursued across the entire organisation. They must be ‘part of the architecture for transforming their organisations and places, and unleashing the power of digital is one of the ways they can do that,’ one chief executive said.
A point that was repeatedly emphasised was that digital should not be confused with ICT. The latter was just one player in the wider transformation programme. But service managers should work closely with them on digitisation, and chief executives should also lead by setting out a good strategy and ensuring resources go to the right areas. This means doing more than simply cultivating a strong Twitter following, someone added.
One CEO pointed out that the first generation of big, 10 year contracts were coming to an end and so councils were going to have to ask themselves: do they still want long-term contracts with one company? The BT representative said this was not their main approach anymore. ‘We think local government is all about a basket of organisations working for the good of the council rather than one organisation just delivering everything.’
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