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Councils lack a digital strategy

BenjaminCllr Benjamin Dennehy, an Ealing councillor, says local government is failing to obtain value for money from new technology

The pace of technological change over the past decade, combined with more recent economic upheavals, has seen public services struggle over the lintel into a brave new world. A world in which services, transactions, information and assistance is increasingly offered via websites and mobile phone technology.

There are key factors challenging local government in the digital era:

  • Increasing pace of change
  • Technological developments
  • Changing perceptions
  • Increasing expectations
  • Citizen empowerment

The holy grail for any Local Authority Chief Executive is a smooth transitional shift of services and information away from centralised, resource heavy call centres to digital platforms.

The phrase used to describe this is “channel shift”, driving services and solutions online so as to reduce the cost of transactions, shrink call centres, provide tailored and individual messages to residents, to increase efficiency, cut waste and utilise the marvels of the mobile digital era.

I have conducted my own research and spoken to over 140 local authorities in the past two months and all of them have told me that at some point they have utilised digital technology. The simplest being online payments through their websites, the more advanced having used QR codes for smart phone users. All have used some form of basic SMS (texting) campaign.

The key concern is however that none have a centralised digital strategy that looks at channel shift across the entire organisation and focuses on the above challenges. They lack a strategy that embraces and brings along all departments, that shares data and co-ordinates appropriate campaigns to deliver more for less.

There is a silo effect where each department or budget stream acts independently, often duplicating initiatives and driving up costs. As a result of this piecemeal approach to mobile phone technology and the web we are seeing foolish, expensive, meaningless and vanity based projects being rolled out across the nation.

The latest white elephant was Bolton Council spending £100,000 on SMS messages to residents thanking them for recycling. You don’t have to have any knowledge or experience in marketing or technology to realise that Bolton Council was taken for a ride by a department head that was engaged in a vanity exercise. This manager grabbed the technology by the horns: because it’s there, so it must be used, regardless of any meaningful outcome.

Waste like this creates the wrong sort of headlines and undermines the powerful benefits that can be delivered through the appropriate adoption of new technologies. It makes authorities understandably wary of embracing technology and it opens them up to long-winded and expensive development exercises, not to mention snake oil charlatans. These scenarios can’t happen if an authority has a centralised digital strategy and centre of expertise.

Let’s be frank, and I mean no offence, but the public sector, particularly at local level, is not exactly the most sophisticated or savvy when it comes to effectively commissioning, utilising and implementing new technologies. There is an almost pig-headed malaise that they can do whatever the private sector can do, but for cheaper and without the help of external experts, unless those experts charge them astronomical fees, ones that that the private sector would never pay – it is a truly bizarre dichotomy.

Virtually all the authorities I spoke too said that they handle most of this technology in house. They bought an off the shelf system and can send SMS messages, some have built apps for smart phones in-house and others are seeking to mobilise their website internally. This is all done internally to save money and because they have a very basic level of understanding about their end user. Local authorities don’t treat their end user as sophisticated consumers they therefore believe having “something” is better than nothing. They are of course wrong. They don’t understand how poor user experience affects (and reinforces) perceptions.

Procurement processes and tenders are often drafted by managers with limited understanding of what they need or even how this technology can help them effectively. If I go to my doctor, an expert, he asks me a series of questions in order to diagnose what my ailment may be. He then prescribes a treatment. In the insane world of local government procurement however the patient would dictate the ailment to the doctor and then demand a set solution they believe is the cure.

Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice. That is the local government procurement process though. They always tell suppliers what they need and as a result, the patient mis-diagnoses and this always leads to over buying and under performance. Suppliers get rich.

This piecemeal and unsophisticated approach often has no clear strategy or metrics. It is basic and almost insulting to end users because its poor engagement fails to engage. This has the effect of pushing up costs because poor user experience often means these projects never last and ROI is limited. They are often not designed for the user but to feed the vanity of the project co-ordinator. The expectations of the user are denied whilst the ego of the communications team is fed.

Failing to properly implement and invest in the right solution for your organisation can have a crippling effect. People, increasingly, demand and expect that technology is responsive to them and their needs.

By 2015 there will be more smartphones than toothbrushes in the world! Apple’s iPhone 4S sold, in the UK, 4 million phones in the first 48 hours of release! How many local authorities have mobilised their website properly? To clarify, mobilise means develop a website that is easily usable and compatible with individual mobile phones – even older, less technologically advanced ones. Just because you can see the site on smart phone OK with a bit of fiddling (“pinch and zoom”) on the touch screen, doesn’t mean your website is fit for purpose – or properly accessible.

The answer is relatively few. Many don’t appreciate that not only is each phone different, but that this needs to be understood technologically so that the correct ‘variation’ of the website is delivered to the viewer. Simply replicating the desktop website, with some minor touch screen tweaks is not creating a user experience that will attract people back. Having a website CMS (content management system) with ‘one’ mobile site version isn’t good enough either.

The lack of understanding for how the technology is best applied is at the heart of local government folly. The ‘she'll be right we can do it’ attitude is not sufficient. I am sure they employ great techies, but they are not experts, they spend most of their time fire fighting bugs in your in-house system.

Without a coherent, managed and centralised digital strategy they will continue to add and tweak but never properly deliver. And it will cost more in the medium/long term. It’s this detail that many authorities gloss over and thereby shall ensure that channel shift will be slow, delayed and costly over time.

Local Authorities need to be incentivised to make this change. That’s not central government incentivation either: simply delivering better services to your citizens, in the way that they want to access them, at lower costs, with greater efficiency and in an engaging manner is the incentive!


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