Digital engines – the ‘new normal’ in local government?

By John McMahon | 26 June 2020

Whether it’s been organising care packages or helping businesses apply for debt support, local government workers have emerged as a touch point of reassurance and trust during the pandemic.

However, there’s more to this than clerical work. Councils have had to turn to new digital tools in order to service citizens correctly and, above all else, safely. As a positive indication of this, the Government Digital Service claims that interactions with online government services have seen record demand during COVID-19.

All of a sudden, we’ve seen a sector traditionally resistant to digital change dramatically transform the face of their IT provision in order to provide the most seamless service that they can. That being said, now that the initial peak of the virus is passing, how can we bring about long time adjustments that can protect staff and citizens in the future?

Predicting the future

In order for product developers to create solutions for local government, we first have to predict all the ways the new circumstances could affect councils, such as a need to switch to online forms in order to minimise physical documents to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

In the context of the hundreds of services councils provide, it becomes immensely challenging, especially when each council delivers around 800 services. New challenges imposed by Covid-19 need to be addressed across each of these services and the job of product managers is to look at all those complexities and find a way to simplify them.  

To bring order, local government has relied heavily on digital platforms like payment or case management platforms. But, what if, to address the unique challenges that have been posed by the virus, we could amplify these platforms by connecting them together into ‘digital engines’, in order to create a seamless user experience for citizens, and to help address the many challenges faced by staff?

Digital engines, what are they and how can they help?

Digital engines usually require the involvement of a few elements to complete a task, such as an API platform, payment platform and notification platform.

For example, a person moving into a new house will need to register their house move with an online form. Step one would be to inform the API platform, step two, would be to update your case management, and then the third step could be ‘buying a new bin’, which would then mean the payment platform would need to be updated.

A digital engine is essentially leveraging all of these platforms and unifying them to complete a task. This creates a much faster, more streamlined service for citizens, and as a result saves staff time and workload.

An engine in action - field operations engine

The strain caused by money and job security concerns during this period has led to a surge of requests for mental health services. For the right mental health journey to be offered to each citizen, assessments need to be made. A field operations engine enables these to happen anywhere.  

Due to COVID-19, the way that a hospital discharges patients has changed dramatically. More people are being discharged from hospital to be assessed at home. A way to carry out those assessments in the person’s home quickly and efficiently is critical for protecting the wellbeing of council, NHS staff and patients.  

By drawing together several platforms that previously would have been accessed separately, appointments are scheduled by the authority in a common standardised way, and medical professionals can easily make assessments which can work out the right services required by the citizen. These can then be connected to a services directory platform and a mapping platform, so local authorities know immediately where the nurse needs to go.

This is one example of how a process can now be made simpler by unifying these tools into one engine. And, now the assessment sequence is improved, the influx of enquiries can be responded to faster. With this renewed vigour for improved platforms, and by working closely with product managers, I think we’ll find that digital engines will become a staple of every local authority’s digital provision moving forward into the ‘new normal’.

John McMahon is product director at IEG4

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