Technology projects that would have taken years to conceive and then install, were delivered in months, weeks, and even days such was the COVID induced need. “The pandemic showed us that things we thought were difficult, near impossible to do, technology wise, faded into insignificance.” This was the view of one county council executive.

A rampant drive to enable workers to engage and support communities replaced inertia. The same council executive stated that “The pandemic challenged us to think differently about how we operate. And technology provided a valuable way to work differently, and to adapt.”

Yes, the pandemic caused unparalleled harm, but councils quickly realised that digital innovations considered near impossible to adopt, were not. And this gave life to a digital revolution.

Council chameleons

Local Councils have adapted well to a shift in ways of working. Restrictive office-based roles that restricted the available talent pool has grown because staff no longer need to live within commutable distance.

Being able to collaborate from anywhere and at any time has meant staff can deliver more services in more ways. They are ‘always-on’, should they so choose.

And this flexibility has improved operational effectiveness. Workers now have the tools to deliver more and better services. Which is part of a new problem. They now have the tools to do more. And more. And more …

A recent meeting of County Council Executives exposed a startling revelation. The technology revolution is burning people out. Has the local council digital revolution come at a cost?

From revolution to evolution

The digital revolution has given people the tools to work without interruption. At any time. And for however long. There are fewer barriers to service delivery. So without prompt, and with good intensions, staff are doing more because there is always help and support to give.

With the impact of the pandemic lessoning, it’s time to reassess. To move away from a state of perpetual ‘on’. This means finding ways to use the tools you have to deliver high quality citizen services but without burning team members out.

Microsoft Teams has made it easier for groups to collaborate on work, find answers to questions, escalate requests, and speed up engagement. But home working has blurred the line between family and work life. Understanding how deep the issue goes is the first step to gaining control. And you can do this using tools you likely already have.

Tools such as Microsoft Viva, an employee experience tool and part of Microsoft 365, provides statistics about work patterns including focus and collaboration time, how many days you were able to disconnect from work, and how effectively you are networking with co-workers.

And if you have Outlook you also have MyAnalytics. From here you can explore your work habits. Do you read emails quickly because pop-ups break your focus? From here you can see patterns and set goals that tweak behaviour and get the focus your work needs.

The point is, there is often more to the technology at your disposal than you may know. It’s time to focus on getting more value from these tools to improve citizen service delivery but in a way that doesn’t harm staff.

Continue innovating together

There is no shortage of collaboration in local government. This was particularly prevalent during COVID. Here’s just three examples:

Central Bedfordshire Council, Greater London Authority, London Borough of Camden and London Office of Technology and Innovation collaborated on a project to improve information flows between the councils.

Leeds City Council, Croydon Council, and Eastbourne Council jointly developed tools to tackle digital exclusion within their communities. Preventing the negative impacts of sustained social isolation in vulnerable communities.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Lincolnshire Council, Hull City Council and North Lincolnshire Council collaborated to design new ways of working post COVID-19, to ensure staff remain safe, productive and develop innovations for future working practices.

Commendable projects that serve to remind what is possible when people combine their minds to solve common challenges. Would such collaboration have been possible pre-COVID? It’s difficult to say. But what is clear is that collaborative projects will help fuel post-COVID digital momentum.

It’s not about technology

When COVID hit, one local council took it upon themselves to create a portal that linked 1.7 million primary and secondary health and care records. It gave them immediate access to GP data and removed the need to chase records or rely on people to provide information. And they did it in just 7-months. This helped them increase the speed in understanding citizen needs.

“Having access to up-to-date information in one place is valuable when considering the suitability of support options for the most vulnerable people.” – Mental Health Social Worker

Another council connected 60 datasets from across 5 service areas to create a single view of a household. This revealed households at a risk of homelessness. And 800 households not previously known as a COVID shielding risk. The helped the council improve rates of positive intervention and reduce the cost and complexity of dealing with cases.

“We are using the system to create actionable insights that have real life impact.” – Head of Insight & Innovation

And, with limited technology to support homeworking, another council migrated their entire workforce to Microsoft 365 in just 4-months, including full mobile device migration. It gave them the tools to continue supporting citizens whilst reducing service disruption.

What links each of these examples of technology empowerment is people. Those using it to improve service delivery, and those whose lives improved as a result. And this is key when making technology decisions; identify a business pain to solve first before selecting a solution to overcome it.

How to maintain the digital momentum

As COVID restrictions relax, and a level of normality resumes, local councils will turn their focus to other critical priorities. Priorities such as addressing the green agenda, balancing inequality, meeting economic growth targets and so on. And this is understandable. Yet technology invested in during the pandemic provides the means to address these concerns too. A recent discussion with a group of County Council executives revealed ways to maintain impetus:

Keep it simple:

Break larger challenges into smaller bitesize projects that roll up to a larger ambition. For example, if reaching net zero carbon emissions by 20XX is the goal, you may want to begin by knowing what emission levels are today. And for this tools such as Power BI – which come with Microsoft 365 – that, when connected with data sets, can provide easily accessible insight.

Connect islands of data:

The more organised and available your data is, the more insight you can gleam, and the more proactive decision making becomes. Connecting data sets within the council offers value, but then connecting to data sets with partners outside of the council e.g. GPs, utility companies, and so on, provides more evidence on which to fuel decision making.

Use more of what you have:

One of the biggest challenges for councils – often through a lack of skill, time, training, and/or resource – is knowing exactly what is at your disposal when you invest in technology. For example, when you deploy Microsoft 365 you don’t just have the usual desktop tools such as word, excel, PowerPoint, Teams and so on. You also have Yammer (organisational networking), OneDrive (file hosting and sharing), Forms (create surveys and registration forms), Sway (interactive presentation programme), and many other applications. Applications that may help you address new priorities and reduce the need to invest in more technology.

Data is the common thread

Data plays an integral role in maintaining digital momentum. It provides the insight and validity that underpins the design, delivery, and transformation of public services to improve outcomes and efficiencies despite financial constraints. And the more connected data is the greater the insight it delivers. From this councils can continue to make positive decisions on citizen need with a greater certainty of outcome.

Insight born of data has the ability to lower costs and generate life-changing insights. As you gather information, authorities can make data-backed decisions that reduce crime, lower traffic congestion, and improve the environment. The goal is to strike a better balance between using technology productively to solve a broader range of priorities on a Chief Executive’s agenda, without burning out the very people charged with using it to support citizens.

 

For more information on how HSO helps Local Government meet citizen needs click here.