Advances in technology offer many opportunities to the local government sector - but challenges must first be overcome to capitalise on them.
So it was that among the chief executives and senior officers gathered around the table at The MJ's Future Forum North, ambition and optimism for what can be achieved was tempered with a measure of frustration at some of the barriers they face.
Most of the delegates agreed that the greatest challenges lay not with the technology, but with those expected to make use of it.
Many were battling to effect change within the culture of their organisations, facing resistance to change, particularly among the councils’ elected members from across the political spectrum.
One said: ‘My issue is taking elected members on the journey with me. Some of them really get it, others are illiterate.
A second added: ‘We have challenges as a small rural authority. There’s no way we could go totally digital here – members would never go for it. They represent the older demographic.’
It was a similar story elsewhere, where elected members were unwilling to take the final step. Another officer added: ‘We have taken a people-led view, enabling people to operate in the digital world externally and internally.
‘Politicians are up for solutions until you say we are going to turn off the analogue.’
Others encountered entrenched attitudes to practices enabled by digital advances such as working from home, viewed as just ‘sitting in your hot tub, drinking tea’ by some councillors, according to another delegate. They added: ‘There’s a real culture issue around agile working, it’s really quite frustrating – that’s from both Labour and Conservative leaders.’
However, the view was not universal, with some wildly differing reactions from councillors to the introduction of mobile technology. ‘I’ve had members in my office crying, while others are saying “it’s fantastic, we are so connected”,’ one officer said.
For some, staff have shown similar reluctance to embrace new ways of working where support, training, or reassurance from leadership has been lacking.
One participant told delegates: ‘I know there are savings we can make for frontline services. But where we fail is taking our staff with us initially. They don’t enjoy the digital experience as much as face-to-face.’
Another pointed out: ‘The sector is peppered with examples of where we need culture shifts.’
A note of caution was sounded by one of those present regarding those councils are meant to serve: ‘We can digitise everything, but if our communities aren’t with us, it creates a skills gap.’
While advances in technology bring with them benefits, keeping pace can in itself prove difficult.
‘It’s not sustainable what any of us is doing, it’s a world of disruption and transformation, led by digital,’ one officer said.
Another lamented over the lack of data sharing across their own disparate IT hardware: ‘We have got 200 systems and the same data is in every separate system.’
One officer told the meeting: ‘People are so time precious now, they will want answers instantly. The way people want to interact with the world is moving so fast, your system can be considered slow, as the technology has moved on by the time you get it.’
Another said: ‘We embarked on an ambitious digital project. The worry is it’s not as modern as it was three years ago.’
They added: ‘We don’t have a lot of in-house digital expertise. There’s a lot of trust in contractors.’
Indeed, the advances in technology can also leave authorities with a lack of personnel with the required abilities to keep it running, particularly in times of crisis, as one delegate highlighted following a cyberattack on their organisation: ‘We had systems down for days,’ they said. ‘It has been absolute carnage to be honest. We have advertised four times for staff with a level of skill.’
Another officer also bemoaned a lack of eligible staff in their area. ‘We need more market maturity – developers are getting sucked into cities,’ they said.
The sector also has some catching up to do in the way it works together and offers mutual support, some participants suggested.
‘As a sector we are not very good at sharing best practice,’ said one.
Another said: ‘If you have issues, you can put money on it that you are not alone.’
Some are looking for even closer working. One of the delegates told the meeting: ‘We have a very strong emphasis around digital and devolution has potential in terms of running shared systems as part of integration.
‘I’m optimistic about it, but we all know the challenge of silo working.’
However, there was a cautionary tale from another of those present, who said they had been regarded as the junior partner in a shared service arrangement with another local authority.
‘It’s a long journey, it has been very protracted. There were three or four years where not much happened in a shared service we were very much following.
‘There was a change of leadership and it’s a very different organisation now – we have gone from the tail wagging the dog to where we have a vision.’
Despite the obstacles, there was no lack of optimism and ambition among the officers for what the digital arena could offer.
‘My main focus is getting away from digital programmes and moving towards a culture where it is embedded, said one of them.
‘I want to have disruption. We need a joined-up approach and digital is a way of doing that.’
They were not the only one. Another officer said: ‘We want to focus our culture less on digital and more on redesign.’
Another said: ‘We are focusing on how we connect with residents. They do everything on a smart phone – we should be like that. It’s difficult because local government has been established for a long time.
‘In the Victorian era, water and electricity were game changers, now digital is the new game changer. As civic leaders, we lead that change. Local government will lead the way to the next generation.’
However, another of the delegates had a different take: ‘Local government is at the forefront of the channel shift and that’s because of austerity – it has had to.’
The meeting heard from officers speaking about specific projects that were opening up new possibilities in their communities.
They included one which has seen an authority working alongside GPs through the use of data to aid in prevention and reduce the number of admissions that were attributed to heart disease.
Another of the participants said: ‘We are experimenting with bots on 20% of our FAQs . With the next generation it will be easier – we are learning people’s preferences instead of forcing them.
‘Bots aren’t a replacement for human beings, it’s knowing when to pass that on to a human.’
Developments in Artificial Intelligence were not universally popular however, as one officer expressed concern about the costs of keeping up with rapid advances.
Another felt the technology had some way to go before it was up to scratch. ‘When the public phoned up in crisis because benefits hadn’t been paid they were speaking to someone,’ they said.
‘We need to have better triaging to services on the ones that need the help.’
It was not the only area in the digital field where officers were hoping to see more advances.
‘The NHS does a lot with data – more than councils, we are ahead in some areas and need to catch up in others,’ said one of the delegates.
Another agreed: ‘We still have challenges in data and sharing with partners.’
While there may be obstacles to digital change, a lack of optimism and ambition on the part of local government leaders is certainly not among them.
Jamie Whysall – Government to Citizen Lead, Fujitsu
We’re seeing leaders in local authorities taking the leap to transform their operations and enhance their engagements with citizens. Yet, the biggest barrier holding them back is the resistance to change – both from their citizens and their employees.
‘Digital’ is becoming a basic human right; effective transformation has the potential to open up a better relationship between citizens and local authorities. But transformation implies more than being citizen-centric and putting services online. Truly transforming local authorities means reimagining the whole end-to-end process, anticipating citizen’s needs proactively, even pre-empting and automating citizen’s life events, while protecting and sharing data securely. This can seem an insurmountable task to local authority leaders and elected members; our view on this is to have a big bold vision but to start small and simple; with data.
Data is the key enabler. With so much data spread across different systems in your local authority, it can be overwhelming. Data can be optimised and integrated across your organisation to make better informed decisions as the foundation of digital transformation. Making your services more proactive will change the way citizens and employees interact with you. Through a controlled and sustained approach, you can bring citizens, elected members and your employees on this journey with you allowing you to really realise the benefits of transformative digital.
We’re running digital transformation workshops with councils across the UK to explore how we can unblock their challenges by placing people at the heart of the workshop.
Fujitsu would be delighted to offer a digital transformation workshop to any local authorities with a complex business challenge. Contact Jamie Whysall via email at Jamie.Whysall@uk.fujitsu.com in the first instance or visit: http://bit.ly/FujitsuMJ
The MJ/Fujitsu round table attendees:
Paul Belotti – East Riding of Yorkshire Council
Karen Bradford – Gedling BC
George Candler – Northampton BC
Paul Fleming – Blackburn and Darwen BC
John Henderson – Staffordshire CC
Karen McCann – Fujitsu
Cathy Mulligan – Fujitsu
Rose Rouse – Eden DC
Paul Shevlin – Craven DC
Pam Smith – Stockport MBC
Jonathan Tew – Birmingham City Council
Michael Burton – The MJ (chair)