Establishing a new way of working

In this digitisation article, Paul Webb discusses how councils are having to operate differently through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond

During the pandemic, the benefits for councils of having their data hosted by a third party off site, while also being easily accessible have been brought into sharp focus. This kind of remote capability has been key to the service continuity that many councils have been able to deliver through the crisis.

Those councils that have not fully digitised and brought in mobile technology and the widespread use of laptops have struggled to keep services up and running during Covid-19. Staff tied to the use of a particular office PC to carry out their work have found conducting their duties difficult this year, especially during the initial period of lockdown. Work has had to be postponed and even cancelled altogether as a result.

Other local authorities, typically those that had already digitised their operations prior to Covid-19 have risen to the challenge; embraced the use of collaborative technologies such as Microsoft Teams and have continued with business as usual across waste collections, highways maintenance, pothole repairs and street lighting. That said, even in councils that have digitised many service areas, some functions still remain wedded to manual legacy processes. Areas such as green spaces and grounds maintenance, for example, often still maintain paper-based procedures, while street lighting is typically far more advanced.

Why digitalisation matters
Ultimately, the level of digitalisation demonstrated by these councils is closely linked to their agility as service operations. Councils that are digitally advanced, have adapted seamlessly to the new world. Supervisors that have the technology to work securely from home have been able to continue scheduling pothole repairs and inspections, while using collaborative technologies to continue communicating with operational and inspection teams working out in the field, and make schedule changes if there are staff shortages or ad hoc delivery requests.

The latest connected asset management technology has also had a key role to play in all this. Having their data hosted off-site and accessible through any browser or Internet connection is a major benefit for councils. It means employees who are self-isolating, for example, can keep working on key back office and data management tasks, while those working in the field who are ill, or otherwise need to self-isolate, can be given time to recuperate safely while other staff are re-assigned to cover their work.

Operations managers can review and create new rounds for a waste system or adapt existing ones in order to meet ad hoc requests and/or reduce the staffing resource required – a key consideration through this period. By adopting this kind of approach, these managers don’t need to go into the office, pull out pieces of paper and a map and sit behind a desk and they don’t need to handle job sheets. It is a minimal contact approach which can help with social distancing.

This approach also supports good communication between asset management technology and local authority websites through APIs and other connectors and adapters. The connectivity means that councils no longer have to update both their database and website manually. If they have a date in place for a piece of work that the customer may be interested in, they can just change the status in the asset management system. Customers can access updates simply by visiting the website.

That integration and live data getting through to the customer reduces impact on telephone calls to contact centres and communications officers having to manually update the website every day.  Having that live information is key in keeping residents happy and reducing pressure on councils in these difficult times.

Training can be transformed in the home environment too. Remote training can be done via collaborative software like Microsoft Teams. Online learning management systems can be key too as they are task-driven, allowing staff to use them at a time that suits rather than having to fit with a set timetable.

Using cloud-based technology also bring councils benefits, enabling them to reduce the burden of server management on hard-pressed IT staff and helping them to keep these staff safer by limiting their time in the office. By eliminating the requirement for so much IT hardware, cloud also reduces risk for the organisation.

Looking ahead
Today, as we look to the future, the exit strategy from the pandemic remains shrouded in uncertainty. Yet, it is clear that those councils that had moved to digital before the outbreak and have the latest advanced systems and solutions in place will be best placed to provide the resilient and agile service delivery that local authorities are looking for in these times. In that sense also, the virus is likely to accelerate the digital transformation process.

Councils that have not transitioned to digital will have found themselves at a competitive disadvantage during the first wave. As the virus evolves, many will want to invest in solutions that enable them to close the digital gap, while ensuring business continuity and the delivery of service excellence.

Paul Webb is Senior Product Consultant at Yotta.