Fostering digital engagement after covid

Local government professionals recently participated in a series of focus groups hosted by a tech provider to capture insights about using technology and fostering digital engagement with the community in a post-pandemic environment.

Brett Barningham

The findings are contained in the Changing Landscapes report, which was released today by Civica.

Managing director of state and local government Brett Barningham talks to Government News about some of the issues.

GN: How many people were involved in the focus groups?

BB: There were five local councils who participated in the focus groups in 2020 and it was a representative sample of Australia.

What did you learn about the impact of Covid on the adoption and use of new technology?

COVID-19 meant many local councils had to rethink how they engage with their citizens. Prior to the pandemic, many did so primarily through in-person services and processes. Technology was brought to the forefront during the pandemic, enabling public servants to adhere to regulations around social-distancing while providing continuity of service.

We saw this play out with many local councils adopting digital technologies overnight and pivoting their in-person services to online channels so that staff could continue to serve their citizens safely. Simple but high-volume tasks that local councils manage on a daily basis, such as accepting payment for rates, permits and registering animals, are just some examples of activities that were quickly digitised during COVID-19.  

The report highlights that some councils are struggling with governance issues around new technology, can you expand on this?

There are two key issues when it comes to governance. The first is managing and protecting the vast amount of citizen data that local councils are now responsible for as they embrace digital platforms. All staff are now under a duty of care to protect this data and must be aware of how to use it, how to store it, and whether it needs to be de-personalised if it’s being repurposed in a different context.

The second is managing compliance associated with new systems and processes. Local councils typically abide by rigorous processes and guidelines when implementing new systems such as IT, however the swiftness of lockdowns meant some checks associated with compliance were overlooked in an effort to get digital services up and running. Many local councils are now in a position of reviewing these implementations to check the systems meet specific standards and are compliant and sustainable.

The report suggests there’s a risk local government will return to legacy technology and their old ways of doing things once we’re through covid. Why would they do this?

Many local councils have a strong culture and change is not often readily embraced, so there is often a propensity to do what has been done in the past. What we heard in our focus groups is that the desire to return to legacy solutions can sometimes be driven by the people who head up services for the local council because that’s how things have always been done. What’s required is a re-programing of the culture and encouraging change across the organisation.

The other driver is the risk that new systems and processes won’t deliver a strong return on investment. For local councils, budgets are finite so they’re looking about how to deliver better experiences for their citizens with the same or less budget.

This means there can also be a reluctance to move forward with new digital technologies if there are additional costs associated with a digital transformation, such as reviewing governance and compliance. What’s important for local councils to remember is that change through technology should not be viewed as a one-time digital overhaul. Instead, it can be incremental and done through a series of small steps over time rather than large ones.

The report lists collaboration and whole of organisation thinking as priorities for local govt going forward. What does this mean in practical terms?

There is no doubt that local governments have gone through a period of rapid change over the last 12 months. It’s essential that staff from like-minded councils now engage in cross-collaboration around their challenges and how they solved them. This will help to create a continuous cycle of improvement to deliver better services for citizens.

It’s also important to embrace a whole-of-organisation view to ensure the success of any digital transformation. This was a key finding to come out from our focus groups, which revealed that while local council leadership were committed to making technological changes, many also need to rethink how their citizens engage with these new digital services – and how they support them to do so.

For example, rather than decommission a digital platform and put in-person services back in place, some local councils funnelled money and resources into setting-up a help line to better support citizens through the transition or a show-and-tell to walk them through the new processes. This is fundamental to the success of any IT implementation.

Isn’t there a risk reliance on technology will alienate the community by eliminating the human element? How can it be used to improve community engagement?

Technology isn’t the solution to everything and it’s important the local government strike a balance between digitisation of services and engaging and connecting with their communities through other means.

While digital tools can be leaned on heavily, they should be funnelled towards transactional workloads where they can improve efficiency and productivity. This can help to free up resources within the local council to engage with all members of the community – from disadvantaged members to those who are vulnerable such as the elderly and disabled.

While technology presents an opportunity for local government, it should also be recognised as a lever for delivering outcomes for the community.

The report refers to innovative funding to invest in tech. What are we talking about here?

We use this term to refer to an “agile development” approach to funding technology-related projects. That is, rapidly deploying smaller technology projects when and where needed by local government, rather than capital intensive rollouts which can often be more expensive. It also stems from the shift towards Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) of acquiring IT services and software.

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