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

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/TechnoVectors)

Whilst many sectors have had to close doors in the wake of Covid-19, others have had to work at full capacity to help those affected by the virus. Immediately, the NHS comes to mind, as does central government, but some of those working hardest behind the scenes have also been civil servants within local government. Whether it’s been organizing care packages or helping businesses apply for debt support, local government has been pushed to its limits.

Through these actions, local government workers have emerged as a touch point of reassurance and trust during the pandemic. However, there’s more to it than the clerical work. Councils have had to turn to new digital tools in order to service citizens correctly and, above all else, safely. 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.

We’ve seen technologies that allow council staff to work from home deployed at breakneck speeds, such as video conferencing software. But, now that the initial peak of the virus is passing, there are less questions around immediate changes that are needed, and more of a focus on how 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.

Take the ‘stay at home message’ for example. Stay at home had several key problem areas for councils. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is offices being closed. By removing a council’s face-to-face channel, people can no longer drop in, which in turn might mean more phone calls as an alternative channel to people requesting support and advice.

There could also be a need to minimize physical documents in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, therefore highlighting the need to implement more online forms and documents across departments. Finally, and crucially, during this period citizens and businesses have needed a lot of financial and mental health support as a consequence of the stresses that isolation has imposed. As a result, this increases the demand of certain services in local government.

In the context of the hundreds of services councils provide, it becomes immensely challenging, especially when each council delivers around 800 services. These new challenges have got 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, for example, with 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.

Currently, you’ll usually only find one or two platforms per service. 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.

But, how does this relate to our current situation? Have any digital engines been created that can support councils with the unique challenges presented by Covid-19? The answer is absolutely, from digital engines that support with query resolution, right through to providing support with debt management and healthcare needs.

An engine in action - field operations engine

The field operations engine draws together several platforms that previously would have been accessed separately. As a result, appointments are scheduled by the authority in a common standardized way, and medical professionals can easily make assessments which can work out the right services required by the citizen as well as a schedule for the delivery of these services. 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. A process now 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.

Aside from the virus itself, perhaps one of the greatest strains during this period has been on the mental health of citizens. Stresses around money, job security and isolation have led to a surge of requests for mental health services.

For the correct mental health journey to be offered to each citizen, assessments need to be made. A field operations engine enables these assessments to happen anywhere and usually we see two types, online or at home.

For online, as a council worker you might need an online assessment platform where people can state their needs and circumstances and say how they feel, which can then connect to a common services directory platform. This can identify the services available nationally and locally in one transaction, making the process seamless for the citizen.

As for an assessment at home, because of the pandemic, the way that a hospital discharges patients has changed dramatically. Bed blocking has decreased as anyone deemed fit enough to go home and be assessed for their care needs, now has to go down that pathway. 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, and for that service to identify the right services the citizen needs.

What next?

Digital engines echo certain tried and tested principles throughout history, take Stephen Hawkins equation to explain physics as an example. It’s an overarching technology that unifies others, in order to bring channels together to improve a service.

One of the positives that has emerged from the difficult circumstances of this pandemic, is that local authorities are quickly becoming digital natives. With this renewed vigor 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, Product Director, IEG4