The pandemic has divided local authorities into the haves and have nots, based largely on their level of digitalization. Those that rely on paper-based processes have been at a significant disadvantage. With lockdown sending back office teams home and restricting the activities of crews in the field, service areas have been closed or curtailed. Those with digital systems and technology capable of connecting their assets, systems and people have not only been able to keep operating but they also been able to do so in an agile manner.
This approach is reflected in an LGA (Local Government Association) report, ‘Transforming public services, using technology and digital tools and approaches’, which found that “councils have learned lessons from technology projects in the past and are increasingly using agile and flexible project management approaches to implementation.” According to the report, not only is there significant technological innovation in local government, but it is being applied with real skill and thoughtfulness.
However, there is a great deal of variation that we see across the sector across different councils, depending on their digital maturity. This impacts councils’ ability to work remotely and manage their assets digitally.
We are also seeing much disparity across different service areas, even within the same council. Street lighting for example, is largely digitalized across most local authorities while street cleansing and grounds maintenance are often a lot further behind in terms of their capability. There is in other words, great inequality around the level of digitalization not only across councils but across services within a local authority.
There is often a direct correlation here with agility. Councils that are less advanced with digitalization tend to be less agile in terms of delivering services. Where they have remained largely paper-based, they are struggling to adapt to the new normal in a fluid and agile way. The pandemic has redefined how people think about where and how they live, with a reassessment of what is required from their local authorities, public services and communities.
How digitalization supports operational agility for councils
The latest digital technology is key here, such systems can balance the need for staff to visit the office, thereby supporting social distancing. They can help service managers who may not be able to get to an office to continue working. They allow teams to access services and assets remotely. They can create new rounds or make adjustments to existing ones in order to optimize staffing resource required, all while working at home. Innovative online council services help councils meet the needs of their residents and improve productivity. And critically also, the best of these systems can do so in a fully secure manner.
Digital systems can help councils redeploy staff easily and quickly, if illness necessitates, design new assets and add them to the network when required. Many organizations have found ways to transition roles to remote working that would previously have been seen as amongst the most challenging. The difference between those that were able to do this quickly and easily compared to those that have struggled and encountered costly obstacles is the agility built into their systems and processes.
In other words, this kind of technology has enabled councils to adapt seamlessly to the new normal. It has allowed managers to work from home while continuing to hold meetings, schedule pothole repairs, highways inspections and manage and engage with operational teams while they are out on their rounds – a crucial advantage at any time but especially through the pandemic.
With the latest digital systems, operations managers can review and create new rounds for a waste team, and make ad hoc changes or respond to online service requests, without needing to visit the office, physically meet the team or develop or handle job sheets to be handed out. Service changes can be automatically updated on council websites to keep council teams and the public continuously informed. The ability to deliver live updates in this way lessens the pressure on councils by reducing the incidence of calls coming into council offices and the administrative need to update the website.
Using automation in this way is an urgent societal imperative according to a 2019 report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. It found Increased automation can “significantly boost societal productivity, which would help address challenges such as wage growth, aging populations, rising health-care costs, environmental restorations, global competitiveness, and public sector debt.”
Through lockdown and beyond
Even during lockdown easing, the ability for people who may not be able to get to an office because they are shielding, high-risk or self-isolating, to continue working, is another crucial advantage. Often data management across multiple service areas can be done remotely for instance. Ease of access to data is key of course to enable this kind of remote working. Having data hosted in the cloud and being able to access it through any browser or Internet connection is a major benefit during these times. All this reduces the administrative burden on councils and drives operational agility but it also serves to protect public health by reducing person-to-person contact and ensuring social distancing.
Eliminating the need for a physical server reduces the burden on IT and the need for IT teams to come into company sites to carry out maintenance or make repairs and it also removes the risk of hardware failure compromising business continuity.
In these times, this kind of agility is increasingly becoming a must have rather than a nice-to-have. Councils that had a lot of digital technology in place before the pandemic struck have adapted very well during the time of Covid-19. They have been able to keep employees working remotely, driving efficiencies while helping protect the health of their employees. They have been able to get ahead of the game and ensure service continuity, while keeping the public informed and happy with the service provided. And they have also ensured that they are prepared not just for this ongoing crisis but for any crisis situations to come.
Paul Webb, senior product consultant, Yotta