Microphone in a local government meeting

What problem are you trying to solve? A SOCITM Local Government conference highlight

Michael Lonnon
15 Jun, 2022

This week’s HSO and Microsoft sponsored SOCITM President’s conference revealed the starting point for tackling any technology challenge.

What problem are you trying to solve?

It was Scottish Government’s Head of Accessibility, Kevin White, who posed this question in his talk. Kevin uses it as a means to retain the solution to problem, problem to solution balance. But it’s a relevant question to ask when making decisions around technology direction. As we advocate:

Don’t find a problem for technology to solve, find a technology to solve a problem.

What the conference also demonstrated was that Local Government certainly does not suffer from underinvestment. Indeed, thanks to a certain pandemic there is an abundance of digital technology. And solution investment is continuing, often with stunning results.

Norfolk County Council’s Chief Digital Officer, Geoff Connell, spoke of how improved use of real-time data is fuelling use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Used to manage street lighting saving the Council a million pounds a year.

Norfolk is also using AI applied to satellite technology, enabling the council to tackle the growth of new green belts helping Norfolk move towards meeting their green targets, whilst avoiding the irony of driving around in fossil fuel powered vehicles to check these green areas.

In another example, the London Borough of Sutton provided insight into an Internet of Things (IoT) and AI approach to saving lives in sheltered housing.

They found tracking residents challenging – particularly during COVID – and the time taken to administer care in emergency situations too long, despite the number of preventative measures already in place. To help, Sutton Council posted sensors to each property. The sensors tracked patterns and changes in the living environment, so if, for example, the temperature hadn’t risen beyond a point for a certain period, services are called and sent to investigate. This simple solution has already saved 4 lives.

In both examples, the authorities began with the problem first:

  • How do we reduce the cost of street lighting without impacting citizen experience?
  • How do we inch towards our sustainability target without adversely impacting it?
  • How do we reduce the number of deaths and serious accidents without relying on expensive 24-hour face-to-face care?

In this, and many other examples, technology enabled care allowed local authorities to find new ways to address common challenges in delivering care and support. Underpinning this technology enabled care, in many instances, was a common data platform.

What many authorities have come to recognise is the importance of the role data plays in getting the best results from digital technology. And that by connecting services via a common data platform, councils can make more insightful decisions in light of knowing what services are delivering value, and which aren’t. For example, bin sensors relaying data back to HQ, and beyond, can tell you whether bins are being emptied regularly enough or not.

The Norfolk and Sutton council cases were just two examples of great technology initiatives in Local Government focused on improving citizen lives. There were also two key imperatives that came out from the discussions. Imperatives to enable authorities to benefit further from investments.

Evolve working practices to get the most value from new technology

As always, technology is just an enabler.

Deployed without the requisite emphasis on why it’s there, the change it will have, and the role of staff, and there will be scepticism and poor adoption. And what a wasted investment that would be. What many of the councils at the conference found was that with the right Change Management approach, new technology was not only well adopted but that it quickly changed the working behaviour of staff, for the better.

Learn what works

Most Local Councils would likely admit to operating largely in a silo.

Events like the President’s Conference provides an opportunity to collaborate more freely with others, learning what works, and what doesn’t. Because similar problems afflict each authority in similar ways. So learning is a key element of maximising the return of investments in technology, and in delivering the best citizen services.

It continues to amaze me how Local Government, and the Public Sector more widely, continue to use technology to thwart the complexities of delivering care and support services for the UKs 68 million population despite challenges posed. With the help of Microsoft technology, long may it continue.

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