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Understanding digital’s pivotal role in supporting a place-based approach to the pandemic response

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / carlos castilla)

We increasingly face challenges that are global – Covid-19, the climate crisis, economic instability and a widening equalities gap. One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic has been more urgent focus on the importance and power of community, with people coming together in the face of this huge adversity. When faced with national restrictions, it is local solutions which are delivering the most effective response – leading to meaningful, positive change for citizens and communities.

Local government’s role in ‘place-shaping’ is to help build and sustain the complex system of people, communities and services that exist in a particular location.  Covid-19 has shone a light on the importance of the strength and efficacy of their involvement. The ability to translate national policy and legislation, tailoring it to respond to local circumstances and diverse needs has been transformative, and the key to community resilience and sustainability during the pandemic. Digital sits at the core of this achievement, enabling local authorities to connect with their communities like never before. 

At this moment in time in the midst of a second national lockdown, the future is uncertain. Funding and long-term financial sustainability remain a serious challenge for public services. Facilitating local asset-based approaches, coordinating a place-based offer that engages and mobilizes local citizens and communities is surely one of the positives that needs to become part of the foundations for the future. As the Local Government Information Unit’s recent report suggests, local places hold the key to post-Covid recovery. So, what is digital’s role in helping councils connect with their communities as they navigate the continued unchartered waters of this pandemic?

Scalable solutions

Underpinning the digital revolution is the development of an integrated technology platform. A comprehensive, lightweight, digital toolkit that seamlessly and securely pulls together effective communications, speedy service design, collaborative working, and great data capture, which has enabled some of the best local government responses to Covid-19. Flexibility is also key, to accommodate the broad range of services required by local communities.  

Due to the low code nature of Granicus’ citizen engagement platforms, local authorities were able to design and develop at speed, building over 400 service processes at the start of the first lockdown; including the recruitment of care workers, donations of PPE and the provision of funds for struggling families and businesses. This helped meet the uplift in people accessing essential services online and provided efficient and effective new ways to manage the impact of Covid on citizens and businesses.

Below are some examples of our customers using our govService digital citizen engagement platform and our govDelivery communication platform to deliver solutions which lead to positive change during the pandemic so far.

On the front foot of the response

Kirklees Council has maximized the benefits of its investment in its digital services platform, embedding a culture of innovation and continuous improvement in the team that supports its Digital Innovation Centre of Excellence. This put them at the forefront of digital transformation pre-Covid and meant they could be resilient and responsive throughout the first wave of the pandemic. As part of its foundational work, the team developed a clear communication strategy around building the infrastructure to deliver essential advice and information to its many different local communities. This included multilingual options to be inclusive of non-English speakers.

Kirklees focused on rapid development of end-to-end support processes for vulnerable citizens and local businesses at the onset of the pandemic. Its business support process managed 1,000 applications within the first six hours after go-live.  Bank data was swiftly routed to its Exchequer team so much needed money was speedily transferred to keep local businesses solvent. 

Targeted and trusted

East Riding of Yorkshire Council used its citizen communication platform to respond at speed to the crisis. Targeted information campaigns made them a trusted source of information and advice and prompted the sign up of 2,500 community volunteers and 4,000 staff by the end of March. 

The internal development team also used the platform to swiftly build new digital delivery processes to provide vulnerable residents with essential help and services. Council workers took initial requests, and essential data was automatically and securely routed via the Shared Service Portal to the Hey Smile Foundation community volunteers where they were rapidly actioned. The process was iteratively improved along the way to include the both the Social Prescribing Team and council financial advice team, delivering much needed support to residents with financial or mental health issues and helping to alleviate isolation and loneliness. 

The partnership between the Council, Hey Smile Foundation and the community was hugely effective and responded to more than 60,000 requests for support during the peak period of the first lockdown.

The power of integration

Integrations not only support end-to-end efficiency, but also empower councils to reap the benefits of shared innovation and learning. Integration is also about making sure citizens are aware of the digital services that are on offer; where they are, how to access and use them. 

Waltham Forest’s rapid response to the pandemic saw the creation of more than 20 new digital services using its low code platform, including forms to make it easy for people to apply for the support they needed from their Community Support Hub or to volunteer to help. Its communication campaigns promoted a direct link to these processes and encouraged 1,500 people to sign up as volunteers.  Working with Age UK, local food banks and the Citizen Advice Bureau, the council went on to provide vulnerable residents with more than 3,500 food parcels, collected prescriptions and provided advice and social contact. It also supplied food to local food banks and the local women’s refuge.  

Ensuring continuity

The ability to support remote working for all staff was essential in ensuring no residents were isolated or without access to essential services. Plymouth City Council was able to mobilize a virtual call center in five days. Its Customer Service Hub provided the technology that supported their customer service advisors in continuing to offer great mediated service and business continuity from their homes throughout lockdown.   

“Our Customer Service teams are passionate about the job they do and put customers at the heart of everything.  They worked tirelessly to virtualize the entire operation in a matter of days.  Remote working became business as usual, providing a seamless service to the residents of Plymouth with no disruption” Faye Batchelor-Hambleton.  Assistant Director of Customer Service, Plymouth City Council.

A roadmap for the response

An effective continued response through the second wave of the pandemic needs to capture the proven successes driven by investment in digital.  Moving forward local authorities should continue to invest to save in the tried and tested enablers that have empowered a fast track response to Covid-19. Digital communications, low code service design tools, enterprise workflow, powerful integration management, remote working capability and a secure collaborative workspace are all essentials that will underpin resilient business models with a ruthless focus on improving outcomes for local citizens and businesses.

Hilary Jones, Customer Success Manager, Granicus

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