Taking a pragmatic approach to digital transformation

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need to ensure robust and accessible online services for citizens

With fewer face-to-face services available – and a need to minimise public health risks – digital services are now the default for many. As a result, the desire to accelerate digital delivery within local councils is gaining even greater pace.

Many local authorities have made great strides in ‘joining up’ the online experience for residents. However, the complexity of the starting point, including the sheer sprawl of solutions that most councils have, and the balance of day-to-day demands against longer-term transformation efforts often means that the journey can be both slow – and quite bumpy.

Councils also have to navigate the growing headache of how to square the desire for sustainable digital transformation with the current financial and demand challenges. Balancing ‘keeping the lights on’ and putting in place solutions that are fit for the future is not an easy task. Now more than ever, in-house teams are over-stretched and budgets are far beyond their limits.

Councils adopting a risk-based approach are now addressing their most critical risks and short-term opportunities, while putting in place the right foundations to ensure sustainable digital services in the longer term.

So, what are the five risks and solutions council leaders need to be aware of?

Limited optimisation

Most council IT estates have evolved over time, and contain a mixture of enterprise capabilities, and a myriad of small scale applications that fit a specific need. Yet, too often we find that many councils are only using 70% of what their software is capable of. Knowing what you’ve got and what you could leverage is often the best and most cost-effective starting point for transformation.

By using the skillsets they already have, councils can move more quickly to use existing technology to build new business processes or to better automate and integrate what’s already there. However, the solution isn’t always to ‘buy more’. Councils should have measures in place to identify opportunities for them to make better use of what they’ve got, helping them to increase the pace of transformation – and save money in the process. This type of activity can be a valuable starting point, a useful checkpoint, or can offer additional insights to work that is already underway.

Single points of failure

Many councils support one or more legacy solutions, and while the system may not be critical to the council overall, very often it’s critical to a specific area of service. Although it’s understandable that councils have other priorities, they need to make sure they are thinking of these legacy systems as technical debt – and address the potential security issues that comes with it.

This can be solved by sharing resourcing across councils where there are commonalities in solutions and the right skills to enable this. Alternatively, councils can carefully transition to a third-party provider for support, until the technical debt can be addressed. This can often be done at a lower cost than the existing overheads. Doing this enables greater resilience by spreading the knowledge across a wider team, and with the right supplier there may be opportunities for them to manage the risk of the legacy application alongside working with organisations to modernise or replace these systems.

Meeting user needs

The move to delivering more services online inevitably means that accessibility becomes even more critical. One of the major risks to transformation is around technology adoption – and not just for external residents, but for employees too. It’s vital to make things easy so that the customer experience is as effortless as possible. Only by doing this will digital will become the default option.

Although many older systems have limitations, there are opportunities to re-platform and to create additional functionality that better meets user needs without breaking the bank. Understanding user needs has to be at the heart of this, and a proportionate approach to user research and experience design will achieve the optimal blend of user input and value for money.

Skill shortages

After more than a decade of working within councils, my experience has shown me just how difficult it is to attract and retain skilled and dedicated technical resources. There are a range of factors which lead to issues in keeping tech skills current within internal teams. The CIPD listed poor recruitment and selection decisions as a reason for retention issues, along with poorly designed induction programmes.

This is where it’s important to work alongside existing in-house teams to support with up-skilling, both in Agile delivery and in modern capabilities. This blended team approach can be useful in ensuring value for money while keeping skills current and ensuring overall resilience.

Cyber-security and data risks

Finally, it’s difficult to talk about risks without touching on security and data. We all know that cyber-security threats are becoming more sophisticated. Given the vast quantities of personal data that is held by councils, ensuring security is prioritised is rightly a keen area of focus. Robust requirements and contractual controls are vital, but it’s important that the human factors aren’t missed alongside these.

Processes and controls around permissions are often areas where weak spots can be picked up. Getting it right is far less expensive than getting it wrong, and spending time getting these sorts of basics right will pay dividends in the longer term.

Taking a pragmatic, risk-based approach to digital transformation means councils can make the best of what they’ve already got at their disposal. This will enable them to meet short-term needs while ensuring longer-term sustainable digital transformation.

About the Author

Kate Lindley is Head of Local Public Services Transformation at Civica. Civica is one of the UK’s largest software companies, with over 30 years of proven expertise in delivering improved outcomes for public services around the world.