Turbulent times underscore benefits of digital readiness

If there’s ever been a time for community, it’s now. As Australians faced devastating bushfires, floods and a global pandemic, connections between people and the places they live has never been more important.

Local government authorities play an integral role in supporting community resilience, strength and wellbeing – and we’ve seen this very clearly highlighted in the past year.

Whatever else happens during the next decade, the council of tomorrow will be asked to meet the changing needs and increasing demands of its local residents with fewer resources to support community services and infrastructure renewal and development.

Responding to Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic evoked an almost-instant need for community services and support, from meal and mask delivery, and small business assistance, to strategies to ease suffering from homelessness and domestic violence.

As local governments have provided essential support, digital readiness has played an essential role in how responsive those support and services could be.

Digital solutions were in demand practically overnight; both to maintain essential services and information delivery and to support council staff as they delivered these services and information.

It quickly became clear that some local governments were better prepared and were able to pivot more readily than others, they were those that had previously focused on more agile ways of working.

A shift in gear

In times of crisis local government leadership groups tend to meet more frequently, and governance sometimes takes a back seat until immediate community needs have been addressed.

But it’s also meant bypassing a lot of red tape and faster decision-making. It’s also shown what a digitally engaged local government can do.

While digital strategy has often been seen as an ‘add-on’ strategy within many local governments, recent reductions in red tape have made it clear that digital focus will ideally be at the forefront.

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.

Some of the crucial aspects local governments are now working to address include data security and privacy regarding the use of digital tools, such as Zoom, Teams and Modern.gov to manage online meetings.

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 digital transformation.

Balancing the old with the new

Each local government has its own unique level of digital maturity and readiness based on its approach to digital engagement over time and some councils are struggling with an imbalance between old and new.

While the focus is often on the technological aspect of digital change, there’s also the challenge of nurturing people, culture and processes to embrace transformation.

Not only should staff be trained and upskilled to adopt a digitally focused mindset, but it’s also crucial that they understand the risk, implementation and public value of these solutions.

The general agreement is that upskilling and training can help all staff at all levels to cope with the rate of change and benefits of digital adoption.

Costs of change and ROI

Local governments provide an extraordinary amount of support to their communities with what is often a tighter revenue base than other levels of government.

Councils must consider not only the cost of the technology itself, but also the cost of change management and disruption.

COVID-19 has highlighted how appropriate technology investments can actively improve efficiencies, which in turn can support funding applications.

Citizens are empowered when they can access service and support at the local level, and as such local governments play a vital part in nurturing a community’s strength, resilience and general wellbeing.

In the midst of disruption and rapid change, there are benefits to using technology to solve problems, better connect citizens and improve people’s lives.

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