The pandemic dramatically sped up local government’s move to digital services. Civica’s Jeff Hewitt explores whether citizens will even need physical council offices in the future and examines the skills we’ll need to adapt…
COVID-19 accelerated growth in digital services in an unprecedented way. Local authorities needed to adapt quickly to deliver services to remote and isolated citizens under a time of immense pressure; prompting many councils to bring in virtual ways of delivering services at a speed never witnessed before.
At the same time, our communities changed as people became more independent and digitally savvy across generations, expecting access to services at a time which suits them best, whether from the comfort of their own sofa or on the move via a smartphone. People of all ages now expect to deal with their Council Tax or rent payments in the same way as they can order an Uber or Deliveroo – with quick responses and resolution to their issues.
There’s no doubt the march towards digital services is rapidly gathering pace – but could it ultimately replace physical Council offices altogether? Could the days of taking a ticket and waiting in the queue be a thing of the past? Let’s imagine for a moment that this will be the case. If we were to move to fully digital councils, could we ensure that they remain resilient, responsive to all citizens and meet ever-changing regulations along the way? And how likely is this virtual local government model when we consider the complex needs of diverse citizens across the UK?
The purpose of any digitally enabled council must be to provide better services for citizens and the best systems for staff to understand local communities and respond quickly.
Widening access is obviously crucial – digital services need to work for everyone whether in our towns and cities or in harder-to-reach rural areas. Online services must be designed to work for everyone, especially for those in vulnerable circumstances or lacking in digital skills. Reliable, connected services and well-designed easy-to-use websites which work across all devices and offer a quick response will be key to reduce the need for in-person visits or in-bound phone calls.
At the same time, council staff at all levels need to have the right skills to use the technologies and platforms which will make digital services a reality. They must also be able to access, use and share reliable data so they can make smarter, more informed decisions to help citizens and communities. Highly skilled council officials can then better educate and inform residents on how to self-serve and best use digital services to meet their immediate needs.
Digital transformation doesn’t always need to go all the way to the front line. While citizens continue to communicate online, improved digitisation will also remove the routine administrative pain in an officer’s day – freeing up more people for frontline, face-to-face work with people who need it most.
While the move to digital services has been rapid, the council office still provides a point of focus for the community; embodying the council and making it feel more ‘real’ for people. For example, one idea could be to offer more council services on the move, such as from mobile vehicles so the council could be taken to the community – all enabled by digital technologies, grounded in robust data.
Alongside more council services moving online, the workforce too has shifted to a hybrid model with working from home still the norm for many. During the pandemic, we showed that local government services could keep going and, indeed, thrive even without staff based in a physical office. All of this was enabled by digital technologies.
As hybrid working becomes the norm post-pandemic, councils can continue to use data analysis, automation and new technologies to their full potential to create an agile working environment for local government officers, wherever they are based. As well as offering greater flexibility and work-life balance for staff, councils will also be better able to attract highly-skilled talent, with proximity to the office no longer a factor.
The pandemic has shown councils that there’s no going back. It’s accelerated long-term plans into a much shorter timeframe. New technologies such as chatbots, augmented reality and machine learning are being explored and welcomed – in a recent Civica survey for our Perspectives series, 86% of local government leaders confirmed machine learning has the potential to benefit the sector.
So while we may not see the council office disappear altogether, the digital progress made so far will undoubtedly speed up. People expect the same online services from their local council as they do in their personal lives. Digital technologies are fundamental to helping meet this demand, all whilst ensuring the most vulnerable are protected and never left behind.