The coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the globe has led to tragedy for many and uncertainty for everyone. It also raises the prospect of rapid digital transformation for local authorities.
Several months ago, the author of this piece was discussing how to connect a social care database to a form filled in on the internet by carers, describing the care they provide, and their difficulties. He was seeking to get access to a test version of the database so he could start experimenting with connecting the two systems together.
Unfortunately, the response was that access even to a test or development system was out of the question and that any changes would need to go through database administrators.
Further, any proposed solution would need to go before an architectural review board. Such a proposal, your author was told, was unlikely to be approved because it needed to be compatible with a more general integration that may happen in the next few years. In any case, he couldn’t provide such a proposal as without access and only poor documentation, it wasn’t possible to build a proof of concept.
This may be a familiar experience for many who worked in enterprise software a decade or more ago. Today, as digital technology emerges from the back office to the forefront of many organisations, and as agile methodologies continue their inexorable rise, this is an increasingly anachronistic stance in the private sector.
Sadly, in councils and authorities across the UK, it is still quite common; if you walk into an IT department in local government today, you can be confident that it will resemble that of a modest large company perhaps 15 years ago.
When the coronavirus hit, it rapidly became clear that authorities were not only going to have their activities and income disrupted, they were also to be on the frontlines alongside the emergency services and NHS.
LGSS Digital have been building solutions to support the coronavirus response at a very rapid pace. Two systems come to mind, each with their own organisational complexities, one to support and manage business rates relief grants among a number of our partners and another to manage our support of extremely vulnerable individuals. In normal times, each could have taken months of engagement with services and stakeholders, planning, and scoping, before a development cycle over a number of sprints.
Both of these solutions were started from scratch on a Monday and pushed to production by the same Friday without any significant disruption to our workload. This is a remarkable achievement for organisations that just a few months before were unwilling to allow a proof of concept integration into a database. We have been well placed to move this fast.
Perhaps, in the long run, the greater achievement will be to demonstrate that digital transformation and software engineering in local government can and must radically change. The virus has shown what can be done in a short time and it is the duty of all authorities to learn from it.
This means that the approach to digital technology will have to shift from that of operational IT supporting organisation’s wider activities toward a situation where digital transformation is the key driver of delivering better services and making better use of public funds in the organisation.
There are three broad categories of work to deal with. The first are low value, low complexity forms and web pages to allow the public to access the organisations’ services online. There are various platforms that cater well to these problems and as such, this should not reflect the core activity in digital transformation.
The second category is expensive, antiquated monolithic systems provided by a cluster of large firms to cover complex service needs. Because the market for these systems is largely static, and because the investment required to enter the market or even to adopt such a system is considerable, these are, for now, a necessary evil.
The final category reflects the major activities that the organisation performs but is either being forced to change by external factors or is so poorly structured that there are considerable cost savings to be gained. Those more familiar with the private sector would be astonished by the breadth and depth of the low-hanging fruit in this area.
It is on this third and final category that digital transformation should focus. In order to deliver change, IT departments will have to restructure considerably. They will need to streamline the maintenance and support of the first two, low-value areas so that more resources can be committed to digital transformation. At the same time, those resources need to be used with fused engineering, design, and operations in a fast-moving, agile environment.
There is increasing enthusiasm for the Cloud but many people don’t realise that running on-premises systems on the Cloud only gains a small fraction of the benefits. To gain the full benefit, they must be built as cloud-native systems. Leaders need to cut out bureaucracy designed for the category two monolithic systems and design nimble procedures to suit the nimble cloud-native applications they will be building.
Coronavirus will have a lot of negative effects on our way of life. But, maybe, some good, lasting change in local government can come from it as well.