Covid-19 may herald a sea-change in technology

Steve White explains why coronavirus marks a turning point in councils’ approach to new technology investment

Broadly speaking, we can look at councils’ response to the pandemic in three key stages: the initial onset, the operational phase, when the outbreak was at its height, and the recovery as the lockdown has eased.

At the outset of the crisis, many authorities struggled to implement the right systems and processes to support remote working and ensure the resilience and continuity of their service offerings. Some had the opportunity to test out home working scenarios ahead of the government measures. Many others were in a position where they were left hoping that available equipment and bandwidths would hold up as workers increasingly moved back home.

In terms of the operational phase, councils that have struggled most were those that did not have their back office systems fully hosted to deliver an online capability and those that had not put mobile working practices in place. Often, local authorities had some kind of digital capability but while they knew this would sustain them for a period, they were also aware it might not suffice over the longer term. They understood that these weaknesses stemmed from a lack of previous investment in technology capable of supporting more flexible ways of working.

Given all that, as we approach the third phase, the long-term recovery and beyond, Covid-19 may herald a sea-change in technology investment as councils increasingly value the need to have robust and resilient systems in place to better manage service delivery in crisis times. This may not, after all, be the last pandemic we see. Many experts are predicting a second wave of Covid later in the year – and councils increasingly appreciate they need to be ready for that.

Some have already learnt, from previous severe winter weather or recent flooding situations, the benefits that contingency plans, including plans for remote working backed by the latest digital technologies, can bring.

Ultimately, after all, having a combination of online hosted back office systems and mobile working in place at times of crisis gives councils a level of flexibility and resilience to manage situations more effectively. They don’t have to worry, for example, about systems going down because they know that a third party will be able to maintain the system for them remotely. Where on-premise systems have been in place, councils have often struggled to fix them on their own in a timely manner during lockdown.

Councils have been under pressure to keep at least a minimal level of service running in areas like waste collection. That has meant, especially in the early days of lockdown, some having to switch staff over from other service areas like street cleansing or green spaces. Easy-to-use mobile working systems have added flexibility and made operating in this way much more viable.

How the pandemic has driven through change
As we come out of lockdown and look to the future of council services, necessity is likely to become in some senses ‘the mother of invention’. The pandemic has driven many to start to adopt mobile and remote working to look at ways they can improve their online portals and capability in order to interact with citizens more closely at a time when many are confined to home. They have had to become more agile. Covid-19 has in this way, therefore, acted as a catalyst for change.

It has also undoubtedly shone a light on the need for councils to be more agile in areas like asset management and maintenance and delivering environmental services. The latest connected asset management platforms can certainly play a part here. If they are software as a service based, they can be accessed from anywhere. They facilitate working from home which has become essential in the current climate.

They also facilitate mobile working meaning that operational staff out on the frontline can be tasked with new jobs or have their projects changed quickly and easily without having to attend a depot or central location. Having a consistent user interface and user experience in place also makes it easier for councils to move staff quickly from one service area to another where the need for regular staff to take time off for illness or self-isolation dictates.

Connectivity is also key in a lockdown scenario of course. It is easy for back office teams to assign work and for engineers and inspection teams to log when they have completed it. If systems have an open application programming interface (API), it is easy for them to connect with other systems and through such an approach make key information publicly available and keep citizens informed.

As we look to the future, there is a growing difference here among councils between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Those that have online capability and mobile systems, and technology that provides the ability to communicate and collaborate, have been able to be much more agile and adjust quickly to the new normal. Moving forwards, more and more councils will come to the realisation that in order to deal more effectively with the next crises, they will need to have the latest connected digital technologies in place.

Steve White is head of Transformation Accounts, Yotta.