Technological challenges are not the only ones which councils need to overcome to transform services – council staff and the public need to get onboard.
Local government has absorbed more radical change in the past five years than many could have imagined. Between now and 2020, “billions more” are expected in cuts to local government services
In an interview with the Guardian, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark, said “council funding would be reduced by 6.7% between 2016 and 2020, with the bulk of the cuts “frontloaded” in the first two years before easing off in the last two.”
From the onset of austerity, services, jobs and working methods have changed out of recognition, but digital tools have helped blunt what could have been a deterioration in service standards.
Some of this would of course have happened even without austerity as possibilities of the internet and telecommunications steadily increased.
But austerity has been the spur. It provides an easily understood reason why change is necessary and unavoidable – and so perhaps makes it easier to convince people of the need for cultural change.
Any such change must not have a detrimental impact on current services and above all must take service users with it – the best technological solution will be worthless if the public refuses to use it.
Nor are technological solutions optimised unless they offer seamless working – one would not, for example, want adult social care and housing to work on incompatible systems.
The public does not of course directly see back office services, yet any difficulty here caused by staff unfamiliarly with a new way of working can quickly become highly problematic if administrative systems cannot provide the support needed to front line ones.
We must look at what a local authority wants to deliver, the resources it has to do that and how to implement ways of working which both staff and residents will be comfortable with.
The public adapts
Adaptation to digital is perhaps moving faster than one thinks. People who are used to ordering goods by clicking a mouse would be unlikely to use a high street shop that still insisted on a personal visit.
Local government does not ordinarily have customers who can take their business elsewhere, and has historically tended to provide a service into which users must fit.
Quite apart from financial pressures, will people who readily interact online with, say Amazon or Ryanair, remain content to deal with their local authority only through traditional means?
Any technological failure will attract unwelcome headlines thus making political leaders wary of radical change in service delivery.
But since austerity demands such radical responses, can these be delivered without disruption?
Using a digital strategy to solve the conundrum of maintaining services on a lower budget means looking beyond those early challenges to the long-term benefits that would make them worthwhile.
One immediate issue may be that a council’s IT system is obsolete (at least in digital world terms), and that the costs of replacing it look daunting.
However, it is possible for councils to deliver measurable efficiency savings from improved telecommunications.
So, councils that seek to save money through digital transformation have two cultural changes to consider: the way their own staff work and the way the public engages with the council.
As the Local Government Knowledge Navigator’s ‘local government in the digital age’ paper notes: “Introducing mobile and flexible working can deliver enormous savings through estate rationalisation, increasing productivity and extending hours of service delivery. It can also increase staff loyalty, reduce absenteeism and deliver a better work-life balance.”
This may include greater flexibility over where and when staff work, allowing them to work outside the office, ‘mobile’ to work ‘on the move’, and ‘remote’ from home or another office.
Which of these options is chosen should flow from the service design, not service delivery flowing from what the technology happens to make possible.
While a local authority can train its staff, and try to win their ‘hearts and minds’, it will be on less sure ground with changing the way the public interacts with them.
If technology does not deliver as intended, residents may vent frustration at councillors leading to a high volume of complaint calls or by instigating unhelpful local media coverage.
Get on my Cloud
The concept of ‘the cloud’ is one such term that may require explanation to residents.
Although anyone who uses Amazon, or a webmail service, will without knowing it be a cloud user, staff may be disconcerted that software is not ‘on the premises’.
Local residents – while not generally interested in the council’s IT systems – may be alarmed that personal data is held ‘somewhere’ perhaps in circumstances of questionable security.
The cloud can provide multiple capabilities and being web-based is more easily integrated with mobile working and sharing across locations.
Councils can specify the degree of security they see fit and take advantage easily of future updates in software provided through the cloud.
How can success in digital transformation be secured?
Let’s look at some current examples of what councils want to do.
Cumbria County Council, which serves a mixture of urban, industrial and rural areas, has saved £80m in the past three years and must save a further £83m by 2018.
It has many successful digital services – everything from school admissions to ‘blue badge’ applications, but these evolved separately rather than as part of a concerted strategy.
Cumbria now seeks to drive down costs further, citing national benchmarking that shows the cost of digital transactions to be up to 30 times less than face-to-face meetings and also lower than phone and post.
To make this work, the public will be encouraged to use the service outside traditional office hours – a cultural change in itself on both sides – and older people will be supported to stay living independently rather than in a care home through access to home shopping and support services online.
Cumbria’s policy paper on this notes that web access can open up education and employment opportunities, reduce rural isolation and bring services to residents when it would be inconvenient for them to physically access them.
Access to benefits such as Universal Credit will increasingly be online at central government insistence, and therefore actual or potential claimants must be targeted for digital inclusion.
Managing these changes requires Cumbria’s service centre to shift emphasis from being a facility that largely deals with human resources and payroll enquires to the key link between internal and external customers, responsible for the management and delivery of transaction based activities across the council.
Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council has set goals that include contributing to Greater Manchester being in the world top 20 for super connected city regions by 2020 by “ensuring everyone enjoys the power of digital, empowering people and communities through digital services” and support for local businesses to better exploit digital opportunities.
It intends to market the borough as a digitally successful place to attract new business and to encourage and enable local people to become self-reliant online and expand online transactions and social media.
Wigan’s proposed measures of success include reducing number of people who do not have basic digital skills by 8% annually, and that 2017 all staff will be digitally included in partner organisations, all of which will utilise social media channels and offer an online presence for customers.
Wigan is a densely populated urban area but digital is still essential across far flung rural Argyll & Bute Council.
The council’s strategy shows it will maintain a range of customer access channels to ensure choice, but implement a digital first approach. It will develop a new base level e-learning course in customer care and procure a ‘next generation’ customer contact and customer relationship management system capable of .supporting new mobile web and social media interactions.
At Oadby and Wigston Borough Council the council’s switchboard had seen many calls unanswered, abandoned or misdirected and it urgently needed a communications system that would improve customer services. With a ‘one number’ system that can be used by up to 1,000 people, they integrated contact centre applications.
This gave Oadby & Wigston improved staff productivity and collaboration, better customer service and reduced the number of calls lost or abandoned.
Or take Wakefield Council, which found £100,000 in efficiency savings. The council wanted to rationalise its estate and move more than 2,500 employees into more flexible working environments.
They identified the potential for mobile working and the work practices, business processes and platforms needed to enable this.
‘Connected places’ in which local authorities, their partners and customers are linked up can help councils to solve the question of how they deliver the services their public expects while their budgets shrink.
Digital may not fill all that gap, but explained well and with careful steps to educate staff and customers, it can deliver important benefits.
One of the barriers to digitising services in the UK is a combination of three elements – culture, technology and skills.
Cumbria County Council’s digital transformation has saved £80m in the past three years.
Councils seeking to save money through digital transformation have two cultural changes to consider: the way their own staff work and the way the public engages with the council.
Digitally successful places can attract new business and can encourage and enable local people to become self-reliant online, expanding services and streamlining delivery.
Faster access to, and sharing of, data between councils, customers, and partner organisations can avoid the need to collect the same information over again and saving time on information collation and service delivery.