Digital transformation: reshaping local government

In a world where almost everything is available at the touch of a button, local governments must embrace digital transformation in order to sustain public services, writes Eman Al-Hillawi and Peter Marsden
The public sector has historically been behind the curve when it comes to take-up of technological advancements, and local governments are no exception to this. Helping councils to improve both internal efficiencies and service availability for constituents, a digital overhaul could provide the sector with significant benefits. So, what exactly do local authorities have to gain from undertaking a comprehensive digital transformation and how can they go about embracing such an extensive change?
Not all local authorities are behind when it comes to implementing innovative ways of working and some councils have truly embraced progressive attitudes, new technologies and developed digital platforms. However, a significant number still lag behind, whether this is due to insufficient funding being made available to local governments, the risk-averse cultures of such organisations or merely a lack of drive to invest in such innovations.
While it goes without saying that there needs to be an organisational driver for change, it is important to bear in mind that there is consumer demand for increased online services. Failing to provide these or not ensuring they are fit for purpose risks damaging the public’s perception of local authorities.
A comprehensive digital platform can give consumers a whole host of options for remote enquiries and online services, all potentially with 24/7 access. Planning and control services, pothole monitoring, tax payments and even bulk waste and rubbish collection can all be managed at the tap of a screen or the click of a button.
However, the benefits of a digital transformation do not lie solely with consumers; there are also significant internal benefits to be taken advantage of. The biggest cost for any local government organisation tends to be investment in human resources. Introducing greater opportunities for streamlined processes through automation, while costly upon initial investment, will likely bring overheads down in the long run. By using technology to minimise the need for staff to engage with repetitive and time-consuming tasks, councils will not only reduce costs and increase efficiency, but it will also have a positive effect on staff well-being by allowing them to focus efforts on more skilled work.

Digitising paper documents
Moreover, one technological advancement which can have a huge impact on day-to-day efficiency is cloud-based digital management of myriad of paper documentation which is often present within councils. Many local governments are still housing a huge number of physical documents, despite the potential to digitise much of this. By making this transition, councils can save a significant amount of time and money which would otherwise be spent organising documents and paying costly overheads for storage and manual handling.
Cloud-based document management also gives councils the ability to properly file and draw valuable insights from data. Bar human resources, data is a local authority’s most important asset. By understanding who constituents are, how they interact and what they want out of their local government, councils can maximise efficiencies to ensure their needs are met. Having a holistic system in place which allows for automatic data transfers can also help to facilitate this process.
It is worth remembering that the many opportunities presented by digital transformation will be null and void unless the organisation also addresses the issue of culture change. This is a critical part of any major business change programme; without the proper systems in place and without the co-operation of all members of the organisation, the process of digital transformation will become ineffective. People, processes and technology are all intertwined – where one fails, all three fall down – so a holistic approach to business change is essential to prevent problems occurring further down the line.
It is important to understand and evaluate how employees work, where they work, and when they work. A digital transformation will no doubt change all three of these, as day-to-day processes become streamlined, cloud-based services make remote working a possibility and automated services allow for more flexible working times.
So how should a local authority actually implement these changes?
First and foremost, it is vital to outline where systems are at present and exactly what it is they want to achieve. Local government should make sure that any new technology they plan to implement is at a stage of development secure enough to warrant investment. Given the financial constraints local councils are currently facing, senior figures will need to be convinced that there is a clear and quantifiable business case. This will give them the incentive to drive the transformation forward, with clear leadership and management from the top also vital for success.
A potentially positive point for local authorities is that many technological services are moving away from big upfront payments and towards monthly or yearly subscription models based on a pay-per-use service. This allows for greater flexibility – if employee numbers move up and down or if requirements change, licenses and capacity can be adapted accordingly.
Once digital transformation is in motion, there are a number of pitfalls which will need to be avoided. For instance, it is vital that the sensitive data local authorities handle is protected to the standards set out in GDPR legislation. Senior managers should make this a cohesive part of their overall strategy when undertaking a transformation, and involve everyone, including relevant councillors and politicians. This will mean that all data is secure, and approvals are provided in advance, minimising the need for excessive rounds of approvals for investment further down the line.
It is also important to remember that there will always be a need for face-to-face services and physical documentation. Local authorities have an obligation to make their services available to everyone, including those who are not computer literate or do not have internet access. However, digital platforms do mean that councils can potentially consolidate these face-to-face interactions into hubs or centres, retaining accessibility yet streamlining the use of available resources and spaces to reduce spending.
When undertaking a digital transformation, a significant obstacle is often simply knowing where to start. Therefore, it is important that a clear, gradual strategy is implemented ahead of time, including plans for necessary culture change. By doing so, local government can optimise their processes, engage their staff and enhance their service availability for consumers for years to come. Organisations that have taken on the change challenge are reaping the benefits of reduced baseline costs, improved services, more effective and productive staff alongside flexible and future-proofed IT systems.
Eman Al-Hillawi and Peter Marsden are principal consultants at business change consultancy Entec Si.

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