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Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation at councils, but barriers remain

(Image credit: Shutterstock / aorpixza)

The past year has been one of huge upheaval for local councils across the United Kingdom, who have faced severe funding and operational challenges as a result of the pandemic.

However, despite the unprecedented trials that UK councils have faced, thankfully it’s not wholly bad news. Two new governmental progress reports show that the disruption caused by Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation plans of councils by up to three years.

A report published by The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), this month, has found that the pandemic has fueled innovative ways in which councils use data. While, Scotland’s Accounts Commission “Digital Progress in Local Government” report shows that digital transformation plans have leapt forward by years at a number of councils.

Both reports demonstrate that local authorities, faced with a once in a generation public health crisis, have embraced digital technology and sought novel new ways to continue to deliver public services at a distance, to keep residents safe.

Local authorities, like other sectors, have been truly innovative in how they’ve evolved using technology to survive during the crisis. Argyll and Bute Council in Scotland, for example, has used drone technology to deliver vital medical supplies to its less accessible islands, while local authorities in Essex have developed new systems to help emergency services teams share data in real time.

Not to be underestimated is also the huge amounts of work councils been doing behind the scenes, switching thousands of employees to new software as a service and cloud-based services, so that they can continue to work effectively and securely from home.

But, while progress is being made, there’s still some way to go if local authorities are to truly embrace digital transformation to drive business change and improve how they interact with citizens.

Crisis creates opportunity

The Scottish Accounts Commission argues that greater collaboration, use of shared expertise, citizen engagement and more strategic planning are all needed if the full potential of digital technology is to be realized in councils. Careful planning is also essential to ensure that the expansion of digital services does not lead to a widening of existing inequalities in remote areas and among the socially disadvantaged.

While the crisis has created an opportunity that UK councils can seize, there needs to be shared priorities, skills and knowledge in order to succeed. “All councils must focus on putting all citizens at the heart of digital service design, empowering communities to thrive, not just survive,” says Accounts Commission member Andrew Cowie.

Local authority participants in the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s research also raised concerns that councils could lack the confidence to expand upon the positive digital transformation developments seen during pandemic and instead revert back to a more risk averse ‘old normal’ once Covid-19 is under control.

What is needed is a commitment from senior council leaders, and support from central government, alongside increased investment and an improvement in data skills, says the CDEI.

'With the right support, councils can retain and build on efforts to utilize data effectively, in a way that is in keeping with the expectations of their residents, to provide local services communities can rely on,' says Edwina Dunn, board member for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

But, without investment and support, it will be difficult to fully retain and build on the fantastic progress councils have made during the pandemic.

Part of the investment challenge many local authorities face when it comes to digital transformation, is in having to also maintain legacy IT systems. Given funding pressures, councils can’t afford to rip-up aging technology systems and start again. Instead, most need to transition to new models while keeping old systems running. But these legacy systems create risks for councils in terms of resilience, interoperability and ease of use.

Enabling a dispersed workforce

Legacy systems also mean councils have to rely on onsite staff to maintain them, which has become even more costly and problematic during lockdown.

As the recent ransomware attack on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has highlighted, security is also a major priority for local authorities and government bodies when digitally transforming operations. While it can be harder to patch vulnerabilities for on-site legacy systems, it’s much easier to keep cloud-based SaaS systems secure, as any new security concerns can be fixed instantly online.

A number of public bodies are tackling these problems by instead moving to cloud-based solutions, recognizing the potential to reduce the maintenance burden and to provide a flexible resource that responds to demand, says the Accounts Commission.

The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service (SFRS), with 357 fire stations and 7,930 staff based across Scotland, is one such public body embracing digital transformation. It partnered with TechnologyOne to consolidate multiple legacy financial systems that were being used by eight regional fire services across Scotland, before the creation of the combined, national SFRS service.

By moving to a cloud-based solution, SFRS has made business critical software tools available to its geographically dispersed workforce through the cloud-based system that can be access at anytime, anywhere, through any device.

John Thomson, Head of Finance & Procurement at SFRS, said: “As part of SFRS’s digital transformation strategy we continue to invest and exploit new technologies to improve our service and to future-proof our resilience by moving all systems to the cloud.”

“Covid-19 has proved this was the right decision,” he added.

Horsham District Council has also managed to modernize operations using cloud-based SaaS services, enabling the council to divert spending away from mundane, manual data inputting activities to far more intelligent, business analytical activity that drive change, helping them operate more efficiently and provide greater public services.

Increasing efficiency

Horsham estimates it has made significant savings by automating processes, improving data accuracy and by reducing the size of its accountancy department. The council is now invoicing around 30,000 garden waste collection invoices through its TechnologyOne OneCouncil system and all of its 400 employees are able to access human resource systems online and book their own holiday and sick leave.

Finally, traditional supplier procurement processes are also frustrating councils involved in digital transformation projects. Participants in the Scottish Accounts Commission survey suggested that existing approaches hamper innovation and that more collaborative approaches are needed.

This is something I’ve also heard from other UK councils through our work with the UK Technology Cluster Group when developing the Recovery Roadmap report, an in-depth look in to how the UK can foster technology innovation to grow back stronger, after the pandemic.

Councils and tech start-ups alike have called for a specialist program to help public sector bodies better utilize digital solutions. By helping senior public sector managers think more digitally, government will become more efficient and much better equipped to support the communities they serve.

Mark Lockett, UK Sales Director, TechnologyOne (opens in new tab)

Mark Lockett, UK Sales Director, TechnologyOne.