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Digital is not an option in local government, it’s the only option to meet citizen needs

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

During the two decades I spent in local government, I always championed the digital agenda, but I could have never predicted how the last year would amplify the need for modernized systems in the public sector.

The Covid-19 pandemic made digital transformation the focal point for many councils up and down the country, as they rushed to strengthen their online provision in order to respond to the crisis. However, now the peak of the virus has passed, they must turn attention to creating long lasting change to council websites, online communication and digital platforms, in order to help regions recover and to help regenerate lost income from weeks of lockdown.

Right now, digital is not an option, it is the option – and this monumental shift will have ramifications for decades to come. A by-product of the massive disruption to daily life caused by the pandemic, citizens are now more connected to councils than ever. Requests for information have sky-rocketed, and signal an urgent need among residents to receive more timely, accurate, and consistent digital touchpoints - Nottingham City has seen demand for its online services rise to a staggering 85 percent during the pandemic.

On the back of years of austerity and even tougher times ahead, how can councils rise to the challenge of meeting these rapidly changing citizen needs and expectations in our new reality?

Investing now to save later

There is no doubt that the financial impact of the pandemic looms large for councils. Local authorities are facing serious budget shortfalls and leaders will have undeniably difficult choices to make in the months ahead.

That financial pressure is precisely why efficiency through innovation is more important and valuable at this moment in time. Investing in technology which can help reduce costs while not just maintaining, but improving access to services, is the only way councils can set themselves up for success when it comes to serving their citizens effectively.

We must also consider the role that digital platforms will be able to play in reclaiming revenue that was lost from the closure of public services during lockdown, by helping to safely re-open services and public spaces and accepting payments for these online. For example, by creating a booking system for parking spots in national parks, accessed through council websites. By encouraging citizens to book online the council can monitor the volume of visitor traffic, ensuring that spaces can safely open back up to the public.

At the service of citizens

Councils set the tone for communities and are best positioned to make them resilient and sustainable. Keeping citizens informed and engaged is central to that, joining up organizations and information locally and getting the right messages out at the right time to the right audiences.

Some great examples of proactive, personalized communications have been born out of the pandemic – establishing councils as hubs of reliability at a time of sheer information overload. Through its Covid-19 email campaign using Granicus’s govDelivery platform, Gedling Borough Council in Nottingham raised £21k in 48 hours for food banks in the area, stepping up to coordinate and meet the needs of the community.

Citizens are at the end of the day consumers - they want availability 24/7 and a choice of ways to interact. Convenience is key, building solutions for life on the move which are platform and device agnostic, taking an omni-channel approach. Councils in turn are then better equipped to be more proactive – with a view of all customer interactions they can further tailor and target their communications.

Frictionless and fast

By structuring service delivery and communication tools such as govDelivery and govService into a single integrated platform, Granicus enables councils to respond quickly to changing priorities, designing and promoting services to meet customer needs and expectations.   Forms can be built quickly, and citizen feedback used to iteratively improve them - giving them a say in how they are served.

A priority for Renfrewshire is to protect jobs and prevent business closure during the pandemic.  Using the Granicus platform and internal skills they developed a frictionless application process in days.  govDelivery communications ensured they got the message out to the right people.  Renfrewshire was able to approve 300 applications in just four days, and has now awarded more than 2075 business grants topping £23million - making a difference by ensuring businesses receive the support they need to survive.

Whether accessing council tax services or taking in volunteer applications, citizens want their request fulfilled with the minimum hassle and time spent – and Covid-19 has made this more important than ever. Once a service is in place, telling citizens it is there is really important - giving them the information and direct access in one integrated solution.

Digital as business as usual

The journey of digital evolution over the last decade taught councils and public services a lot and gave them the tools to do the job. Challenging times often bring out the best in local government innovators who need to find new, creative ways to move forward and Covid-19 has been the catalyst for changing up a gear when it comes to how councils approach communicating with citizens. It has provided the environment and the permission for digital to take center stage, guiding the future of service delivery.

Councils can be agile, delivering services while continually improving them, because the two simply go hand in hand.  With technology that is affordable, scalable and improves outcomes, digital can become business as usual.

Hilary Jones, Customer Ambassador, Granicus (opens in new tab)

Hilary Jones is Customer Ambassador at digital engagement solution provider Granicus and ex-deputy chief executive at Scarborough Borough Council.