tech in local government, COVID-19

Matt Prosser and David Rees talk about how using tech in local government could be a lasting post-COVID improvement

COVID-19 has presented the UK with the longest running civil emergency in living history and local government continues to see increased demands as it plays its part in the UK’s response and recovery. Councils like Dorset have used technology and innovation across services to meet these challenges.

Tech in local government: Where to begin?

One powerful example of Dorset’s approach can be seen in the way technology has been used to support people who were medically fit to leave hospital but unable to go directly home. This was an initiative coordinated with all health partners, Dorset Council and BCP Council in Dorset’s Integrated Care System via Microsoft Teams and Planner.

Forty-nine rooms were transformed to accommodate individuals in two local hotels and Dorset, working in partnership with the PA Consulting-led “Argenti” Technology Enabled Care Service deployed Lyra – a flexible, wireless and cloud-based nurse call system. Within 24 hours of receiving the request, Red Alert (Argenti’s installation partner) installed the equipment over the Easter weekend. This meant residents could make immediate contact with support staff from their rooms and in effect the hotels were turned into a care home.

This has been complemented by a wider focus on supporting people in the community with their technology. Dorset’s digital skills hotline has helped 220 people, dealing with issues as varied as helping key employees install or improve broadband at home to enabling people at the hotel care home to contact their families. The Council is now working with companies like DevicesDotNow to get more people online.

Strengthening communication

Within the Council, MS Teams has also been effective in briefing the 4500 strong workforce. 1,500 employees watched the first webinar and were able to ask the senior leadership team questions and, in many cases, get instant answers. That has helped to increase the number of those saying they had pride in the Council from 65% to 85%.

Members have also used this technology and now hold weekly debates in which all 82 councillors can take part, with technology sustaining increased participation.

What is clear is that although the technologies were brought in as a fix for an immediate problem, their use is likely to continue and to expand into new areas.

One of these is robotics, where the council has conducted a trial in three schools using robots to enable children unable to attend school to participate in the classroom and engage with other students. Building on this, Dorset is now looking at more innovative approaches including the use of COBOTS (‘collaborative robots’) which can be used by frontline care workers to help them lift service users in a safe way. COBOTS could reduce fatigue and open up the potential for more independent working, freeing them up to provide care to other vulnerable service users.

How to embed successes in the long term?

The benefits of digital and technical solutions have become very clear during the pandemic but there are three key factors that need to be taken into account to ensure they are deployed most efficiently and effectively:

Firstly, it is important to focus on the required outcomes. There is no room for vanity projects, and new technology needs to be an investment, not a cost. Specifying the results expected at the beginning and measuring the extent to which they are being achieved is key to measuring a return on investment.

Secondly, it is not technology that saves money and improves services; it just provides the ways and means to do so. As a result, it is essential to view the introduction of new technology as a change rather than a technology project. This is why engagement with frontline officers, Members, partners and service users is critical. Listening to service users, as we have done both online and on the phone during COVID-19, helps gain understanding of their experiences and working with them means the Council can develop ideas and test solutions to meet their needs.

Finally, when authorities try and introduce new technology, they need to find a balance between their strategic ambitions for using it and getting started quickly. No digital strategy is 100% correct as the technology is changing rapidly, but it is important not to get stuck endlessly discussing strategy and never getting to implementation.

What is needed is to “think big, start small and scale fast”. That should be supported by investment in people and actions to excite and inspire the workforce, celebrate the work they do, raise awareness and enable them to share and learn with others. A council’s culture and leadership are critical to making this happen and it takes bravery to have a go and experiment.

While technology cannot address all the pressures on council services, if deployed carefully and with the right support in place, it can play a valuable role in managing scarce resources. By “enabling the able” with digital responses and services, Councils can focus their response on the most vulnerable in our community who need one to one support. This will be essential as we move from responding to the pandemic into recovering from it and continuing to innovate to find the right solutions for the challenges ahead.

Jointly authored by Matt Prosser, Chief Executive of Dorset Council and SOLACE lead on Digital Leadership and David Rees, Head of Local Government Services at PA Consulting.


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