Mobile apps are one of the most effective ways for public services to achieve digital transformation and to meet the ambition of the declaration
Local authorities are committed to transforming services using digital tools, as illustrated by the Local Digital Declaration, recently signed by numerous councils and sector bodies across the UK. The declaration recognises the opportunity to reshape public services through technological development in a way that best meets citizens’ needs while delivering value for money. In an ideal world “technology is an enabler rather than a barrier to service improvements, and services are a delight for citizens and officials to use.”
Mobile apps are fast, interactive, easy to personalise, and instantly accessible from anywhere. They are also people’s preferred method of accessing services via a mobile device, with over 80% of smartphone or tablet time spent in app rather than using a mobile web browser.
On the go
Local authorities are already starting to introduce mobile apps, particularly to promote workforce automation. The implementation of apps means field-based workers are no longer tied to an office computer, they can have any time, anywhere access to multiple systems via a single mobile interface to help them do their jobs effectively and efficiently.
Imagine, for instance, a street-works inspector whose primary role is to review work carried out by utilities and highway contractors to ensure compliance with relevant legislation. Each day typically involves driving to the office to print out the day’s inspections, heading out to the sites, and then returning once those inspections are complete to type up their reports. With a mobile app, the inspector can access a dynamic work schedule, receive directions to each inspection site, make their inspection, and instantly file a report flagging any issues and including photos taken with a mobile phone camera, without ever needing to spend time in the office.
This type of mobile app works across all field-based services from housing and planning to environmental services and social care and can be used to eliminate paperwork, speed up job completion, and enable intelligent scheduling of resources. In supporting data capture, mobile apps allow work to be tracked in real-time, delivering detailed insight across the organisation to enhance decision making and resource allocation.
Apps for everyone
Some local authorities are also making mobile apps available to the public. The use of these tools is increasing to the point where new regulations were recently introduced stating all public sector apps must meet certain accessibility standards by 2021.
Some of these public apps work across multiple councils, such as The Noise App which allows residents to capture anti-social or nuisance noise using the recording functionality of their smartphone, and report it safely and securely to their local authority. Other apps are unique to specific local bodies including the Oxford City Council mobile app which allows residents to report issues such as fly-tipping or graffiti using photos, reminds them when to put their bins out for rubbish collection, and delivers planning information based on their immediate location. Bradford Metropolitan District Council also has a mobile app for local residents that do everything from job vacancy alerts and library book renewals to mobile payments and voter registration.
But while these are all welcome developments in the public sector mobile app space, they are the exception rather than the rule. The widespread development of public sector apps is being held back by the perceived complexities of integrating the mobile interface – which is relatively simple to set up – with multiple back-end systems. Mobile apps need to be able to pull data from a variety of software applications such as planning databases and resident records and feedback into these systems with updated information. This integration is particularly challenging for local authorities where the use of bespoke or legacy systems that predate the internet age is very common, and source code is rarely available to expose application functionality.
Don’t rip and replace
Public sector organisations often believe that to create an effective mobile app they need to replace their existing systems which is a prohibitively costly exercise, but this is not necessarily the case. Advanced application programming interfaces (APIs) can provide an integration layer, tying the mobile app interface to a variety of core applications even where the source code is unavailable. API tools allow data to flow both up and downstream from multiple systems, bringing it into a single workflow that can be accessed by a mobile app.
Signatories to the Local Digital Declaration are keen to “break our dependence on inflexible and expensive technology that doesn’t join up effectively” and mobile apps, powered by API tools allow them to do just that without the cost and upheaval of replacing those legacy systems. Whether they are used to increase productivity and efficiency across the workforce or to give citizens quick and easy access to public services, mobile apps will play a vital role in digital transformation as the public sector uses the latest tech to reshape its services