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While the pace of change maybe slightly slower in the public sector, it is an exciting time in local government digital transformation, says Georgina Maratheftis, programme manager for Local Government, techUK
With the news of councils needing to radically cut services hitting the headlines of late, local governments universally face the challenge of managing tightening budgets, whilst having to deal with increasing demand and rising expectations. However, many councils are seeing this challenge as an opportunity to do things differently, utilising the potential that digital can bring when it comes to providing improved services for citizens.
Local areas are individually faced with a range of challenges: from demographic change, traffic congestion and housing, to unemployment and local economic decline. These challenges can no longer be faced alone, and digital can help to enable the integration of services to improve the quality of processes and outcomes, enabling greater self-service and empowering citizens to manage their own situation where necessary. Some local councils are already making some great progress in making these digital dreams a reality.
Being more predictive
We often talk about ‘digital transformation’ and ‘smart places’ at the local level as if they are separate issues. Whilst they may appear different in their outcomes, they are both enabled through the adoption of a collaborative and digital-first approach. Digital is more than just shiny new technology. It is important that digitally-enabled solutions also integrate a collaborative and user-centric approach to doing things smarter. We are seeing far more councils embrace digital to deliver smarter services, and in turn helping them create smarter places and communities where citizens want to live, work and thrive.
Essex and Hertfordshire County Councils are a good example of this, working together to pilot UK innovation in smart city services. Some of the smart city solutions in the project include gully monitoring to alert and even predict flooding, highway wind monitoring that instantly alerts the highways team of strong winds or gusts and builds a data set that helps to predict dangerous driving conditions. Additionally, the data sets from infrastructure monitoring can be used to spot trends across departments, leading to more joined-up working and better decision making.
Not a rubbish idea
Bin collection and pot holes always seem to be the most popular topics at local government events. Waste collection is a core responsibility of local authorities across the UK and a service where citizen satisfaction can easily be measured. This explains the excitement around the future of bins!Waste collection offers a major opportunity for innovation and cost savings. With the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city technologies there is every opportunity to revolutionise bin collection to empty them based on fill level and traffic conditions, making the process more intelligent and efficient.
This can help improve productivity by reducing travel time, and in turn saving fuel and CO2 emissions. Hull City Council is to trial new smart bins. It will involve installing 30 sensors to monitor waste levels in 15 bins in high streets, parks and public spaces. They are being fitted to two types of bin and the pilot will run for six months. The sensors can also detect a sudden motion or shaking, which automatically trigger vandalism alerts, and sudden spikes in bin temperature, trigger fire detection warnings.
In March this year, the government announced a further £100 million to help repair potholes. This is on top of the £75 million in government funding already given to councils from the Pothole Action Fund. Not only are potholes a driver’s nightmare, but their eradication is a resource intensive, costly service. Data and technology can be better utilised to prevent them happening in the first place. UCL and Leeds University are working with Leeds Council to trial the use of drones to scan roads, looking for small cracks. It is part of a drive to create ‘self-repairing cities’.
The government is also investing more than £900,000 in innovations using connected vehicles to help councils more efficiently manage and plan maintenance works. These trials will ultimately help provide councils with data to enable them to repair potholes before they occur as well as maintain their other assets more effectively as part of their asset management plans. This will help prevent further potholes and other road defects occurring over time. Blackpool Council has been given £100,000 to lead on a digital inspector scheme with eight councils. This will see high definition cameras mounted on vehicles to collect data on road and path conditions, which will then be analysed to highlight where roads are deteriorating.
Boosting customer services with AI
Even though artificial intelligence is still a rather nascent market for the public sector, local government is leading the way in its adoption and understanding of its value in transforming services for citizens. AI can help reduce demand and meet rising citizen expectations, whilst also freeing up employees’ time to focus on other key areas. Chatbots, for example, can help provide a good customer experience by enabling citizens to engage with a local public service out of hours, as demonstrated by Aylesbury Vale District Council. It has introduced a service that learns from previous council residents’ conversations and can improve council response time to resident queries on services, such as council tax, benefits and bin collection.
AI can also enable a more data-driven council and make services more predictive. Hackney Council has launched the Early Help Predictive System that uses artificial intelligence to identify families that may benefit from extra support from the government. Its goal is to provide support to families as early as possible to prevent the need for high-cost and high-risk services further down the line.
Harnessing digital to improve outcomes
While technology can act as enabler to redesign service delivery and achieve savings, the real reward is in improving outcomes for citizens and solving social challenges. The LGiU’s Annual State of Local Government Finance Survey alarmingly highlights that children’s services are now the biggest pressure for councils. This is above adult social care for the first time in at least three years, suggesting that councils are no longer able to shield these services from the worst of the ongoing budget cuts in local government.
These stark figures show that many councils will not be able to continue to deliver children’s services as they currently are. We need to re-imagine how services can be delivered to give families the information they need and to empower individuals to access the right services at the right time. There are a number of good examples of councils taking a data-led transformation approach to children’s social care. For instance, Newcastle Council’s data-informed changes to children’s services help social workers deal with complex family needs better, whilst also being able to identify factors that can predict a child becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), enabling earlier intervention.
Art of the possible
While the pace of change maybe slightly slower in the public sector, it is an exciting time in local government digital transformation. The more progressive councils will see digital as an opportunity to do things differently to gain value in reducing demand on services; improve efficiencies; enhance customer experience and drive better decision making from data insights. The government's GovTech Fund competition is a good example of public sector recognising how technology can help solve problems and the need for collaboration across industry and the public sector. It is an opportunity for innovative tech companies to help solve public sector issues.
If you are a council looking at or looking to begin your digital transformation or want to explore what the ‘art of the possible’ is, then do get in touch! techUK has an active public sector programme which connects central and local government stakeholders with suppliers of all sizes to access innovative tech services to transform public service outcomes. techUK represents more than 950 tech companies and cover the breadth and depth of the market. There is the opportunity to workshop through ideas on re-imagining service delivery, as well as inform you of the latest tech innovations in this space.