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. But, as the new 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 massive consequences for the way organisations engage with their customers, other organisations and third parties to create insight and offer tailored products and services – councils are not immune!

What is the challenge for local government? 

A PwC local government survey – the Local State We Are In – showed, that less than a third of the public are satisfied with the digital capability of their council. In most council’s 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 the evolving expectations of citizens, 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.

  • Digital approaches, for example community hubs and social listening, can provide customers with greater independence, allowing them to manage their own information, and access to services, enabling a more personalised relationship with their council, as well as realising savings.
  • Automated intelligence can provide basic decision making and provide on-line 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’re achieving, enabling more informed decision making.  So far few councils have got to grips with the powerful insight that their data can potentially provide.

All these benefits link to create a new joined up organisation available 24 hours per 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 that traditional levers of savings are becoming exhausted. This gives councils the opportunity to make further efficiencies whilst protecting front line services.

What do Councils need to do?  In order to deliver on the opportunities ‘digital’ thinking presents it needs to be fully embedded in the council’s broader business change agenda. By taking this approach, and as the MCA Think Tank points out, digitisation can then 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. 

As we put it… councils don’t need a digital strategy, they need a business strategy for a digital age. 

Many local authorities across the country are placing ‘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 councils cannot afford to ignore. 


Originally featured in Computer Weekly.

The authors are Michael Wallace, Stewart Wilson, and Tim Hoban.  Michael Wallace is a Director at PwC and a member of the MCA Think Tank. The new MCA Think Tank report, Local Government – Time for Reinvention says the future of local government needs a radical rethink early in the new Parliament – to define what councils are for, what functions best suit them, and what should be undertaken by others.

The report is based on the views of the UK’s leading consultants – experts in local government – working with councils the length and breadth of the country. To download a copy of the report, click here.