17th August 2021
Joint roundtable with Civica – All in it together.
Recently, Solace and our business partner Civica held a virtual roundtable with some of the digital leaders in local government to discuss how they’re using digital to help tackle local challenges and how they’re thinking about the associated issues around staffing, data standards and ethics.
You can read the eight key transformation takeaways from the conversation
- Accessibility starts with connectivity
Local authorities understand the need for user-focused web design and compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards. But even the best designed digital services are useless if customers don’t have or can’t afford internet connectivity. “If we’re talking about digital, then it starts with how people connect,” said one panelist. Moreover, accessibility doesn’t begin and end at the local level.
This raised the perennial theme of the ‘digital divide’, with the panel agreeing that central government must make affordable broadband widely available.
- What is the future of face-to-face interactions?
The pandemic forced local authorities to close their walk-in centres. One panelist commented: “We’re not ready to turn our back on face-to-face entirely, and digital is not our default”. To overcome this, some centres are deploying ‘guided’ self-services – encouraging online use, overcoming technology access challenges while enabling staff to focus on more complex needs.
- Acquiring and retaining digital talent
Local government continues to lose skilled technical staff to the private sector, where salaries tend to be higher. To counter this drift, councils are thinking laterally: by developing more sustainable career paths; and finding creative ways to acquire the talent they need. For example, onboarding young people from the local community or more diverse backgrounds and developing them within the organisation.
- Redesigning technology roles
Local government technology leaders often need to act as conduits between IT and services. One panelist described this as “partnership-building with users and service leads” as an opportunity to capitalise on the increase in community engagement experienced over the past 18 months. Seizing that opportunity, one panelist said they had rewritten the job description when recruiting a new IT manager. Preparing teams for cloud-based models, where interoperability comes as standard and ‘out-of-the-box’, will speed up development and help services achieve more for citizens.
- A new approach to digital skills
Our panelists distinguished between two key differences:
- Training staff to take up digital roles. Some councils have a program to identify people whose skills in other roles (such as policy or business analysis) can be transformed for digital with appropriate training. One panelist explained the pros and cons: “There’s a hit, you lose a day a week as they go off to do their university course…but you reap dividends in other areas, and we’ve seen some of them rising through the ranks.”
- Helping staff acquire everyday digital skills. The shift to constantly updated cloud-based software has blown traditional training models out of the water. One panelist explained: “We’ve moved away from formal training to a model where we develop ambassadors within teams who share their knowledge over Yammer. In addition, cloud technology continues to update much faster than training manuals. As a result, the expectation to use Google and YouTube videos is becoming a more reliable way for staff to develop skills.
- No room for digital dinosaurs
“It’s no longer acceptable for a chief exec or senior manager in any council to say – I don’t know how that machine turns on or off. That’s not the world we live in anymore,” said one panelist. Instead, senior managers must show leadership and a deeper understanding of modern technology and its effect on services and users to support the ongoing shift to digital channels.
- Creating a single view of the customer: what are the potential issues?
Councils are at different stages of understanding these issues. Joining up data will improve customer journeys and safeguarding, but organisational and system safeguards are needed to protect citizens from the potential risks of the council having a single, connected view of their data. The starting point for authorities must be clarity of purpose: “We need to ask, a single view of what, for who, and why?” said one panelist.
Another said: “I think the most important thing we need to do is talk about it. There isn’t enough conversation around the ethics of the why and the how in this subject.”
- Making ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI)
“AI is coming. The private sector is using it all over the place, so why wouldn’t we use it too?” asked one panelist. Indeed, councils have been using machine learning algorithms during the pandemic to identify vulnerable customers and support the test and trace activity that has generally outstripped their capacity. But boards must understand the ethics involved and have checks and balances in place. “It’s another thing we need to talk about — a lot — to raise everyone’s understanding,” said one panelist.
Taking baby steps to reap giant rewards
It’s clear that local government leaders are keen to pursue transformation and take advantage of the benefits technology can deliver. At the same time, they naturally respect citizens’ rights and preferences and therefore want to understand the ethical aspects of data sharing and access and the role of AI. Moreover, the surge in digital literacy and growing trust in technology is transforming citizens and communities’ expectations when it comes to local services.
There was general agreement on the need to take transformation one step at a time. For local digital leaders, the increasing appetite for digital services is a challenge that will reap real rewards. Councils embracing smart technologies are making better use of the data they already hold and transforming the relationship with local communities – delivering smarter, more efficient, personalised services.
Thank you to Jon McGinty, Managing Director of Gloucester City Council for chairing the roundtable. Join in the conversation at civica.co.uk/everyday-digital-council