Westminster Digital Image by Pete Linforth - The Digital Artist from PixabayIt’s 15 months since the launch of the Local Digital Declaration, a rallying call for local government organisations to build better public services by identifying and pursuing digitisation projects. There are encouraging signs that momentum is building, with 145 local councils signing the declaration and specifying digital projects and the public benefits they will deliver.

Appetite for delivering digital public services is growing in tandem with increasing interest in using IoT – collected municipal data to create smart communities. This might include traffic, parking and public transport information, pollution levels and waste management data; the applications are endless. By collecting and analysing this data, publishing and integrating it with digital public service applications, local government organisations can improve citizens’ quality of life and make their area a better place to live and work.

This momentum around data-driven digital services and smart city data means it’s an exciting time to be working in the local government space, but that’s not to say there aren’t challenges, too.

The conundrums facing Chief Digital Officers

If the Local Digital Declaration represents the will to push out the local government digital footprint, it’s their Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) that must find the way. A recent roundtable discussion undertaken by Local Government Digital highlighted the issues that CDOs face in driving the digital agenda.

One of the key issues CDOs face is the tension between ‘keeping the lights on’, by continuing to support legacy technology, and acting as a visionary to design and trial new digital services. Limited budgets have to be shared between maintaining existing systems, planning for replacement of legacy systems while investigating innovative new approaches to meeting future delivery challenges. This can often inhibit investment in new technology platforms. Linked to this, CDOs also face a cultural hurdle in achieving the required ‘Channel Shift’ in promoting digital for delivering Councils services online.

Political tensions are at work, too. CDOs report that the performance of existing organisational technology can act as a brake on discussions around new technology. Until existing technology works smoothly, stakeholders can be cynical – unwilling to explore future developments and innovative ways of accelerating delivery of services. This creates a chicken and egg situation where CDOs need to provide robust, working examples of successful solutions quickly and at low cost, before they can unlock the door to further strategic discussion and get a mandate for their digital agenda.

Cost uncertainty and future planning

On top of political and cultural challenges are the issues of cost control and vendor lock-in. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Over decades of IT investment many Local Authorities have found themselves tied to suppliers and technologies that no longer deliver the right IT environment. Understandably, many are determined to avoid falling into that trap again.

Another problem for Local Authorities is uncertainty over the long-term costs of technology solutions that enable digital transformation. While day one purchase costs may be obvious, there is often little clarity over the costs of a long-term commitment. Pricing may be linked to the number of applications developed, which can be difficult to accurately define and estimate. Similarly, while a Local Authority may have a fixed roadmap of the apps it needs to develop over the next six months, anticipating requirements over the next two to three years is far more complex.

The issue of who owns the intellectual property of the developed solutions is a further concern. If Local Government organisations are going to invest in developing applications to deliver digital public services, they need to know that they own the IP and won’t be held to ransom later down the line. They may wish to share their solutions with other authorities so that a greater social benefit can be achieved, so they need the freedom to do that.

While CDOs try to navigate this complex landscape, citizen expectations are rising all the time. Consumer-facing apps are setting the standard for intelligent, data-driven services and the public sector is under pressure to keep pace with services for both citizens and employees.

Navigating out of this complex maze

Here at OutSystems, we regularly see all these competing factors in our work with Local Government organisations. To have meaningful discussions with stakeholders about how to move their digital agenda from ambition to reality we have to guide CDOs through them and show how a low-code approach can help address these issues.

One organisation that has successfully negotiated these challenges is Worcester County Council. The team took a bold approach when it published its ambition to move towards ‘Digital by Default’, delivering 100% of public services digitally, making the Council services available online, 24×7 and aiming to become “a world-class digital council”. They knew that, to keep stakeholders on board, quick wins that demonstrated the value and cost-savings digital services could deliver were essential. To achieve results fast, the council used OutSystems low-code development platform to build its first app.

The first service to get the digital treatment was the council’s Copy Certificates service. The previous online system only worked properly half the time. It was a classic example of the “keeping the lights on” issue, needing extra effort from both staff and customers but not reliably delivering the service.  The new app took Worcester’s existing team of six developers eight weeks to deploy. Customers apply and pay for certificate copies online, and can track the progress of their requests. Now, 70 percent of applications for certificate copies are made online, supported by automated workflows, avoiding the need for error prone, manual, paper driven processes.

The swift deployment and take-up by users delivered that quick win needed to prove the concept and get that stakeholder buy-in that CDOs often find difficult to achieve. The six-developer inhouse team has now delivered over 53 apps covering everything from adult learning course registration up to an ambitious multi-agency data sharing project that aims to deliver a “single view of the child” to help provide the right professional support in safeguarding cases. Early savings were also made by replacing their 11-year old legacy CRM system with a bespoke CRM system that was developed in just 6-weeks. Estimated savings from the digitisation project are in the region of £2.8M over three years, providing ROI of 442%.

To push faster adoption of digital public services nationwide, Councils have already expressed an appetite to share their Citizen facing applications with other Councils, as long as they are passed through certified delivery partners, for re-skinning and support. This provides a mechanism for other councils to further accelerate their digital initiatives for bringing Council services online, exploiting the applications that have already been delivered elsewhere. New applications delivering the same Council services as other Councils can be delivered at a fraction of the time and cost, as compared with traditional coding of applications in-house or customising off the shelf solutions to meet specific Council needs.

Clearing up cost control challenges

Cost clarity remains a challenge for the sector and I believe the responsibility lies with technology providers to make the platform economy work for Local Government organisations. We need to offer as much transparency and certainty as possible when we’re helping scope digital roadmaps. That might mean offering tiered pricing and budget ceilings so that local authorities know in advance the maximum financial commitment they are making over time. Fundamentally, the keynotes of successful digital transformation are flexibility and transparency, so our pricing should reflect that.

Pushing out the digital footprint of local councils has the potential to transform both the citizen experience and public finances if Chief Digital Officers can navigate the cultural, political and budgetary challenges they face. The key is the ability to deliver quick wins that get stakeholder buy-in and prove ROI, giving CDOs a clear mandate to fulfil their ambition for providing digital public services that deliver.

Outsystems logo (c) OutsystemsOutSystems is a Gartner Application PaaS leader and Forester Low Code platform leader and the number one low-code platform for rapid application development. Engineers with an obsessive attention to detail crafted every aspect of the OutSystems platform to help organisations build enterprise-grade apps and transform their business faster. Accelerating digital transformation, OutSystems is the fastest and most comprehensive way to create, deploy, change and manage mobile and web applications – delivered seamlessly across all devices.

OutSystems is also the only solution that combines the power of low-code development with advanced mobile capabilities, enabling visual development of entire application portfolios that easily integrate with existing systems. A community of over 100,000 developers have built over 90,000 applications on OutSystems Low Code platform, which empowers IT to attack changing business requirements by automating core DevOps best practices such as integration with third party or proprietary legacy systems through Connectors. Unlike many other RAD Platforms, customers are not tied in to OutSystems, applications created through the platform are generated as either Microsoft .NET or Java code and run on standard web environments.


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