What’s on the local government Tech agenda in 2024?

With January behind us, the year is now fully in swing. Peter Nelson looks at what local government needs to focus on in terms of tech – whether it’s cyber security, staffing or serving the community better.

Peter Nelson

Making the most of technological advances in mobility, the cloud and AI, while mitigating risks associated with growing cyberthreats will help councils navigate ongoing resourcing challenges in the year ahead.

Working alongside 117 councils across Australia, I hear from a cross-section of those working in local government about their most pressing issues, and what they need to better serve their communities and other stakeholders. So, as we move into the new year, here’s my take on what local government organisations need to focus on in 2024.

1. Doing more with less

A headline issue facing most local government organisations is pressure on resourcing and funding. A desire or directive to do more with less is something I hear in almost every conversation with councils.

There are obviously many ways this can be addressed, but certainly digital systems play a key role in boosting staff productivity and freeing up people to focus on more meaningful interactions with the communities that councils serve.

2. Empowering field staff

Whether they’re issuing parking infringements, dealing with roaming dogs or inspecting buildings, many council staff work out in the field – and there’s a massive opportunity for smarter ways to empower these workers.

We’re seeing interest in systems that give mobile field workers access to data where and when they need it (even if they’re offline) – think, fire control officers checking that berms are mowed in alignment with council policy, for example, and recording that in the field.

Often this involves accessing the ERP or other internal systems within a council. But putting really rich external sources of information – such as GIS systems – into the hands of mobile field workers can make a massive difference to their capability and productivity.

3. Serving the community digitally

While there’s been a gradual transition away from citizens interacting with their councils over the front counter or the phone and towards digital channels, the expectation around being able to self-service is now accelerating.

A recent survey of 2,000 homeowners*, commissioned by Datacom to better understand how connected Australians feel to their local government, found that Gen Z and Millennials led the way in calling for digital-first government channels to facilitate two-way conversations (66% and 68% respectively). An overwhelming three-quarters of each of these groups said they’d use an app for this if available.

And we’re seeing citizens across all age bands increasingly looking for more efficient ways to complete basic administrative tasks, such as paying rates, registering dogs and arranging pool inspections.

4. Cybersecurity

Just like board members in the private sector, elected officials are hyper-aware of cybersecurity threats, and the risks associated with information breaches. Despite the huge investment in this area, however, the unfortunate fact is no individual or organisation is ever 100% safe. Instead, it’s about minimising your risks.

Ironically, the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain is always the human one. So providing robust training for staff to understand, for example, what a phishing attack looks like, and how to quarantine and report it is essential.

The shift to Software as a Service (SaaS) applications is also saving councils time and cost, as they can now outsource much of the heavy lifting around cybersecurity to software providers that are subject matter experts and understand the landscape.

5. Staffing

Rural and city councils alike face challenges finding the talent to manage their systems, particularly when undertaking change projects. It’s not always an easy fix, but we are seeing councils increasingly tap external providers who can bring in skilled people to fill in key gaps during projects and ensure relevant timeframes are met.

Another exciting development is councils collaborating with one another to design and run projects, and sharing their knowledge and resources. In theory, councils don’t compete, so it should be relatively easy to encourage collaboration. In actual practice it requires careful planning, good governance and goodwill to make it happen. However, we’ve seen examples where this has been highly successful, with councils able to achieve far better outcomes than if they’d gone it alone.

6. Artificial Intelligence

The emergence of ChatGPT catapulted AI into everyday conversation in 2023, and it will increasingly dominate discourse in 2024.

AI’s ability to serve up the right information at the right time to both citizens and council staff has huge potential. We can see exciting ways for AI to bring together relevant information from councils’ large, intricate ERP systems, as well as relevant external sources, for example, to help customer service staff respond quickly, accurately and in plain-English to enquiries and service requests.

It’s important to emphasise that while AI enhances efficiency, it doesn’t replace the crucial role of council staff in these processes. Instead, it can complement their efforts, allowing staff to focus on delivering richer support to constituents and addressing more complex inquiries. The synergy between AI and human involvement is about striking the right balance, leveraging technology to augment capabilities without diminishing the significance of council subject matter experts and empathy in these vital roles.

*Peter Nelson is Datacom Director of Local Government

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