Damien Venkatasamy says technological challenges are not the only ones which councils need to overcome to transform services.
Local governments play a crucial role in the running of the UK’s public sector. Councils are responsible for delivering services to millions of citizens; from education, transport and social care, at the county council level, to planning applications, council tax collections and waste collections by district, borough and city councils.
Their work is complex and varied, and the significant powers they have to distribute public money often means local governments are heavily scrutinised and under pressure to reduce expenditure, whilst still offering the best quality services to those in their area.
One such way for local governments to achieve this is to use technology to streamline the way that services are delivered to the citizen.
Digitising front-of-house and back-end services can save millions of pounds and make it easier for users to access the information and support they need.
Central and local governments have adopted a digital strategy to redesign services with the aim of becoming digital by default. This is a fantastic idea but, unfortunately, getting it to work in practice is far from easy.
I believe the barrier to digitising services in the UK is a combination of three elements – culture, technology and skills. It is only once the problems in each of these elements are addressed can the UK successfully implement digital services across public sector and pass on these benefits to citizens.
Hurdle one: Achieving a cultural shift in local government
The cultural legacy within local government cannot be underestimated. The plan to digitise the public sector is a relatively recent one that, while endorsed publicly , is often difficult to implement due to the upheaval it would cause for the leadership and existing staff members.
Other sectors such as retail or telecommunications, for example, have adapted more quickly to focus on how the consumer wants to interact with the business; a change which is driven by the external pressures put on organisations by customers who will go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.
Local government is the opposite. It is designed from the inside-out, often resulting in a lack of focus on the user experience. A cultural shift is necessary to ease the transition process but the realities of local government can make change extremely difficult.
In comparison to the private sector, the public sector is exposed to a high level of scrutiny, which can lead to cautious behaviour and lessen the appetite for reform. Simplifying processes and automating basic functions is at the heart of digitisation.
Undoubtedly, this will result in the need for some councils to re-deploy and re-train some staff. This is of course always challenging and as a result some council leaders are reluctant to fully commit to the necessary changes.
However, if local government is to implement a workable digital strategy for the long-term, leadership needs to take charge and look beyond the immediate challenges as the overall benefits of digitisation far outweigh the struggles.
Hurdle two: Moving away from legacy IT infrastructure
Changing the culture of local government is hard enough, but the existing technology infrastructure is often an equally difficult challenge. In many cases, the existing IT systems and processes can be over a decade old.
They tend to be cumbersome, repetitive and not user-friendly. They were designed and implemented at a time when digital had not fully taken hold and as a result are fundamentally incompatible with the new digital economy. It is not as simple as just deploying a new website, the back-end systems need to be able to handle the data and processes in the right way or it will be impossible to deliver truly digital services.
For local government to move to digital, legacy IT systems have to be replaced and data must be migrated to new systems. The scale of this is an obvious barrier.
The upfront cost of implementing a new system is daunting for many councils, especially when they already face budgetary issues to run their basic services.
However, digital should be seen as a long-term investment strategy that will deliver significant return on investment once fully implemented.
Council leaders across the country need to look beyond the budgets of each financial year in order to reap longer term rewards. Promoting a culture of integration and collaboration amongst smaller councils can be a great way to achieve this; by implementing shared services with neighbouring organisations, councils can share the costs of change while maximising the rewards.
Hurdle three: Bringing in the right skills
As described earlier, digitising local government is far from straightforward. Successfully achieving such a fundamental overhaul requires a team with the knowledge and experience to help foster the move.
Unfortunately local government, like many others, is currently experiencing a skills gap and lacks both the expertise and quantity of staff needed to manage the implementation of a digital system that meets citizen’s needs.
Even when digital projects are outsourced to specialists, it is still vital that internal staff have the skills and experience required to understand the mechanics of the project. Without this in-house expertise, it will always be extremely difficult for any organisation to implement change effectively.
Those that have successfully made the move to digital have often introduced dedicated teams with technology and commercial skills; making them capable of handling both the technology behind the transition and “selling” the benefits to stakeholders.
Local government could learn from this and take similar steps to manage the process. With responsibility for millions of citizens and under the glare of public scrutiny, it is important for local councils to invest in the right people, consequently reducing the probability of projects failing.
Overcoming these three hurdles will not be easy for local councils, but with the right support from leadership and an understanding that true digitisation requires cultural as well as technological change, councils can work together and deliver real benefits to citizens.
Damien Venkatasamy is director of public sector at Tata Consultancy Services