Think digital, act local: transforming relationships between services and citizens

Digitisation can help local government save money, reinvent services and recast the relationship between the citizen and the state

Digitisation can help local government save money, reinvent services and recast the relationship between the citizen and the state. But, as a new Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank report, Local government – time for reinvention highlights, councils and other agencies should go further in exploring digital capabilities, potentially in collaboration with each other and with other agencies.

Over the last decade, the explosion of new digital technology – social media, mobile/smart technology, big data, cloud computing and, more recently, advanced automated intelligence – has triggered fundamental change in the way people communicate, make friends, buy things, exchange information and use data. This has significant consequences for all organisations, their employees and the public.

In the next five years, most organisations, including local councils, will see their majority customer base change from traditional customers who would typically prefer face-to-face interaction and phone contact to a majority of “digital natives” – those who have grown up with, and know nothing other than, life enabled by the internet and mobile phones. This has huge consequences for the way organisations engage with their customers, other organisations and third parties to create insight and offer tailored products and services, and councils are not immune.

What is the challenge for local government? 

A PwC local government survey showed that less than one-third of the public are satisfied with the digital capability of their local council. In most councils, the current ways of engaging with customers and the workforce, managing assets and using data are costly and underdeveloped.

The challenge for local government is to respond to citizens' evolving expectations while dealing with the acute demands of continued financial austerity and rising demand.

What benefits will digital bring? 

Digital technology transforms information and access for local government, and so the opportunity goes far beyond putting transactions online. Councils should be considering how they can change the way they work. For example:

  • Digital approaches such as community hubs and social listening can give customers greater independence, allowing them to manage their own information and access to services, enabling a more personalised relationship with their council, as well as achieving savings.
  • Automated intelligence can provide basic decision-making and provide online and telephone-based support 24 hours a day with minimal staff intervention.
  • Remote monitoring of assets can transform the cost of managing and maintaining them.
  • Having an integrated view of service users and assets can provide powerful business intelligence for local government. 
  • Developing skills in data analytics can help councils to better understand the impact of interventions and the outcomes they are achieving, enabling more informed decision-making. So far, few councils have got to grips with the powerful insights their data could provide.

All these benefits can link to create a new joined-up organisation available 24 hours a day, providing enhanced customer service while requiring significantly lower staffing levels.

A significant benefit of digital is that it provides a mechanism to drive further efficiencies through automation and self-service at a time when traditional levers of savings are becoming exhausted. This gives councils the opportunity to make further efficiencies while protecting front-line services.

What do councils need to do? 

To deliver on these opportunities, digital thinking needs to be fully embedded in the council’s broader business change agenda. By taking this approach, as the MCA Think Tank points out, digitisation can be deployed more widely to support and improve service self-management in areas such as social care.

Taking a digital approach is not about introducing an IT change. Digital thinking brings a new paradigm, and with it comes cultural and organisational change that needs to be embraced throughout the organisation, workforce and community. Councils don’t need a digital strategy – they need a business strategy for a digital age. 

Many local authorities across the country are putting digital thinking right at the heart of their change programme, embracing innovation, technology and change management in equal measures across the entire council.

Delivering transformation on this scale requires strategic vision and leadership, and a preparedness to take risks and experiment. But as the challenges of squeezed spending, rising demand and changing expectations continue to heighten in 2015 and beyond, digital is an agenda that councils cannot afford to ignore. 

Michael Wallace (pictured) is a director at PwC and a member of the MCA Think Tank, and co-author with PwC colleagues Stewart Wilson and Tim Hoban of the MCA Think Tank report, Local Government – Time for Reinvention.

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