As the UK comes out of lockdown, it’s time to focus on effective business delivery for 2022.
With almost half of 2021 spent in a full or partial lockdown, the direction of travel for UK councils involved delivering a frontline COVID-19 response. They were not in the best position to drive wider strategic digital transformation goals. As restrictions eased, councils slowly went back out into the market to source technology that would fit their plans for the remainder of 2021 and beyond.
In view of this, our Operations Director, Darren Bird, discussed five factors he believes will influence the direction of travel for UK councils in 2022, relating to council policy, technology and the legacy of COVID-19.
1) Structural changes to local government in England
With COVID-19 dominating most of 2021, news regarding council mergers creating large unitary or super authorities was largely kept off the broadsheet political front pages. These changes are quietly starting to gather momentum across England, and have real implications.
At the beginning of summer 2021, local government minister Robert Jenrick approved plans for single unitary authorities in Cumbria, Somerset, and North Yorkshire by 2023. Discussions were also being held about other potential unitary authorities being created in Lancashire. What does this mean for UK councils and digital vendors? Staff and funding reductions, leading to consolidation of services across merged areas.
For IT vendors, this presents opportunities and threats. One significant threat is the loss of clients due to consolidation of IT infrastructure. One significant opportunity is offering digital transformation solutions that seamlessly straddle large unitary authorities.
As this is the UK government’s current direction of travel, it is unlikely these changes will stop at Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire. In five years, the entire local authority landscape is likely to be redrawn. Councils need to start thinking what their technology should look like tomorrow. To remain relevant, vendors must work towards building technology in line with the transformational direction of travel for UK councils.
2) Remote and mobile working
One has to wonder what the UK council landscape would have looked like if COVID-19 hit 10 years ago. With most IT solutions being on-premise, councils would have struggled to accommodate for a workforce working from home.
The UK was seeing slow growth in remote working before the pandemic. This increased rapidly from April 2020, with the advent of cloud-based solutions facilitating remote working for the majority of back-office and remote workers. Reports show 46.6% of employed people engaged in remote working.
Having seen the benefits of remote working, Council Chief Executives are now taking the opportunity to reduce authority real estate over the long-term. Remote working will continue to proliferate. Importantly, organisations must provide significant support for remote workers to avoid them becoming disconnected, distracted, and less productive.
This new way of working demands technology that connects teams and the software they rely on. Studies have shown that employers must provide and subsidise appropriate technology where necessary. They must introduce collaboration platforms, ensure workers have suitable internet connection, and ensure that workers are provided with appropriate broader equipment to support remote working.
3) The Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT refers to a vast number of “things” connected to the internet that share data with other “things”. Internet-connected devices use built-in sensors to collect data, and act on it in some cases.
IoT devices and machines improve how we work and live. Examples range from a smart home that automatically adjusts heating, to a factory that monitors industrial machines and makes automatic adjustments to avoid failures.
As UK councils continue their transformation journeys, the use of IoTs will become more important to their everyday activities. In response to this, Abavus are piloting several IoT initiatives, one involving sensors for Streetscene teams that notifies them when static street bins are full. We are also in discussions with a client looking to use IoTs as part of their social care activities.
IoTs sound gimmicky, but they will be commonplace in private and public life within five years. Over the next twelve months, we will start to see their broader introduction within UK councils.
4) Future plans: AI Robotics
The next technological step in both private and public life is the use of Artificial Intelligence. In September 2021, the UK government published a long-term strategy for incorporating AI technology over the next ten years. The paper outlines how AI will be given sufficient investment as we transition into a society that embraces this future technology.
There are several examples where AI Robotics will take centre stage at UK councils. AI chat bots can fully process and manage almost all queries raised by customers, allowing for workforce allocation towards other key business areas. Predictive analytics can observe customer behaviour, gathering data to support councils in becoming more proactive and forward-thinking in their decision-making. AI can also be used to automatically detect abnormalities and inconsistencies (within a customer account, submitted applications, etc), to reduce fraud or time-consuming mistakes.
All of the above will be supported by machine learning. As the AI technology gathers more data, it will learn to make better decisions without the need for manual external input.
Further into the future, we can expect AI to have a significant role in many aspects of life. Autonomous waste vehicles will automatically drive waste workers along the most efficient route, making route adjustments in real-time to accommodate for road congestion or closures. In health and social care, AI will be able to analyse thousands of photos for health issues such as growths or lesions in a fraction of the time and cost it would take for humans to do.
The technology presents many exciting possibilities for the future workflow of UK councils. Over the next year, I believe we will see more councils working with vendors to explore how AI can support frontline and back-office ability.
5) Single sign-on
COVID-19 pushed all customers to transact predominantly online, and many UK council IT departments struggled to keep up with the volume of work required.
To ensure a smoother workflow in the future, it is important that UK councils reduce the number of touch points for access into both staff and customer systems. When you respect the time of staff members and customers, they will return the favour by increasing their engagement with your platform.
Single sign-on authentication allows users to access a suite of applications with a single set of credentials. Single sign-on is not a new concept, but has recently seen increased adoption by UK councils looking to consolidate their IT infrastructure into a single view. Over the next 12 months, based upon the productivity and security merits of single sign-on, the direction of travel for UK councils shows that local government is much more willing to work in this way.