LGPN Conference

Is status quo bias impairing local councils?


By Ian Owen FCPFA, Industry Director, Public Sector at TechnologyOne.

The national political agenda is dominated by huge economic challenges. With soaring energy costs, demands from workers for pay increases to match rising prices and the constant need to deliver services for an ageing and more financially stressed population, councils are feeling the pinch. 

The recent provisional LG finance settlement announced on 19 December is not providing the certainty local councils were looking for with the likelihood of raids on limited reserves or further savings impacting front line services. 

So it’s perhaps no surprise councils are not relishing the prospect of spending large amounts on IT systems to support digital transformation and modernisation. However, the current landscape makes it clear councils cannot continue operating “as is”:

  • Many are run on ageing systems no longer fit for purpose
  • Information is siloed, which brings about huge internal and external inefficiencies
  • For hackers, local governments are seen as easy targets that lack the resources to defend themselves against routine cyberattacks, bringing in unacceptable risk. 

And while many in local government recognise the need to address these issues, some councils might feel there are more pressing demands for limited budgets than spending on new IT systems. We also know human beings don’t like change, and will usually seek to maintain the status quo. But this status quo bias, combined with our tendency to prefer avoiding losses than acquiring equivalent gains, are powerful emotions that, if left unchecked, can cost councils a lot in the short, medium and long term. 

Digital transformation isn’t something that can be put off. And as councils are constantly asked to do more with less, it is in fact the key to the conundrum.

Recently the Local Government Association, collaborating with industry bodies, Solace and SOCITM, launched a new framework to support the design and delivery of modern public services. The framework calls for 12 strategic outcomes around connectivity, data, democracy, ethics, inclusion, leadership, local productivity, organisational capability, partnership, security & resilience, services and value.

Seems like a long menu. However, addressing these issues is the key to enabling councils to operate effectively as digital organisations, and champion the digital needs of their communities. It could also lead to greater integration with central government services, and so delivering better overall efficiencies. 

Legacy council systems designed to serve council officers only increase friction, with residents unable to access information themselves. At TechnologyOne, we believe digital transformation shouldn’t be thought of as a way to enable remote working or overlay new technology on old processes. It should drive a citizen-centric approach in the same way private sector businesses focus on fulfilling the needs of customers.

Our integrated local government SaaS solution for local government for example better connects council employees, field workers and customers, to deliver a seamless and engaging experience and truly transform the way councils serve their communities.

Just like airlines opened up their systems to the public, allowing passengers to pick their own seat, buy extra luggage and meals as they book their flights themselves online, there is a huge opportunity for councils to deliver similar efficiencies, allowing residents to self-serve and engage with the council when and how it is most convenient for them.

It is something that an increasingly technologically savvy population (and here I count not only residents, but also local businesses and partners, including the NHS and central government) is demanding. 

But what about the money? How can local authorities be confident the IT spend is going to pay off when cash is in short supply? It has been shown across the public and private sector that the benefits of replacing IT legacy systems can be staggering. IBRS & Insight Economics data shows that the total cost of operations savings are routinely estimated to range from 20 to 50 per cent globally. Not to mention the improved productivity. 

In its digital strategy, the Government estimates that an impressive £1bn in annual savings could be achieved by replacing outdated IT systems, and by switching to digitally transformative cloud-based services, within central government. 

More effective flows of data, which joined-up SaaS-based enterprise resource planning systems enable, can also help councils drive intelligent digital services and improved decisions on investment. The greater protection against cyberattacks that modern IT systems gives is a welcome additional benefit for local authorities, who can’t afford to see their system brought down by hackers.

Whether unitary, county, district or combined the authorities we speak with at TechnologyOne share a common goal – to improve council operations for the better and make life easier for citizens. To do so requires removing departmental silos, combining teams and systems. This provides a single face to the citizen, improving experiences while freeing up time and budget to help better serve the community.

If councils aren’t agile moving forward, they’re unlikely to keep citizens happy, which puts pressure on officers and politicians alike. From system simplification to better informed, more productive staff, councils must try new things and drive internal change while serving citizens at every stage. Technology and the right mindsets can enable this. While the pandemic forced councils to quickly react and adapt, there is now a unique opportunity to truly transform.