Leveraging the Lego – a pragmatic approach to digital transformation

Written by Kate Lindley, Digital services - Transformation - Business Change, Civica

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need to ensure robust and accessible online services. With fewer face-to-face services available – and a need to minimise public health risks, digital services are now the default for many. As a result, the desire to accelerate digital delivery within local councils is gaining even greater pace.

Many local authorities have made great strides in ‘joining up’ the online experience for residents. However, the complexity of the starting point, including the sheer sprawl of solutions that most councils have, and the balance of day-to-day demands against longer-term transformation efforts often means that the journey can be both slow – and quite bumpy.

There’s also, of course, the growing headache of how to square the desire for sustainable digital transformation with the current financial and demand challenges. Balancing ‘keeping the lights on’ and putting in place solutions that are fit for the future is not an easy task.

While there’s a clear shift towards application consolidation and rationalisation in line with the Local Digital Declaration, very often in house teams are over-stretched, and budgets are limited. ‘Fixing the plumbing’ is absolutely the right thing to do, but it’s far harder in reality.

A risk-based approach is therefore needed to enable digital leaders to address their most critical risks and near term opportunities, while putting in place the right foundations to ensure sustainable digital services in the longer term.

In my day to day role, I work with councils, each at different stages of their digital journey, and see several common risks. So, here are my top 5, along with some potential solutions.

Lack of optimisation: Most council ICT estates have evolved over time, and contain a mixture of enterprise capabilities, best of breed line of business solutions and a myriad of small scale applications that fit a specific need – and yet too often we find that many councils are using only 70% of what their software is actually capable of. Knowing what you’ve got and what you could leverage is often the best, and most cost-effective starting point for transformation. By ‘leveraging the Lego’ already at their disposal councils can move more quickly to use existing technology to build new business processes or to better automate and integrate what’s already there. Perhaps unusually for someone who works for a software company, I don’t think the solution is always to ‘buy more’ – at Civica, our focused Rapid Reviews are designed to identify opportunities for councils to make better use of what they’ve got, helping them to increase the pace of transformation – and save money in the process. This type of activity can be a valuable starting point, a useful checkpoint, or can offer additional insights to work that’s already underway.

Single points of failure: Many councils have a ‘Barbara’ or a ‘Bob’ sitting in IT, or in a systems admin team, supporting one or more legacy solutions. While the system may not be critical to the council overall, very often it’s critical to a specific area of service. Often councils want to replace these systems and while it may be a technical debt that needs addressing at some point, with so much to fix, it may not be highest priority on the list. Maybe it was developed 15 years ago and only one person has the knowledge to support and maintain it, or maybe nothing is properly documented so it’s hard to hand over. In this circumstance, greater resilience can be achieved by either sharing resourcing across councils where there are commonalities in solutions and the right skills to enable this. Or instead, via a careful transition to a 3rd party provider for support until the technical debt can be addressed – this can often be done at a lower cost than the existing overheads. Doing this enables greater resilience by spreading the knowledge across a wider team and with the right supplier, there may be opportunities for them to manage the risk of the legacy application alongside working with you to modernise, or to replace it.

Meeting user needs: The move to delivering more services online inevitably means that accessibility becomes even more critical – which means avoiding a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to development. One of the major risks to transformation is around technology adoption – and not just for external residents, but for employees too. Making things easy so that the customer experience is as effortless as possible is vital and it’s only by doing this that digital will become the default option. If new solutions are too hard to use, even the best and most willing employees will find workarounds too. While many older systems have limitations, with careful thought there are opportunities to re-skin, re-platform and to create additional functionality that better meets user needs without breaking the bank. Understanding user needs has to be at the heart of this, and a proportionate approach to User Research and UX design is needed to achieve the optimal blend of user input and value for money.

Skill shortages: After more than a decade of working within councils, my experience has shown me just how difficult it is to attract and retain skilled, dedicated technical resources. Capable resources with modern skills are in high demand – and as such command a premium salary-wise. With one or two exceptions, pay generally isn’t as high in the local public sector as elsewhere – and those who are hungry to progress also prefer to work in environments that offer greater development opportunities than a council can reasonably enable. All of this means keeping tech skills current within internal teams is a real issue. It’s no surprise then that the latest workforce data from the LGA revealed that 78% of councils are experiencing recruitment and retention issues. If you’ve got great architects, analysts and developers – hang onto them! A lot of the work we are doing at the moment at Civica is working alongside existing in house teams to support with up-skilling, both in Agile delivery and in modern capabilities. This blended team approach can be useful in ensuring value for money while keeping skills current and ensuring overall resilience.

Cyber-security and data risks: Finally, I can’t talk about risks without touching on security and data. We all know that cyber-security threats are becoming more sophisticated and more prevalent and given the vast quantities of personal data that is held by councils, ensuring security is prioritised is rightly a keen area of focus. Robust requirements and contractual controls are vital, but it’s important that the human factors aren’t missed alongside these. Starters and leavers processes and controls around permissions are often areas where weak spots can be picked up. Getting it right is far less expensive than getting it wrong and spending time getting these sorts of basics right will pay dividends in the longer term.

While the above list is by no means exhaustive, taking a pragmatic, risk-based approach,  enables councils to make the best of what they’ve already got at their disposal, enabling them to meet near term need while enabling longer-term sustainable digital transformation.

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