Low-code innovation: enabling councils to be a lifeline for society

Richard Farrell discusses the role that innovative technologies, including automation, can and should play in enabling local authorities to guide and support citizens

Since the beginning of the pandemic, government rules and guidance have changed on a frequent basis, with residents relying on local authorities for the latest updates and instruction. These councils have been placed in the hot seat of dealing with incoming enquiries – acting as much-needed lifelines and bridging the gap between the central Government and the general public, all whilst supporting citizens throughout the crisis. Not only have councils had to implement measures defined centrally; they have also had to deliver all the other ‘business-as-usual’ services expected – all whilst grappling with the challenges of remote working.

When Covid-19 struck, local councils were forced to adopt a multitude of additional responsibilities in an instant. This included the management of shielding, conducting welfare checks, providing business grants, handling PPE distribution and supporting national initiatives such as Track and Trace. During this time, authorities had to increase an already high focus on social care to help support and protect the most vulnerable. And now, as the UK starts its steps on the government’s proposed roadmap out of lockdown, the role of local councils will be more crucial than ever before. 

Acting as a beacon of hope
Historically, the relationship between local councils and their citizens has not always been smooth – that’s part and parcel as the body that bridges citizens with the central government. However, the past year has proven testament to the work that these authorities have been doing to maintain the trust of their local areas. Research shows that 79 per cent of people were happy with the way their local council’s key workers kept essential services going during the first lockdown. In addition, over half (56 per cent) trust local authorities over government ministers to make decisions for their local area.

But achieving this level of trust has not come without its challenges. After the government introduced business support schemes, many local councils found themselves faced with fewer resources as hundreds of council staff were put on furlough. Acting as a direct link between their constituents and the government means that a lack of manpower and reliance on outdated manual processes simply isn’t feasible. After all, each individual citizen enquiry is unique and requires some level of human engagement to ensure all citizens are provided with as much help and advice as needed. But facilitating this becomes a much harder task when employee time is split between handling cases and managing internal processes.

Make do and survive, or innovate and thrive
To help relieve this build-up of pressure, innovative technologies, including automation, underpinned by Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies such as low-code, have played a pivotal role in helping local authorities guide and support citizens. In fact, Gartner has recently listed low-code as being one of the key technology conditions for government enterprise. From enabling teams to build better processes to freeing up staff to focus on value-added activities, intelligent automation can help improve internal efficiencies and enable councils to better support citizens through the pandemic and beyond. These technologies allow for fast and agile delivery of applications and services within weeks rather than months, creating time for collaborative teams to quickly deliver essential services. This in turn leads to improved levels of citizen satisfaction as the journey from enquiry to solution is quicker, simpler, and hassle-free, with automatic updates enabled at every stage.

By embracing easy and rapid application development, and with minimal need for IT intervention, councils can ensure faster response times. Job allocation can be automated while at the same time updating all remote workers with vital case information automatically. Not only that, but the benefits of auto-updates extend beyond simple scheduling tasks, as they provide the ability for real-time reporting and tracking on in-depth process activities stage by stage, across all services. Above all else, automated processes free staff up so they can focus on citizen engagement and value-added activities.

Sharing resources for the greater good
There are already several organisations that have taken the path towards intelligent automation, which has made a substantial impact on managing day-to-day pressures. Cumbria Council was one of the first UK councils to use low-code technology. With a limited budget and small team, the council harnessed its power to create 16 different systems within just 12 months, each one making huge financial and resource savings. In addition, development timescales were vastly reduced – what would usually have taken at least four months was made possible in four weeks.

Due to the ongoing challenges brought on by the pandemic, there is currently a big focus on cross-organisational collaboration and utilising shared resources between authorities. For example, low-code applications built by Cumbria Council, are now available for other councils to utilise and build on. The ability to share and collaborate across the sector enables councils to come together and formulate the best solution for their citizens. Adur & Worthing Councils felt the benefits first-hand after using an app sharing system to help deploy its ‘Go Local’ scheme, partnering up with West Sussex County Council in the process. Its mission was to make digital change people-centred, and the cross-council collaboration really supported this goal.

Putting theory into practice
In a world where high levels of communication and seamless user experiences are essential, these innovative digital processes have become, and will continue to be, instrumental in the long-term success of local authorities. What we’re yet to establish is: have citizen expectations been permanently altered during the pandemic? And, if so, how will these new expectations affect local councils moving forwards?

One thing we know for certain is that authorities will need to be on top of their internal processes to prepare for whatever shifts in demand that may occur. Further to this, local councils need to ensure they are equipped with the right tools to scale and grow, using resources as smartly as possible to keep up with future change and potential budgetary restrictions. And with many companies committing to ongoing part-time remote working as a minimum beyond the pandemic, technologies that support a remote workforce will be pivotal to ensuring authorities can provide continuity, even when working from home. With low-code technology, local councils will be equipped with the necessary tools to maintain their crucial role of being a beacon for all those in need, beyond guiding citizens out of lockdown.

Richard Farrell is Chief Innovation Officer at Netcall.

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