The pandemic raised the bar for digital transformation in the public sector. But what's next for digital teams in local authorities?
As digital technologies become more widely seen as crucial to modern business, organisations face an issue of talent. Not only in recruiting for experienced technical roles – where the talent gap has been widely reported – but also finding the right people for senior leadership positions. In this series, we speak to digital and technology leaders from a range of organisations, to find out how they're meeting their biggest challenges.
Covid-19 did a lot for digital transformation. For many organisations, this was as much about mindset as anything else, with managers discovering they could trust their staff to work remotely. However, the closure of offices and help centres also forced service providers in the public sector to quickly pivot towards a new operating model, enabling their users to access critical support online.
With this more widespread adoption of digital services, users have now become more sophisticated. This raises the question of how the public sector can meet greater expectations for its services in the long term. And not just those services that we typically think of as being digital.
Day to day, much of the work supporting citizens is carried out by local government. Although local authorities typically have technical capabilities, it is less common for them to host the kinds of multidisciplinary, agile teams we now associate with digital service delivery.
Some authorities might be moving towards this, but it's not yet commonplace. As Sam Hall, Chief Digital Officer for Local Government in Wales, notes — this isn't because this work isn't seen as important, but more due to the fact that authorities have their hands full keeping important services running.
So how can local government set a more strategic direction when it comes to digital transformation, and delivering the kind of modern services that meet citizen expectations?
Building digital capability in the public sector
In her role at the Welsh Local Government Association, Sam and her team offer support to Wales' 22 local authorities as they aim to improve services for users. If citizens gave authorities some leeway as they rapidly built digital services in response to Covid-19, then they are now demanding more. As Sam notes, this means local government must focus on building digital skills and capabilities, including things like better use of data to inform decision making, and human centred design.
“Councils were traditionally measured in the transactions that happened: how many calls they took or how many hits they got on the website,” she says. “But actually we want to concentrate on the impact the service has on the user. Are we delivering services that help people and their families? That's a really big focus for us.”
The success of services can instead be gauged through much closer interaction with people — both when designing services and when asking for feedback. Interestingly, when a service is meeting peoples' needs the number of transactions authorities make should actually go down.
“If we are providing a whole, end-to-end service to people, then they won't need to call us because we will have looked at and dealt with their requirements in a much more complete way,” Sam says.
Making the move towards whole services
Providing a unified experience of public sector services is an area where digital transformation can have a huge impact. It not only means meeting peoples' needs, but in a way that is as frictionless as possible. This becomes extremely important in the context of the challenging circumstances which often cause individuals to seek out support.
“If people have to ring up because they are in a particular situation - often a situation that is quite upsetting for them — they don't want to have to call different departments, they don't want to fill in a list of forms, or wait for someone to call them back. What they want is for someone to help them,” Sam says.
“We don't see it as individual peoples' responsibility to take care of each bit of that person's problem. We just see it as what does that person need and how do we make sure that we meet their needs first time. It doesn't sound very revolutionary, but working in the public sector, there's a lot of focus on the delineation of jobs and responsibilities. We need to break that down.”
As the saying goes, when you break things down, you can build them back up again. And so the potential is really in joining up public services, joining the dots between touchpoints, and meeting needs in a more comprehensive way.
“Say people go online because they need to get a blue badge for parking,” Sam says. “Instead of seeing that as a blue badge transaction, we can ask, what else might they need to know? Where the disabled parking bays are in the town centre, or how the council can help them get a ramp installed at their house, or the community groups we work with locally that can support them.”
“It's about how we serve that up so people don't have to keep coming back to ask for help. Because asking for help is hard.”
Treating people with respect
More often than not local authorities already have the information about people they need to provide joined up services. It is simply a question of linking this together more effectively. This is critical to ensuring that everyone gets the support that they need, and the benefits they are entitled to.
“There's a lot of talk about treating people with respect and dignity," Sam says. "Local authorities are in a difficult position at the moment where we are facing the end of furlough, and many people may be coming to us for the first time ever. Levels of embarrassment around this can be really high. So we need to look at where society is now, and how we start delivering for people in a post Covid world; whilst also working through Brexit and climate change.”
These issues are no small matter for the public sector to face, so an important first step is getting everyone on board. For Sam, finding out what resonates with individuals in public service is key to unlocking their willingness to help.
“If I said to people, let's take a look at all the data we've got and how that affects peoples' incomes... The response would be that it sounds really boring,” she says. “But if I said let's do a data project that stops kids from having to eat out of bins...? I'd get 20 people volunteering for it. Of course, it's the same project, but it's about how you put the lens on it that makes people want to do it, rather than putting it off.”
They're my bins too...
This is a significant advantage of working in the public sector, in that the people within it are driven by a desire to make a real difference. In local government, there's the added incentive that employees are also service users too.
“When you work in central government you are always a step away, you feel that little bit removed,” Sam says. “Whereas in local government you're not. You're as much a user as the next person in the street – it's your bins that are being emptied too.”
Although local government teams inherently belong to the communities they work in, it's still important for them to reflect the makeup of these communities. This is a much wider issue in the need for diversity within digital and technology talent.
“A big thing for me has always been around inclusivity and making sure we're as diverse as we can be, no matter what the team,” Sam says. “You can't do interesting or good things unless you mirror the communities you're working with.”
“Being part of the LGBT community is really important for me — and it's part of what I think about when we are designing services. There are examples of things like two women being unable to fill out council forms after they'd had a child because it asked for details of the mother and father, not the parents. That sort of thing is always in the back of my mind when we're trying to make things as inclusive as we can.”
Change is coming to Wales
Embracing diversity is also a way of ensuring people can bring their full selves to work, and consequently that they feel a genuine connection to their organisation and its aims. This cultural element can't be overlooked when it comes to realising effective change. But it can be expressed as a buzz — a general sense of empowerment and excitement amongst the team.
“It's a really good time for digital in Wales,” Sam says. “We are on the verge of something really good happening. There is a feeling — although it's hard to put into words — that there is a proper head of steam growing around digital here, especially in local authorities. It's a really good feeling.”