For councils to realise the full potential of their digital vision, they have to first engage with citizens and build their confidence in order to generate the data that will make it all possible.
One of the issues when discussing digital strategy is the word ‘digital’ itself. It means so many different things to so many different people.
That ‘anywhere, any place, any time’ mentality, which the likes of Google and Amazon have shepherded us towards, has had a massive impact on the way we operate as individuals. But what digital actually means in the real world can still be very hard to sum up.
In order to take people - and clients - on a digital journey that is right for them, the advantages need to be made personal and tangible if they are to be clearly understood. And I think that’s particularly true for local government.
“While I do believe authorities are trusted with the data they collect, there’s still an air of concern around, “well, why do they want it?”.”
In a fully digital environment, especially one driven by the Cloud, local authorities are able to make much better use of the data they capture and analyse it more effectively in order to provide greater insight. When this is done well, councils can add substantial value for citizens and gain their confidence, while using those same insights within the organisation to inform better decisions, improve productivity, reduce costs, etc, etc.
Doubt before data
But the challenge for local authorities is that most citizens are notoriously sceptical as to why they should want to capture information about them as individuals. So quite often that data is hard to get. While I do believe authorities are trusted with the data they collect, there’s still an air of concern around, “well, why do they want it?”
This comes back to the point I was making about the advantages needing to be personal and tangible. Local authorities have traditionally been good at asking for information, and bad at articulating why they need it, and what it’s going to help them do for you as an individual.
That doesn’t work in today’s digital environment. With the likes of, say, Amazon, the benefit of contributing your data is immediately obvious. It will be used to lead you to a better bargain or a new product you might be interested in – usually in seconds. That gives people the confidence to say, “Ok, I get it now, I see how this is going to help me.”
So for local government, a successful digital strategy has to involve becoming more proactive about how they work with their citizens, and a lot better at demonstrating the advantages that will come from a free flow of data.
Most citizen interactions are not the best starting points
That will be a challenge in a number of ways. Firstly, because local authorities have typically worked in a reactive manner, and that’s a difficult habit to shake. Secondly, because the majority of interactions citizens currently have with councils are not especially positive ones.
They may be applying for benefits, which can mean answering some difficult questions, with the fear that the ‘wrong’ answer could have a personal impact. That process can be made even more frustrating by having to give the information to four or five different people in different departments. (Incidentally, this is a pattern that very much goes against the grain of the current digital experience, where we increasingly expect to give information once then see it disseminated across entire organisations to all the parties needing it. It’s an issue we’re looking to address with technology that can help local authorities pull all these disparate sources together into a simple, single view of the citizen.)
If you don’t receive benefits, then your principal encounter with your local authority is likely to involve Council Tax. Many citizens remain sceptical about the information being requested in the belief it may be secretly trying to find ways to charge them more.
So it’s a long process to build enough trust with citizens for them to feel happy sharing the data that will enable councils to realise the full potential of their digital strategy.
The direction of travel for local government
I do think many local authorities have started to realise this. They’ve gone through significant transformation and successfully brought in views and expertise from other sectors. The change is underway, but it will take time. They are coming to terms with a very different future, and while they may have started on their digital agenda, it could still be quite piecemeal. Not everyone in their own organisation will even be clear on what it all means.
At Capita One we have realised that partnership in this area is more important than ever. In fairness – though I hope we are not so guilty of this – technology companies have not always done a great job in helping local government on this journey.
Our challenge now is to be much more collaborative; to work in partnership with local authorities understanding what their priorities are and introducing the technology that will help their digital strategy be personal, tangible and real.
Because if you put the right digital infrastructure and environment in place, you will be in a much better position to analyse the data that you capture and use it to either intervene and prevent future problems occurring, or provide a better service to the citizens in your community.