Why local councils don't need transformative digital overhauls

26th April 2021

Brett Barningham, Managing Director for Local and State Government, ANZ at Civica

This article first appeared in GovTech Review in April 2021

Taking a digital improvement approach doesn’t mean everything needs to be done at once — an incremental approach can help to discern what really matters.

Local councils are constantly striving to improve the digital experiences of citizens, although the difficulty of attaining budgets for large-scale transformations can be a hefty challenge to overcome.

When budgets get denied or financial needs aren’t fully met, it’s a lose-lose for everyone involved. While local government bodies strive to offer up innovative digital services for citizens and employees, the reality is that adequate funding can be just as hard to come by.

However, digital investment doesn’t just have to come in the ‘transformational’ variety. This was proven throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which — for many councils — shifted digital investment away from big projects with long lead times to rapid deployments of platforms and services based on needs.

As we come out of the pandemic, it might be useful to maintain this ‘change is the new normal’ ethos. In some cases, the best option for cash-strapped local councils is to integrate technology enabled solutions through ‘digital improvement’ rather than ‘digital transformation’.

Take Moorabool Shire Council near Melbourne, who had their whole asset management process modernised through the implementation of a single application. Grappling with challenges borne from manual paper-based processes, the council employed Civica’s Reflect application to automate the management and inspection of footpaths, roads and other assets.

The results were inspiring, as it transformed the day-to-day work of field teams without a full-scale digital transformation. In providing a data-driven asset tracking capability, the solution eliminated guess work and made the whole process — from managing teams to issuing vital repairs — far more efficient.

Driving cost savings

Moorabool Shire’s investment in ‘digital improvement’ also has the potential to drive big cost savings. Asset management is a core activity for local councils and improving this process with a digital capability means less time and money is wasted. As a result, budgets for other digital transformation projects can be made available.

Although it doesn’t have to be just about asset management. Councils should think about how they can improve their interactions with their specific communities. Are there any simple foundational elements or manual processes that could easily be improved with a digital capability? Could various bespoke systems and data sets be pulled together to create a ‘single-source-of-truth’? Could more data be made available to citizens? These are the things councils should consider.

Another useful tool that has risen as an imperative in the wake of the pandemic is self-service tools for citizens. Again, these can be more simple implementations that allow people to pay rates online or check on the status of a repair.

Taking a digital improvement approach means everything doesn’t need to be done at once. Rather, councils can take an incremental approach to discern what really matters for their communities and start there.

It also eases the burden on change management, which is an aspect of digital transformation that local governments often underestimate. The cost of change outside of the project is often multiple times higher than the cost of the technology itself and this isn’t always adequately accounted for in budgets.

Change is difficult. People need to learn new skills, belief systems and reinterpret the way they view and value their jobs, often against their explicit wishes. Depending on the specific workforce, many can resist change, and this creates an additional financial burden on transformation projects.

By taking an incremental approach, this change can be easier to manage as staff have more time to learn new processes and IT has increased capacity to help them through this.

Moving forward, councils can ease their overall financial burdens by delivering shorter, sharper projects that solve one problem at a time. Using an incremental approach based on needs, IT can more efficiently deliver projects that drive meaningful cost savings, freeing up budget over the long term to allow focus on additional digital innovation.

An update to our previous research with UTS Centre for Local Government into improving citizen engagement titled “Community as a Service” is due out in April. This update captures the thoughts of councils from around Australia on what has changed in their approach to citizen engagement during the pandemic. To read the new report when it is released and also the existing report please go to https://www.civica.com/en-au/.