Challenges facing the public sector seem to come thick and fast. If the cuts to budgets were not enough, there is growing public demand, expectations of shared and digital delivery, devolution, cyber threats, and improving information governance required in the wake of GDPR.
But these are, to be fair, not new. The problem is that reshaping public services to cope with the amount of change takes time. For that reason alone, the challenges facing CIOs in local government are as much as about dealing with legacy IT applications, contracts, skills and practices as they are about exploiting exciting new technology trends.
That said, it is arguably the possibilities offered by new technology that could the key to solving many of these challenges.
- The CIO in local government is therefore faced with complex tensions to manage:
- The need to ‘keep the ship afloat’, servicing mission critical, but possibly outdated applications, at least until such time as they can be replaced or upgraded
- Reviewing contracts which are often too restrictive and expensive in the face of newer solutions, such as cloud services
- Dealing with a changing threat landscape with ‘cyber’ is now one of the main risks for councils. This is more about culture and behaviours in the business than it is about new IT
- Building the case for adoption of new technologies and new IT operating models, which requires a whole-organisation change programme, not just changing IT at the centre.
Grappling with these types of issues requires a CIO to be more of a politician and a communicator than a technology evangelist. Indeed, a CIO in local government who is too evangelical about the potential of new technology and does not empathise with the business constraints and issues, may find their tenure short-lived.
However, the astute CIO ensures effective management and gradual migration from old technology solutions to new platforms. This helps to create space and the authority to begin to explore new technology possibilities, and many councils are already doing this, trialling leading edge IT procured in more innovative ways via frameworks such as G-Cloud.
But each of these technologies has to solve business problems today, not innovation for problems which may be faced some time in the future. Their use must also typically be accompanied by business change – for example, bringing in artificial intelligence and machine learning automotive systems to contact centres requires business process re-engineering and target areas where the benefits to the public and service efficiencies are greatest.
There are numerous areas which I see as the ‘hot topics’ for the coming 12-24 months.
Here’s what should be exploited more today:
The importance of cloud must be self-evident but take up in local government remains relatively low. This is partly due to IT legacy constraints, but also because it requires a new architecture to properly support, integrate and manage access. Cloud matters not just because of the potential to reduce cost and increase IT flexibility, but because it is one way of facilitating shared services and IT modernisation, especially for smaller councils.
As a business tool, social media still has much to offer councils, from internal social media to reduce the reliance on email, to how social media can support improved citizen engagement and democratic renewal. But widespread use across the organisation requires digital maturity to manage the risks.
Here’s what local authorities should focus on for the next 2 years:
Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence
AI is very fashionable right now, with a variety of examples of voice activated machines such as Amazon’s Alexa used in council contact centres. But these are really fairly basic steps towards exploiting AI will develop much further over the coming years to include support for a range of professional areas both internally (risk management, procurement, finance, HR) and externally (customer advice, service linkages, specialist service areas such as environmental health and care services).
Information intelligence tools
We are at last seeing ‘data’ rising up the priority scale for councils, which have mostly been concentrating on business process re-engineering in the face of cuts. The demands and advantages of GDPR, citizen insight and performance intelligence all require a more mature approach to data and information governance, and the overheads of ‘dark data’ (data we don’t know anything about) are growing. There are a range of application agnostic tools emerging that can resolve data issues and demand for these from councils will probably grow.
Unified Communications (UC) is not new, but the journey is far from complete. So, whilst video conferencing (say) is in use, it has still not changed working habits fundamentally, and tends to be limited to lower quality skype-type use. Unified communications is the next step in freeing employees to be truly mobile, while keeping in touch with colleagues, teams, data and systems.
Citizen account and ID
The needs to provide better intelligence around citizens is growing. It is essential in terms of joining up services and also in combating operational risk, security and fraud. If we truly want a more ‘Amazon-like’ experience, it needs tackling. The trouble is, councils have been left to their own devices since Whitehall has failed, mostly for political reasons, to join up the many existing citizen identifiers (NHS number, driving licence, National Insurance, passport).
Again, not a new technology, but its scope for local government is significant in terms of designing services, buildings use, roads, city centre use and specific support for vulnerable people. We are at the start of this journey but can expect to see some early trials in the next 2 years.
Robotic Process Automation
As distinct from AI, this is about automating and connecting high-volume transaction processing. Its not surprising therefore that early adoption is likely to be in Whitehall departments such as DWP and HMRC, but where councils have repeatable and predictable transactions, RPA offers the opportunity for intelligent automation which can add service value and spot outliers.
Not the standard newsfeeds, but the ones that can begin to link data together based on reader interests – individually and in communities. Councils have a key role in engaging with and informing the citizens in their patch, but still mostly use traditional approaches, including adverts, mailshots and leaflets. But sophisticated newsfeeds, linked to social media, could fundamentally change how services are accessed and viewed in turn enhancing democratic processes. This is some way off for most council marketing and communications departments though.
Much talked about as the technology behind cryptocurrencies, blockchain offers significant value in the future beyond this for councils. But only in the future. The areas for early adoption will be in particular where non-repudiated records are required – legal and democratic use spring to mind.
No more passwords! Biometrics have been around for a while but are mostly in use for personal devices such as face and fingerprint recognition on smartphones. But the need for stronger authentication as services move to the cloud and are accessed with personal devices is clear enough, and the problems with growing cyber threats and multiple passwords has dramatically increased risks for councils. For a while though, more traditional methods are likely to endure.
Not a new technology but using wearable technologies in the workplace can offer value not yet seen, from staff well-being, support for disabilities to lone-working monitoring. But this will take time to be accepted (and acceptable) and policies to ensure no abuse will be needed first.
Although the G-Cloud uptake has been slower by local government than central government, it is clear that local government needs a vehicle to procure its technology in a simple and effective way. G-Cloud by its very nature should then be the first port of call for a local government CIO.
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