This year, councils have faced the challenge of digital transformation at speed head-on. When the pandemic hit, we saw these councils deploying need solutions and adapting to changes in service delivery, and we asked ourselves: how can we help cultivate the reinvention needed in the public sector to withstand the crisis and cope in the future?
Yes, councils have faced challenges, but they have also taken advantage of the opportunities that have arisen since the start of the pandemic. Here I will explore some lessons learned from working with local authorities during this unprecedented time, and what the future holds.
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Challenges that encourage reinvention
There are two main challenges that the public sector faces right now as we move out of lockdown and towards a reimagined way of service delivery.
The first one is the recovery challenge. The costs of getting ‘back to normal’ go beyond economic, and extend to peoples’ health and wellbeing. How much it costs to reinstate services depends massively on the organization’s ability to make itself ‘Covid-secure’. The way that the government guidance has outline this Covid security seems to be, chiefly, about ensuring that as we reopen, physical distance and low indoor capacities can be maintained in the long term. The public sector is changing shift patterns, reducing occupancy, and minimizing the need to be physically present or queue to access a service or do a job.
We’re all desperate to go out now and go about our daily lives, and this is a large challenge for a council to overcome.
The second challenge is resilience. When the pandemic hit, it stretched the logistics of public services to breaking point. Speed of delivery was of the essence. Councils with both an advanced level of digital transformation, and strong community engagement, were the most resilient to the rapid changes taking place. Those that were behind, have continued to struggle.
As we move away from complete lockdown, we must remember that this isn’t behind us. Second waves and future crises are possible, so we must move away from having to react and plan simultaneously. Technology can play a crucial role in this, helping councils achieve their goals with minimum friction.
Preparing for future crises
Automation that enables collaboration with local citizens should be a priority. If your phone lines get swamped, you will struggle. If citizens have to physically queue to access services, they are at risk.
Additionally, councils should consider integrating fragmented supply chains for volunteers, staff and medical supplies. Many were flooded with offers of help, new tech solutions and equipment that could support them - but they did not have a system that could process this. They ended up choosing the ‘big players’ and bypassing bespoke solutions from smaller businesses. Being able to manage all of the above in a systematic way is crucial.
Lastly, special attention needs to be given to freeing up council staff from routine queries and enabling them concentrate on citizens most in need. I believe it’s the place of businesses like ours to help local authorities help the society they operate in. It’s vital for the public sector to be able to collaborate, rapidly providing solutions to citizens as and when new crises emerge.
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Learnings from working with local government
During our work throughout the pandemic, we identified several major needs within councils. The first was automating public services for maximum accessibility. Social housing maintenance, library services, bulk waste collection: these all stalled, even ground to a halt in many local authorities. The systems to allow interactions between the citizen and the council without layers of furloughed or remote workers simply weren’t there. Addressing this is especially important now as services are no longer ‘bare bones’, with many starting up again post-lockdown.
By making it necessary for people to phone in, get put on a waiting list or wait for someone to become available, councils will be disenfranchising them at a very critical moment.
The other major need we identified was capacity and density management. In the future, how do we ensure we don’t see again the massive crowds we saw in beaches and parks? Private land was used for parking to handle the additional cars - improvised, of course. But how do we plan for moments like this in future crises? Not just for beaches or parks, but high streets too and council offices themselves? One simple way is digital solutions like online booking portals that can easily overcome this challenge.
Recently BookingLive held its own virtual roundtable where representatives from local government all the way to the UN discussed these issues and shared their own views together. Sharing our learnings from the past few months and cultivating a conversation on how progress can be made has been of utmost importance to us.
What have been my main findings from this whole experience?
Chiefly, it’s the importance of the ability of local councils to act quickly. When they identify the solution they require, issues with procurement - from speed to complexity - have the potential to hamper them at every turn. Emergency procurement processes need to be put into place for the future. Otherwise, councils will again have no time to procure the best solution for them.
Secondly: overcoming fragmentation. Some solutions were adopted by one corner of a council, but not by the council as a whole. I mentioned integrating supply chains earlier on; adopting services across a whole council will be of massive benefit not just in a crisis, but in day-to-day service delivery.
Finally, councils must maintain strategic focus. No more ‘react, react, react’, but instead learning the major pain points and putting actions in place to address them now and in the future. This lesson is too valuable to ignore.
Of course, none of us knows when the next crisis will happen, but including tech partners in your strategic planning means that rapid progress can be made when the time eventually comes. We can’t lose sight of what lies in store for the public sector of tomorrow.
Vinnie Morgan, CEO and founder, BookingLive