Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media Business, explores what the new local authority should look like after COVID
COVID-19 brought immense challenges for local authorities across the UK.
Overnight, they were forced to set up remote working for their employees. And they dealt with unprecedented demand for services from local people and small businesses.
By investing in digitalisation, councils were able to survive and stabilise, and build trust with the communities they serve.
As council leaders turn towards the rebound, they need to continue the pace of digital transformation because these pressures won’t dissipate. Health and social care services are stretched, new COVID variants remain a risk, and the economy continues to be fragile.
Beyond these immediate pressures, there’s an exciting opportunity to be grasped. Our study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) shows that continued digital investment within local and central government could add £32 billion to our national economy through efficiencies and cost-savings being reinvested in skills, education and services.
This will benefit local communities, tackle inequalities, and boost our public and private sectors in the long run. Ultimately, digital investment can transform local authorities for the better, and deliver a positive impact for employees and residents.
Supporting communities innovatively
Councils have acted ambitiously to invest in digitalisation and support local residents.
Argyll and Bute Council used innovative technology to deliver vital medical supplies to the remote islands of Scotland. It invested in drones capable of carrying up to 3kg of medical supplies and flying a maximum of 40 miles, operating as a scheduled and on-demand service. NHS staff were able to place orders through an online system, helping them to deal with pressures and enhance patient care.
The initiative cut journey times from 36 hours to just 15 minutes. It is an incredible example of how digital transformation can make healthcare more accessible.
Other local authorities have drawn on digital technology to try to minimise the impact of the pandemic on education.
The Mayor of London and Greater London Authority set up a dedicated taskforce for providing electronic devices to disadvantaged children so that they could keep learning remotely during the national lockdown.
Hampshire County Council also pioneered a new approach to delivering social care. Due to the challenges of recruiting enough carers, it invested in Amazon Echo units for residents’ homes to support some people in living independently.
People were able to use their voice-activated devices to remind them of medication and calendar appointments, activate home appliances (helping those with mobility issues) and adjust thermostats, which was important for bedbound residents.
72% of participants said that the innovation had improved their lives, and the council managed to reduce social isolation and help residents stay in the comfort of their homes.
These local authorities are leading by example. They are demonstrating how councils can use digital platforms to support disadvantaged socio-economic groups and strengthen our communities. This will be critical as leadership teams look towards the COVID rebound.
Over the last year, people have discovered the benefits of remote working, such as greater freedom to shape their routine and more time spent with family.
Public sector organisations like the Civil Service are responding with long-term flexible working programmes, with employees operating from home and the office. Within local authorities specifically, 70% of leaders see hybrid working as important for the future, according to our customer insights.
Digitalisation has enabled this new every day and remains critical as we move into a hybrid working model, where staff move between their homes and the office.
To support this over the long term, councils need to ensure that they have the right networking services and applications in place, so that everyone can communicate with each other seamlessly and securely, wherever they choose to work.
The problem is that awareness of critical connectivity technologies is low. Only 22% of local authorities see SD-WAN, a cloud-ready service that provides scalability, flexibility and security as a priority investment. This is worrying because SD-WAN enables councils to scale bandwidth needs up and down, which is vital for supporting a more fluid working model.
It also provides organisations with underlying resilience through end-to-end encryption. This gives local authority leaders the reassurance they need that sensitive citizen information won’t be vulnerable to exposure as more data is exchanged between different locations.
If it is supported by the right connectivity technologies, hybrid working can be a huge success for local councils. It can empower employees and ultimately improve staff morale and output.
The new local authority
This has been an extremely challenging year for local councils. And obstacles remain.
But through digitalisation, leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the local authority. Not just for the citizens who engage with it, but for their employees, too.
They can become digital-first organisations that are rewarding and liberating places to work, and that enrich the lives of the local residents they serve.