15th April 2019

Population changes a digital driver in regional Australia

Ben Cowling, Chief Operating Officer (ANZ), Civica

This article appeared in Telecom Times in April 2019

Population growth is an increasingly hot topic in Australia. Questions swirl around the infrastructure investment needed to ensure our cities are best equipped to handle the demand they face. While a rise in people living in Australia’s metropolitan areas is driving a debate on government investment, other population dynamics are doing the same in regional areas.

The drift towards urban centres and a corresponding drop in resident numbers and subsequent rate payers has left some councils struggling for resources – both financial and human - and in need of greater cost efficiencies. Despite areas of growth thanks to relocation of international migrants, almost 30 per cent of Australia’s 550 local government regions were suffering from a fall in population in 2018, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

This is a big reason why some Regional councils are, contrary to popular assumptions, driving strong demand for digital investment within the public sector.

Another motivation is simplifying processes. With fewer residents in their municipalities, and a smaller pool of skilled people to deliver government services, councils are also under pressure to ensure internal systems are intuitive. By focusing on employee’s ease of use, councils can not only improve employee experience and boost productivity – all the more critical when you have fewer resources – they can also reduce their training burden for new staff.

Importantly, smarter, digital systems, help workers spend less time on internal administrative duties and more time on higher value work that makes a real difference to citizen outcomes. Technology like our CarelinkGo mobile app, for example, has increased the effectiveness of community care workers in the field through improved access to essential information including rosters and patient care notes on the go.

Ninety three percent of the 200 local councils we surveyed for our ‘Changing Landscape’ report series, in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy and Governance and the University of Technology Sydney, felt mobile compatibility should be a key feature of their digital resources, for both employees and rate payers.

Proximity and accountability

The urgency behind this digital push is increased by the fact that local governments are in many ways under more immediate pressure to demonstrate accountability and value than federal agencies. They’re in charge of services that we see and touch every day – our rubbish bins, sporting grounds and parking permits.

A mixed bag

Many government agencies are still only beginning their digital transformation journey. As highlighted in our ‘Changing Landscape’ report series, there’s a fair bit of variability among councils in terms of their understanding of the challenges they face, the opportunities that exist to deal with them, and their readiness to tackle the next steps.

Around five to ten per cent of councils we interact with can be said to be leading the charge. A significant number are just starting to understand the opportunities and challenges. And some are yet to get started; focusing limited time, skill, or budget on roads and infrastructure.

Starting the journey

Councils who are getting the best results in their transformation journeys often begin by talking and listening to those they are trying to better serve – local residents. They’re engaging with constituents to find out more about their current perception of their work, as well as their priority issues, and their expectations around improvements.

With an increasing awareness of the importance of constituent satisfaction, councils like Rockingham in Western Australia are implementing customer satisfaction surveys to garner citizens’ feedback on their delivery of these facilities and services. As described in our ‘Changing Landscape’ report, ‘Co-design: different ideas from a different voice’, which surveyed local government professionals representing more than 30 councils across Australia and New Zealand, most jurisdictions now require local governments to consult with their communities when developing long term plans.

Where possible, the most successful councils are using this input to co-design solutions, with end users and service designers coming together throughout the process to produce outcomes that will benefit user’s lives.

Learning from Others

An advantage for government bodies, including Councils, is that they can collaborate with other councils and agencies who are in the same boat. Those councils who have yet to progress far along their digital transformation journey can gain more clarity from understanding the successes and mistakes of their peers elsewhere.

If skills are a challenge, there’s help at hand. Fortunately, we’ve seen a growing trend of skilled technology professionals moving out of the private, corporate sector, into Council roles. They’re bringing their knowledge and experience of digital transformation in the corporate sector into the public.

For those organisations who have yet to benefit from an influx of such skills, or who lack the resources to bring them in-house, external partners, such as Civica, can help you determine where you can get the greatest bang for your buck in your digital transformation investments and what your roadmap for getting there might look like.

Just as Australia’s population won’t stand still, the digital imperative marches on. The earlier you can start adapting, the better for all involved.