UK local government is right at the frontline of the response to the Covid 19 pandemic and I blogged during the lockdown about some of the innovative actions we’ve seen our local authority clients take to ensure they provide effective support in their communities. In this post I’m going to talk more generally about what the longer-term legacy of the pandemic might be for the local government technology sector.
One of the most immediate effects of the pandemic on all organisations, not just local authorities, was the push to switch almost all operations online at extremely short notice. In many organisations this has meant that technology projects that have been on the back burner or progressing slowly for some time have been pushed to completion very quickly. Projects that might have taken years to fully complete have been delivered in a matter of weeks. It’s really amazing to see how much can be achieved in an incredibly short amount of time. Perhaps one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic might be greater flexibility and nimbleness in the future, now that organisations have seen what’s possible when the need is there.
Another obvious effect has been the fast tracking of the local government digitisation agenda. Overnight staff, clients, elected members and politicians had to familiarise themselves with a whole range of online collaboration and communication tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Google Hangouts.
Again, this process has demonstrated what’s possible when the need is urgent and this switch to digital communication tools is likely to be lasting. Previously such tools were often seen as a second-best option, next to the gold standard of face-to-face meetings, but the pandemic has shown us that such technologies, used well, can be just as effective as the old ways of doing things and in some cases more so.
Many of those citizens who were previously resistant to online communication will have had no choice but to use it over the last few months and found it to be a perfectly good alternative to face-to-face so the existing trend towards shifting citizen communication online is likely to be significantly and permanently accelerated. Local authorities still need to be aware that online communication does not reach everyone and there will be marginalised groups who are now effectively cut off from contact. However, it’s probably fair to say that the adoption of online technology by groups traditionally considered to be resistant to it (older people, for example) has grown very significantly.
Citizens’ needs have changed and councils have had to respond to massive changes in levels of demand for certain services and the demographics of the people accessing those services. As job cuts kick in more people need to be able to access support from their local council. Needs are changing all the time and councils need to be able to respond to demand quickly and flexibility. This means being able to roll out new online forms, services and apps quickly. The modular, no code approach embedded in the My Council Services suite of products means that our clients have been able to quickly and easily develop and deploy new forms as they’ve uncovered a need for them.
Many of the challenges associated with rolling out local government technology projects in the past have been cultural rather than technological. ‘Old school’ IT departments, centralised infrastructure, byzantine purchasing processes, and cultural resistance to home and mobile working have all played a role in holding councils back. The pandemic response shows what’s possible when the will to achieve change is there. Hopefully the lasting legacy of the pandemic might be that local authorities will be able to take the digital steps that they’ve been talking about for years but not yet able to implement.