20 years ago, it was technological sacrilege in any organisation to suggest that IT should drive the business – it was a tool and a utility, the purpose of which was there to serve the business. Responsive IT meant an IT department that was able to bend and to adapt technology potential to fit the needs and preferences of the business, and anything less was a failure of technology.
Today much has changed and, for many organisations, including councils, the future is one where technology IS the business. It is technology that is creating new digital operating models, empowering staff, citizens and partners to self-serve and leading to information insights into intractable public service challenges unimaginable a few years ago.
This does not mean that councils should or will become increasingly remote, faceless, impersonal and robotic in the future. In fact, the reverse will be true in the best performing councils. It is about freeing the potential of technology to revolutionise the business of local government to reinvigorate local democracy, bring communities and services closer together, maximise choice of how scarce public resources are spent and allow people to be in more control of their interactions with public services.
Technologies such as robotics, wearable IT, personal apps, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and virtual reality all offer enormous untapped potential for councils to rethink not just how they operate, but fundamentally what they do. Technology can, ironically perhaps, make service more personal, more designed around the individual, more responsive and less likely to say ’no’ or to make a mistake.
But it needs a significant culture shift in the relationship with technology, recognising that digital solutions must be designed around the user, not the efficiency of the business. This means changes to roles, structures, governance, services, processes, decision-making, risk models, policies, style and cultures ... pretty much everything councils do, and that is scary. It is not about more, or new IT in isolation, it’s about a vision of how traditional council services can be transformed by new technologies, not just modified or enhanced, or made more efficient and bit more joined up.
I want to see the current paraphernalia of UK public services dating from the 1990s and earlier, stripped back, and a new digital finish applied. I want control of my data, I want to have a say in how my money is spent where possible, and where it is for community of national benefits to see transparently how its spent and to what effect. And I want it to be as local as feasible.
Councils will and should still be paternalistic, offering support when required, but better targeted, timed and aligned across related services (whoever provides them) than happens today. That depends on new technologies which allow those who can, to do things for themselves, and those who need help to receive it quickly and effectively – in many ways future technology offers vulnerable and disabled people more opportunity for life chances and equality than for any group.
That is an exciting future for councils. It is one where difficult and complex problems such as ‘troubled families’, stimulating local economies and jobs, waste management, congestion, voter apathy, equality, and more, may for more readily tackled through local partnerships, devolution of resources and data insights. It is one where today’s resources pressures may be alleviated by operating differently, shedding generations of overheads and outdated working practices. And it is one where, in smart places, local government could become the most important player in defining how technology can be used for public good.
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