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How local authorities can improve customer service with flexible digital tools

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak)

The Covid-19 crisis has renewed the focus on the pressures that our local authorities face, and how they can best communicate effectively with customers now and in the future. Anything that saves time for council workers can, and should be, explored.

In service transformation, improvement is about continual change, and flexible digital tools are needed in order to deliver an organisation’s ambitions over the long term. No organisation in the public sector can accurately predict what they will face as a result of a crisis, they can only be aware that they will have to be responsive and proactive in developing solutions that are fit for purpose and continue to work towards creating best practice.

Service transformation is often described as a journey, not a destination. We need to recognise that changing demographics and now, fallout from the current crisis, will constantly raise new challenges for public services. Local authorities and other service organisations will have to reinvent their roles and focus on different outcomes for the public, with an emphasis on the roots of societal problems. However, this will require a culture of ongoing iteration that is ready to grasp the opportunities offered by changes in technology, and, post Covid-19, in the ways citizens are able and want to interact. A council needs its digital foundation to be future proof; and be able to integrate with new technology as well as legacy systems.

It is possible to find tools that can support this approach in the short, medium and long term. A growing number of authorities are now utilising customer engagement platforms as the flexible backbone of their digital service transformation.

Making the impossible possible

By enabling a single digital window into your council, citizens, with a single sign-on using email or social media accounts, can see a single view of their interactions with the council and have the ability to track progress on service requests and enquiries which, in return, means a reduction in unnecessary contact for councils.

Another big technology change is the steady shift towards the Cloud. The public sector has recognised the cost savings, flexibility and security benefits of the Cloud and there is a consensus that this will underpin their own flexibility in using digital systems, this is a particularly pertinent issue today as many are having to suddenly switch to off-premise solutions as they work from home.

There is also a growing recognition of the value of APIs, the elements of software code that provide other groups or organisations with access to elements of a dataset. They facilitate data flows for a stronger integration of services and support the evolution of new solutions.

In addition, a customer’s own new developments can be undertaken with a ‘no code’ solution, providing the scope for non-techies to use the data flows described above in developing new service solutions. This brings your frontline staff to the forefront of service design.

However, there are a series of factors that need to be considered in order to achieve a successful service transformation.

Working in collaboration

One, is the necessity to break down the silos in an organisation, again, something that in effect has become more challenging as many are required to work from home. Ensuring that executive teams work collaboratively and are willing to free up the data they hold for wider use. In some places, this demands a radical cultural shift, but if it does not happen it will smother a transformation before it even gathers steam.

Another is the development of a strong, in-house digital capability, providing an authority with the means to draw on the knowledge of its various service teams, innovate and develop solutions that really meet the needs of local communities. This is reflected in a trend away from large scale outsourcing, with some councils taking their digital operations back in-house and aiming to equip more staff with relevant skills.

Along with this is the increased emphasis on agile development techniques, in which teams do not begin with a detailed specification of the desired solution but identify a desired outcome and develop the solution through a series of iterations. Agile is about failing fast, establishing what works and moving onto the next stage.

Related to this is the need to move away from complex, long term procurement of IT systems, towards an emphasis on smaller, more modular procurements to run for shorter periods. This contributes to future proofing service transformation, providing the scope for continual change and further innovation.

Innovative technology

In turn, this can open up opportunities from new technologies, such as machine learning, AI, blockchain and the Internet of Things. It is impossible to foresee all of what they will offer, but the potential will increase if a local authority has a digital backbone that can integrate and harness the data they provide.

There is also a growing interest in collaboration around the use of components. While some councils have backed away from shared services, a few are experimenting with a more limited sharing of specific elements of digital infrastructure, such as web or service development platforms. This provides scope not just for savings but benefiting from others’ expertise and long-term collaborations in finding solutions.

Underlying all this, is the fact that digital transformation is not about technology; it is about a readiness to innovate, deal with cultural change and create new services to cope with emerging challenges. However, it draws on the capabilities of technology, and customer engagement systems provide an array of capabilities, giving local government great scope to design solutions to those challenges.

All of this will not only provide valuable support in the face of current restrictions posed by Covid-19, but it could also present great opportunities to effectively build a framework for future proofing that is essential to long term transformation. The key to real change is about a readiness to innovate, deal with cultural change and create new services to cope with these emerging challenges, wherever an organisation is on its journey.

John Jervis, Sales and Marketing Director, IEG4