Guest blog: ‘Fixing the plumbing’ with a platform-first approach

Local government is changing. The Local Digital Declaration announced last year has laid the foundations for digital transformation across councils. One of its five guiding principles, ‘fixing the plumbing’, has now become a common catchphrase which is often used out of context. 

‘Fixing the plumbing’ refers to breaking the local government’s dependence on inflexible and expensive legacy technology that doesn’t join up effectively and building reusable digital services. Instead, organisations should be using the types of technology that support the chosen pace of change for each authority and either integrate or ideally replace systems that are no longer fit for purpose on a consistent technology stack. This would allow them to respond more efficiently to user needs, continuously improve and react to the challenges that lie ahead. 

Undoubtedly, outdated legacy systems are barriers to change and hampering the desire to be more efficient and effective – and provide customers with top class, end-to-end digital services. This has clear repercussions on the quality of service delivered to citizens. Whilst the Digital Declaration has correctly identified the problem, councils struggle to interpret the issue on the right terms. Government-as-a-Platform is another buzz term picked up and used but until now has been largely focused on front end services and eForms that do not address the real problems that lie at the heart of the services that the public sector provides. This means that councils end up with short term, tactical solutions that are only addressing part of the problem and miss out on the big benefits and returns that transformation can deliver.

‘Fixing the plumbing’ means front-end and back-end systems

What we have seen so far are local councils looking to ‘fix their plumbing’ by focusing on changing their front-end systems. Offering simple and user-friendly customer interfaces is a great step towards encouraging more people to interact with public services online. Websites enabled with webchats and mobile applications offering Siri-like chatbots are good ways to facilitate customer interaction and improve customer experience. However, if they are not married with the right back-office systems, they are not enough to deliver real value to citizens or the level of savings required to balance the books and avoid degradation of services.

Let’s take the example of a council offering a seamless front-end experience to citizens looking to contact them with a query. Customers are happy with their experience until they realise that weeks or sometimes months down the line the council has yet to respond to them. Although the issue is often raised via their website through an attractive form, at best a case is created in the customer services system and automatically sent to the back-end systems. However, the process then falls back into legacy system and old ways of working. Different systems and data are then being used in the departmental siloes instead of a corporate view of the customer and an environment where the customer, contact centre, service delivery and management are all using the same technology platform and accessing real time data to work together effectively and aid decision making. Often this results in the customer having to chase the council again, putting a burden on officer time and leading to potential frustration and disappointment. 

Another example I have seen is councils that provide eForms to citizens that simply send an email to an inbox that a staff member monitors. The staff member then needs to transfer the information into a spreadsheet. After that, they manually email the relevant people that need to type the information into to their system. This means that, other than the eForm on the website, there is hardly any automation in the back-end and the processes that organisations follow could be viewed as a little archaic.

To avoid damaging customer experience, as well as the extra costs of having large numbers of staff doing administrative work, councils need to re-think how they approach the ‘fixing the plumbing’ pledge. They need to ensure that their digital transformation projects are holistic, including front-end and back-end integration and ideally legacy system switch off and consolidation

A platform-first approach

Local government organisations manage a number of data-rich services, from planning and land charges to waste management. Therefore, identifying when and how services should be digitally transformed might feel overwhelming. Settling for a short-term option that might focus on transforming one area, especially when it comes to ‘lite’ case management aspects, could be an attractive option. The benefits become obvious quickly, but in the long-term, the limitations of such solutions start to become more apparent. 

Front-end focused solutions are unable to grow with the organisation and meet its evolving needs, particularly when it comes to the changing regulatory landscape. These solutions are typically unable to allow the flexibility the council needs to react quickly to changes in government policy. Integration is a painful exercise and, once in and working, not something that councils will want to change out of choice. However, upgrades often break these integrations which then need rebuilding or older versions continue to be used to avoid the issue. This is putting compliance at risk and pushing the council to bear the costs of potentially expensive procurement exercises and transitioning to different technology on a more frequent basis.

To avoid these issues, councils should adopt a long-term platform-first approach from the very start. This approach enables local government organisations to acquire the technological capabilities they need to transform their front-end and back-office in unison and then identify their specific areas to prioritise for deployment. Each council has its own demographic make- up, its own set of challenges and areas that can deliver quick wins. For example, a council might have a large part of its citizenship on unemployment benefits, so the benefit claims process is their ‘low-hanging fruit’ that they want to redesign first. Another council might want to focus on automating the planning permissions process or providing an online green waste service, and so on.

A platform-first solution that is built on the same technology stack allows organisations to move more IT systems into a single platform as and when they want to – rather than a veneer placed over a legacy IT infrastructure. As the solution is updated by their technology partner with the latest innovation as well as the newest security and regulatory requirements, councils can rest assured that they benefit from the latest technology and realise the significant benefits associated with real end-to-end transformation rather than the lower returns associated channel shift.

Think long-term

Digital transformation can be a complex process. Yet, by arbitrarily focusing on the front-end systems, councils are sabotaging their own chances for success, rather than simplifying it. Whilst, short-term ROI is important to justify an investment especially in an age of overstretched public budgets, councils need to be smart about their technology spending. In many cases the frontend is the right place to start – but councils should rest assured that they can then move onto legacy system replacements on the same platform when it makes sense to do so. Rather than looking for a short-term fix, embrace technology that will address your short, medium and long-term strategic goals. The right platform will enable local government to address its challenges today and in the future. 

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