Start with 'Why?': tackle the big challenges by better understanding the problem

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29th March 2024

Civica’s Derek Wise and Microsoft’s Robin Denton recently joined the Truth about Local Government podcast hosted by Matt Masters. Here, they discuss some of the big questions explored in that conversation.

If you were to ask a local authority CEO to define the problem they’re trying to solve, they’d most likely answer: “which one”?

In county, city and town halls every day across the UK, local leaders are trying to solve a plethora of problems, from tackling homelessness to rejuvenating high streets. They’re doing so against a bleak backdrop of ever tighter budgets, an economy back in recession and local communities in need of support, more than ever before. As if this were not enough, our care system is creaking under enormous strain and councils are struggling to attract the highly skilled workers they need to deliver crucial services.

Is technology the panacea to all these problems? As tech sector leaders, you’d probably expect us to answer with an emphatic “yes!”. The truth, however, is that technology will only make a real difference if you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

Beware tech blindness

Curiosity is the source of all great innovations. Albert Einstein famously remarked, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Einstein may not have been referring here to local authorities and the wider public sector, but he could just as well have been. He understood the crucial importance of drilling down to the fundamental problem to be solved.

In the digital age, technology is often seen as the ‘magic pill’, or the ‘silver bullet’ to solve practically every problem. It’s easy to see why. Today, cloud-based technologies are eliminating forests of paperwork, saving money and helping automate ever more complex tasks. So, why are we till facing mounting pressures? Shouldn’t technology have solved those already?

Local authorities, like so many other organisations (public and private), tend to work in silos. Different departments use an array of digital technologies to solve a myriad of problems, from guaranteeing the safety of elderly residents to ensuring bins are collected on time. We’re seeing real success stories here, with technology playing an increasingly crucial role in improving - and in many cases - saving lives. These successes, however, tend to stay within their silos. To get beyond this, leaders need to take a step back and start with the most important question of all – Why?

Start with ‘Why?'

It is vital to spend quality time really understanding the fundamental problem that must be solved. Otherwise, you end up endlessly procuring new technologies, but never achieving that much desired step change. That’s where many organisations find themselves today. They’ve got the tech, but it’s not delivering its true problem-solving potential because, ultimately, they don’t know what that problem is.

The secret to unlocking the true potential of digital technology is really no secret at all. It involves taking a step back and trying to understand the ‘big’ problem that you’re trying to solve. Most organisations have very clear mission statements, rooted above all else in serving their customers. Begin with your mission statement and start asking the big questions. These questions will trigger the right conversations and the right processes right across your organisation.

Savour every byte

All public sector organisations sit on goldmines of data. That golden data, however, is rarely ever together in one seam. Joining together data sets from across different functions can offer a completely new perspective on the problems you’re trying to solve. Crucially – it can also reveal the interplay between those problems – offering a big picture view of the challenges facing customers and communities. If a local resident is behind on their council tax payments for example, is it because they’re struggling to pay, or could they have wider issues the LA may be able to support with?

We’re seeing great examples all over UK of councils looking at how they can pull together data to inform their understanding of not just the citizen, but also the place. For example, being able to identify every incidence of mould formation in your social housing stock can help to prevent health issues further down the line, improving quality of life for local residents and reducing pressure on the NHS.

We often speak of solutions needing to come from the ground up, but where it comes to data, the approach must come from the top. Leaders (CEOs, CIOs CFOs) need to think holistically at what is needed to tackle the big challenges like unemployment, care, vulnerability etc. The data will follow.

Open the digital front door

The most recent UK census revealed there’s 67 million people living in the UK. Around 84% of adults (aged 16+) in Great Britain used a smartphone for private use. We are more digitally connected than any other generation in history. With such a huge proportion of our communities using a digital device, which we should be using to engage them.

That number drops, of course, for over 70s and it’s vital that in embracing digitisation, we don’t leave anyone behind – in particular those most vulnerable in our society. As well as building a ‘digital front door’ therefore, we must ensure there’s also a ‘verbal front door’ for customers who still prefer to phone in rather than using digital channels. The challenge is ensuring that we provide exactly the same information and quality of service through digital and non-digital channels.

If it works, copy it

There are ‘silos of excellence’. So, the challenge is how do you create an engine within your organisation to understand where best practice is taking place and how you can share this across every function? How do you elevate to senior leadership, the really excellent use cases so other leaders can copy these ideas?

For great ideas, you must also look more closely at what’s going on ‘down the road’. Think about how you can take great ideas from outside your organisation (whether from local authorities or NHS etc). Can you replicate those things to deliver for your customers?

The secret to social value – unlock your data

When we speak to local leaders, as we did at the recent Leadership Forum in Birmingham, social value is top of the agenda. This is hardly surprising; those who chose a career in local government do so for a reason. Day in, day out, they are thinking about how they can help their community, and this is their way of doing it by working at those local authorities.

More and more leaders are asking their tech partners how we can deliver more social value to make a difference for those who need it most. The answer is we can, but it comes down once again to data. Data is the secret ingredient which will turn social value from an aspiration into a reality. Without a clear command of data, you can’t generate the insights to inform decisions to make a real difference for people’s lives.

Derek Wise is Chief Product & Technology Officer at Civica.

Robin Denton is Director of Local Government at Microsoft.

Podcast: How technology is preparing LAs for the challenges it will face

In this ‘Truth about local government’ podcast, host Matt Masters talks to IT leaders from the local government supply chain, Robin Denton, Director of Local Government, and Derek Wise, Chief Product & Technology Officer at Civica

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