UK councils in distress – What can we learn from ‘Down Under’? 

By Ian Owen | 18 December 2023

Earlier this year The MJ reported that one in 10 county and unitary authorities were not sure if they could balance their books this year.

While the UK’s biggest council, Birmingham, was declared bankrupt this summer, the impact of inflation across all services, rising social care costs and specific challenges with children’s services looks set to push many more local authorities over the brink. Granted, Birmingham’s woes were attributed to the not unsubstantial matter of a £760m historic pay claim, tough government cuts and problems installing a new IT system – but is there nothing a council can do to fight back? I think there is. 

I recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Australia, where TechnologyOne was founded, to see how councils there are using technology to cut costs and better serve their communities. While digitisation cannot solve the huge structural problems facing the UK – funding cuts, increasing costs and greater demands on services – it can provide local government with a respite from constant firefighting, inefficiencies and sleepless nights.  

Councils in Australia are facing the same issues as their UK cousins, but on a smaller scale. The huge difference I saw between local government in Australia and the UK was mostly down to their adoption of technology. While the majority of UK councils are still using fragmented, on-premises systems to run their finances, property, human resources, payroll and services, Australian councils such as Shoalhaven (on the south coast of New South Wales) and Wollongong City Council (south of Sydney) have adopted ERP Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) systems, which can help cut operational costs by up to 20 per cent and, more importantly, allow them to manage their operations to the benefit of taxpayers.  

Ingrid McAlpin, CEO of Wollongong City Council, is a typical advocate of digitisation, having adopted new technology back in 2021. Prior to that, the council was operating 400 ‘best-of-breed’ applications, which all needed attention and management. Like many UK councils, they were just 'keeping the lights on', not really satisfying the needs of the community. 

Having ditched its numerous legacy systems and opted for one integrated and connected solution, Wollongong no longer spends time undertaking constant software upgrades, disaster recovery upgrades or bug fixes – these are all undertaken centrally by their vendor. Now, they are no longer focusing on applications. Instead, the council is free to deliver what its residents want on a daily basis. It’s a kind of liberation, with council officials free to be more creative. A great example of this is the ability to explore solutions to a recurrent flooding issue faced by the city. Using digital technology, the council is currently employing sensors to identify drainage issues and raise work requests before they become problems. 

Another east coast council, Shoalhaven, is harnessing AI technology linked to its backend to maintain roads and paths, improving safety and reducing accidents. Here, cameras attached to bin lorries monitor the condition of roads as they go about their usual routes, significantly reducing inspection time. This is a seamless solution that is linked to the council’s system, automatically raising a work order when a pothole is detected by the cameras, making the process incredibly efficient. Some UK councils are adopting similar monitoring technology, but this is as a bolt-on extra, which is not always integrated or linked to their maintenance teams.  

Adopting this new breed of technology is also helping councils down under combat the scourge of cyber-attacks. According to the insurance firm Gallagher, UK councils were hit with an astonishing 2.3 million attempted IT security breaches in the first eight months of the year. And this trend is likely to double this year, if the experience of Sefton Council is any indication.  

In March, the council revealed it was fighting off 30,000 cyber-attacks a month, 50% up on the rate in 2022. In Australia, councils’ digital defences are not impregnable, but once again, the adoption of a single, integrated enterprise model provides far stronger defences. According to Webber Insurance, which monitors data breaches in Australia, during 2023 not a single council had experienced a successful cyber-attack. Draw your own conclusions.  

Besieged UK councils are facing an understandable conundrum: ‘We know we’re operating on equipment from the 1980s and 1990s, but we simply can’t afford to invest in new technology.’ Indeed, while many in local government recognise the need to address these issues, others still feel there are more pressing demands for limited budgets?than?spending on new IT systems.  

We know ERP implementations can be difficult transformational projects to roll out, but our experience has seen us build great IP for local government and the advent of new technology, in particular machine learning and automation is helping shorten and minimise the risk of such implementations.  

As councils are constantly asked to do more with less, digital transformation is in fact the key to the conundrum. Sadly, things will only get worse, not better, unless CFOs and CIOs in councils grasp the nettle, challenge the status quo and implement systems that help them to manage their organisations. 

Ian Owen is public sector industry director at TechnologyOne 

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