Post-pandemic Australians actively embrace digital connection with local government

8th May 2021

Latest study reveals citizens are readier for digital engagement than some councils and are actively embracing new ways to connect with local government

MELBOURNE,9th May 2021:

Local government leaders view incremental digital transition as a realistic approach to improving efficiencies and freeing up staff for value-adding tasks. This is a key finding of latest research undertaken by Civica and the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) entitled Building Stronger Communities in an Increasingly Digital Post-Pandemic Society.

The report is a result of a focus group discussion held in late 2020 which captured insights from senior local government professionals across Australia and New Zealand. It included recent experiences around community engagement, digital strategy and governance, digital capability and skills. It highlights key areas to focus on next as councils started to consider the post pandemic communities they wished to support.

Not everyone is ready to embrace digital engagement

It came as no surprise that the focus group viewed younger generations as the most enthusiastic about digital community engagement, widely embracing and expecting digital tools and communication channels. However, the discussion identified that citizens from non-English speaking backgrounds and older generations faced significant challenges with digital interactions with their local councils. Several local governments had also experienced some pushback from councillors and internal leaders in the wake of rapid digital change during COVID-19.

Brett Barningham, Civica’s Managing Director for Local Government said:

Councils have their own unique levels of digital readiness based on their approach to digital engagement over time. During the last year, local government globally has shown the speed with which new digital solutions can be conceived and deployed and that we all need to build on this. We’ve seen an incredibly diverse range of things happen. Some councils were significantly more prepared than others so could quickly respond and move to an accelerated technical engagement.
Our interactions with councils show that citizens are empowered when they can access local services and support, and councils have a vital role to play in nurturing a community’s strength, resilience and general wellbeing. Those such as Melton in Victoria using our self-service solution Authority Community Portal have shown to result in stronger communities with internal efficiency gains.”

Digital improvement over mass transformation

Focus group participants agreed that 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. As one participant said: “It’s not really digital transformation. It’s actually digital improvement… we’ve got to face the fact that we’re on a continuous improvement journey and that there’s a whole set of activities that you can do to deliver better and enhanced outcomes for both council and the community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted the need for meaningful digital improvement, but also illuminated the changes that can make the greatest difference to community wellbeing, strength and resilience. Brett Barningham says that taking a digital improvement approach means everything doesn’t need to be done at once: “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”

Moving forward from makeshift solutions

The urgency of recent events has resulted in new digital and automated processes that might meet immediate needs but may prove to be imperfect solutions on a long-term basis. The focus group discussion indicated that there may be some dissatisfaction amongst both citizens and staff as a result.

While the temptation might be to revert back to traditional meeting and management practices to soothe resistance, the wider social shift towards digital engagement tells us that now is the time to persevere and invest in cloud and digital transformation: both for community engagement and internal efficiency. To this end, Civica works with customers and partners in the NorthStar innovation lab to harness innovation and improve public services.

As one Northern Territory CFO explained: “Some people within the business are talking about reverting back to pre-COVID processes. Because we had to shift quickly these new electronic and automated processes aren’t perfect. I’ve been encouraging people to work in that imperfect space for a while so we can fully click over into an electronic environment. We’re part-way there. The cultural shift has been done. The public is used to those changes. It’s not the time to be reverting.”

With all organisations changing the way they think and operate, the steps taken by councils with new technology and innovation this year will impact their success into 2022 and beyond.

The full report is available for download now here.