In a sector that has faced as many funding challenges as local government in recent years, ‘digital transformation’ may no doubt occasionally sound like an expensive extravagance to some senior managers or service leaders.
Of course, demonstrating the many potential benefits of the better use of technology can – usually – help make a very compelling case for whatever upfront investment is required.
But the times we are now living in are, you may have noticed, anything but usual.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to place enormous and growing strain on public services – and the financing needed to support them – there is a real risk that councils’ innovation projects will be delayed, disrupted, or even ditched. And making the argument for spending on new tech could prove more difficult than ever.
But according to Pam Smith, chief executive of Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, connectivity should no longer be seen as anything other than a fundamental necessity.
“Digital is as important now as clean water was in Victorian times – it is an essential, it is not a luxury,” she said. “In Stockport, we have been on our digital journey for four years, and it is built around our communities. We build technology with them, and for them.”
If proof were needed of the benefits offered by computing platforms, it has been provided abundantly in the last 12 months. As a long-term and enthusiastic adopter of digital, Stockport was as well placed as possible to cope with the new ways of working necessitated last year.
And even for such a forward-thinking organisation, “Covid has accelerated change, and we found out that our workforce is adaptable to doing things differently”, Smith said, speaking on a recent webinar hosted by Civil Service World sister publication PublicTechnology and SAP Concur.
But, however clear the advantages of digital platforms and services, pursuing transformation invariably brings with it a degree of risk. And, according to Smith, it is here that central government can play a key role in supporting councils in adopting new approaches or emerging technology.
While acknowledging that it already “does a lot” to support councils, Smith added that central government can also play an important role in helping drive local transformation initiatives.
“When suppliers, public services, and central government come together, the risks can be shared more widely – and, therefore, so can the benefits”
Pam Smith, Stockport Council CEO
“It could really support some innovation and risk-taking in terms of trying to do things differently – as long as the goal is to improve the life of residents, and improve the system, then I think they could help to share some of that risk,” she said. “Because that is when I think you see suppliers and public services come together, alongside central government – because then some of the risks can be shared more widely, and therefore the benefits can be shared more widely. I do think the government could have a bigger role in supporting that innovation and using its convening powers to bring people together, to see an acceleration of the things that we need to transform.”
David Hipwell, local authority sales lead at SAP Concur, acknowledged that local government has never faced so many financial challenges.
“There is uncertainty over funding… but also a lot of lost income,” he said. “And because we have been through austerity over the last 10 years, the scope for reducing spend has been reduced.”
In this context, Hipwell said it is important for to remember that investments in technology and investments in critical services are one and the same. Something that was, once again, evidenced by the strain placed on services by the coronavirus crisis.
“Over the last nine months we have seen a rapid acceleration of digital technology; for some councils, there was a short-term spike of activity, and a lot of back-end systems that had to be adopted – or adapted – to enable that new way of working,” he said. “There has also been an increase in workload, which… has led to any time not spent on front-line services – any admin work, any internal process – being highlighted further, and seen as an area for consideration for saving time.”
Hipwell cited the example of one of his local government customers, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, that has coined a slogan to encapsulate the importance of using tech to create systems that are as seamless as possible: ‘social work, not paperwork’.
“This is about concentrating on front-line services and not taking up a lot of time on the back-office,” he added.
“Over the last nine months we have seen a rapid acceleration of digital technology… there has also been an increase in workload, which has led to any time not spent on front-line services being highlighted further, and seen as an area for consideration for saving time.”
David Hipwell, SAP Concur
A key facet of Stockport’s digitisation work to date has been to ensure that it is as wide-reaching as possible, and serves all of the Greater Manchester borough’s residents. This commitment to inclusivity has never been so important, according to the CEO.
“We have a digital strategy, and we want to make sure it reaches out to everyone,” she said. “We have been building the back office, building the foundations… and we were really set up for success, because when we had to change the way we work, and flip from being in the office to working remotely, those foundations came into their own, and it was really critical that we as a workforce – and our residents – could access our digital platforms.”
As well as accessing council services during coronavirus restrictions, technology has also been vital in helping people stay in touch with loved ones, according to Smith.
Stockport helped support this in the immediate term by providing care homes with tablet computers during the first national lockdown last year. The council’s longer-term efforts, which have seen the Digital Inclusion Alliance programme it launched three years ago help 8,000 local people gain confidence in using IT, have also played a crucial role.
“Not only has it improved their digital skills, but it can combat one of Covid’s big impacts – loneliness. It has helped reconnect people in ways they never felt possible,” Smith said.
Even for those whose relationship with technology was already familiar and frequent, 2020 offered a unique demonstration in the art of the possible. We enter this new year with a new appreciation of just how much can be achieved digitally, and what this means for us and the organisations we work for – as well those that work for us.
“Digital is going to be vitally important,” Hipwell told webinar attendees. “People’s work styles are going to be changing, and expectations from citizens of their council are going to be changing.”
Councils may, thus, place greater expectation and emphasis on their engagements with suppliers of digital and technology platforms. Such relationships should function as partnerships, rather than simply enabling the provision of products, according to the SAP local authority lead.
“There has to be that level of cooperation and collaboration between public and private sector, and there has to be a realisation that private sector isn’t always just about getting as much money as we can out of public sector – irrespective of the consequences,” he said. “For us, it is about making sure that what we are trying to do is aligned with what the public sector is trying to do…. and, if it is, we need to create awareness that it is. This comes down to cooperation and collaboration – it is not an ‘us and them’ situation, where we are just trying to make money, and they are just buying our stuff: it is about working together for a common goal.”
To hear lots more insights about the impact of the last year on local government transformation, and how councils are planning to use digital in the months and years ahead, click here to watch the whole webinar: registration takes 30 seconds and is completely free of charge.