There’s a lot of talk in local government about technology as a driver for transformation. But, as in commercial organisations, there’s sometimes a danger that the tech can become the end in itself rather than the means to an end. Whenever introducing any new tech into any organisation it’s vital to keep the needs of the customer front and centre. In the case of local government that means citizens. So how are the needs of citizens changing?

Obviously we’re living in an increasingly digitized society. Citizens increasingly expect to be able to access products and services digitally and at their own convenience. Many of the conversations I have with local authorities centre around cost saving as a driver for channel shift but it’s important to remember that changing customer needs also play a major role in channel shift. The assumption is sometimes that the local authority will face an uphill battle in persuading its citizens to adopt new technologies but in my experience, done properly, that’s rarely the case – channel shift can be hugely beneficial to citizens as well as to local authorities and, increasingly, it’s what citizens expect.

Citizens embrace digital

We’re becoming a digital nation. Consumers increasingly embrace digital technology in all areas of their lives, and they expect their interactions with local government to be no different. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost 88% of adults in the UK used the internet in the first three months of 2016. That’s 45.9 million people. Amongst people aged 16-44 internet use is pretty much universal now – 98.8% of them are online. Meanwhile adults over 75 are the least likely to be online but internet use amongst this group is growing fast – doubling between 2011 and 2016. Now just under 40% of this group are online and this number will only grow. Looking at the next age group down, those aged 65-74, we can see that almost 75% of them are online. Remember, the internet has been in common use since the mid 1990s now, so there’s a group of people entering retirement who have had more than two decades of experience online in their working lives. This doesn’t just stop when retirement age is reached.

Understanding Generation Y is critical

That said, increasingly it will be the demands of Generation Y who shape the future of public service provision. Generation Y generally refers to those born in the 80s and 90s and they’re the first generation to have been really immersed in digital technology since birth. Generation Y, and those coming along behind them, will increasingly drive digital demand in local government as they age. They expect to be able to access everything that they need digitally and, not only that, via mobile devices. They’re highly driven by a preference for self-service solutions, again accessible through their smartphones. Businesses are increasingly raising the bar as far as digital service is concerned, making sophisticated and seamless use of technology to offer people the products and services they want at the time and place of their choosing. Local government will have no choice but to keep pace with the expectations set by the commercial sector.

Mobile use drives change

One area where this is particularly the case is mobile phone usage and, in particular, smartphone use. Mobile use is driving technology use and adoption across all sectors, and local authorities can’t ignore this either. Research from Deloitte shows that almost two thirds of UK adults have access to a tablet and four out of five have a smartphone. The drive for self-service is particularly connected with the growth in smartphone usage, as shown by a rapid decline in the number of phone calls people make. In 2016 31% of smartphone users made no traditional voice calls in a given week – a huge rise from 2012 when the equivalent figure was just 4%. This trend is set to continue.

People expect to be able to access a whole range of products and services quickly and conveniently via their phones. This is great news for councils who are interested in channel shift. Growing numbers of citizens would much prefer to be able to conduct most of their interactions via their mobiles. Why look up a number, call up a call centre and wait in a queue to report a missed bin collection, book a bulky item collection or apply for a residents parking permit when you can do it in a matter of seconds via an app on your phone?