Councils and citizens share the same challenge, and digital is the solution

Woman stood in from a digital projector

Written by Robin Barber, Product Owner of Built Environment at Arcus Global

We started the year of 2020 talking about Brexit and single-use plastic, we’d pretty much all planned our holidays out, and we had all fallen into a trap of thinking that we knew where we would be by the end of it. The public sector was no exception.

With people now imagining what life will be like following the current pandemic, you often see them quoted as expecting public services to ‘go back to normal’, with in-person meetings, paper trails and lengthy processes all in tow. For me, that won’t work. Personally, I would much rather not go back to where we have been, but embrace the changes which we’ve seen in our culture and service delivery practices, especially when it comes to the use of the cloud to enable better services for citizens. We need to look at how we can build on it by using the cloud as a starting place. What started as temporary solutions to an immediate problem, can become a working model that benefits local authorities, helping them to help citizens.

Let’s look at one specific area in the public sector where I think this can apply: building control.

As part of the Government’s bid to kick-start the economy, we’re seeing building sites with longer hours of operation. Local authorities can now permit requests for longer site opening times, allowing for more flexible working to help builders maintain social distancing measures. This is an opportunity to aid the recovery of the sector, something that we’ve already taken up, by providing cloud-based fully automated application forms to help planners, site managers and local authorities to manage this process. If we can take practices like this and apply them to other areas in the public sector, flexibility in service delivery will become normal and services will work around peoples’ needs, not the other way around. Speed, adaptability and accessibility will become the name of the game.

Having seen the importance of cloud-based, automated solutions in practice, we know that we can adapt and operate successfully using these things. The use of e-signatures for official documents has started to become more ordinary, and the registration of births and marriage notices have been replaced by video calls in some areas, and I don’t see these practices going away entirely – it’s simply a better way of doing things for so many people. Flexibility is key, as is preparing for unexpected disruptions to normal operations from busy periods to a global pandemic.

Accessibility has never been so high up on the agenda – we live in a hugely varied society, and a one-size fits all approach to public services isn’t something that I would want to return to. Everyone from planners to registrars is working to improve services for local citizens, so why would we abandon that to go back to something that is familiar, but less efficient? The phrase ‘better the devil you know’ comes to mind, but it is okay for some things to be unknown. If we prioritise flexibility and accessibility, then we know that services can adapt, improve and be more robust in unexpected situations.

The way we all think about what public services should look like has started to change. Not only does a flexible, tech-focused, cloud-based approach to every service from building control to planning join up processes, but it also means that data is secure and accessible to staff and citizens when they need it. Simply put, the public sector needs to make it a priority to adapt and make life better for citizens. The obstacles that council staff and citizens face are the same, and the solution is staring the public sector in the face.

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