Articles/More bang for buck: A digital transformation framework for councils

More bang for buck: A digital transformation framework for councils

In a recent public sector review of digital transformation, the findings uncovered an accepted truth: councils are expected to do more with less. As Australian local governments recover from a year of lost revenue, they are looking to understand what service delivery looks like in a post COVID world and how they can ensure the best bang for their buck.

At VERSA, we consult with councils across Australia to help them maximise efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve community satisfaction through digital transformation. We’ve learned that councils experience similar challenges when it comes to change and have developed a framework to help map a route to success.

One: Identify the context

When councils approach us, they generally fall into four categories: reactive, digitised, connected or intelligent. Identifying the council’s level of digital maturity will put them at the starting line of the right race.

Reactive councils have limited digital capacity, manual processes and fragmented systems. They might believe they need an app to serve customers but don’t yet have the right technology or skills in place to support such a project. It’s essential to validate that an initiative such as an app would solve the council’s specific needs and problems. We work with councils at this stage to build strong foundations for ICT transformation. 

Digitised councils have some online services and look to optimise service delivery and customer satisfaction. They seek ways to streamline their ICT ecosystem and unify fragmented interfaces to improve service delivery for internal and external audiences.

Connected councils are change-focused and seek uniformity under a long term vision. They want to gain a single customer view, improve community engagement and deliver smarter customer support. Councils at this level are looking to test and scale innovative solutions rapidly.

The more technically mature, Intelligent councils are focused on being high performing organisations. They share characteristics like enterprise IT and automated service delivery. Data maturity allows them to anticipate changes and readily adapt. They explore AI, machine learning and faster service deployment.

Assessing digital maturity and the readiness to transform is essential to ensuring councils are on the right route. You can’t run a marathon before first mastering the 5K. 

Two: Investigate the problem with data and insights

Before you can prescribe a solution, you have to diagnose the problem. Most councils have a long list of issues they want rectified as part of their digital transformation project. Quite often, these issues are symptoms of a more significant problem. 

For instance, one council may be maintaining multiple systems that do the same thing. A problem caused by business units implementing projects in isolation from the rest of the organisation. If they choose to simplify their tech ecosystem but don't address the process of adopting new systems, the problem will not go away. 

Councils need to do their due diligence and paint a clear picture of the problem, what causes it, who is impacted by it, and why it hasn’t been solved before. Gather data and speak to the people affected. Once you synthesise the findings, patterns should emerge that help you prioritise the real problem. Allocating time to an early investigation will eliminate the risk of wasting resources on the wrong solution. 

Three: Ideate and validate with citizens and staff

As local governments transform technology, processes and customer experiences, they must take citizens and staff on this journey. It’s been drilled into many of us that the customer comes first. As a result, councils research to understand customer needs and plan ways to respond to their changing expectations. 

However, a quick walk through any council office will have you meet multiple people who have worked there for decades. Loyal, consistent and caring employees who have been accustomed to doing things a certain way. How are you going to change the experience of customers without first changing the mindset of staff?

Raise awareness about your project and its purpose. Address people’s concerns as part of the project and gain the trust of people within the organisation. Generate ideas with cross-functional teams, gather requirements and insights from varied perspectives across the business. And vitally, as the project progresses, update people on the wins, the challenges and celebrate the people who are making it flourish. Happy staff often translates into happy customers.

Whether you are restructuring your website’s information architecture or creating a new page template, test interface changes with citizens. Validation with users is often overlooked, but it can surface ideas and issues you may not have considered. Try to recruit a group of people that resemble your population. Seek diversity and include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, seniors and people with disabilities.

Four: Find focus with financial analysis

Like any other business, councils need to ensure the numbers stack up when it comes to investments. The total cost of digital transformation is often underestimated along with unrealistic timelines. The short term return on investment is overestimated as the expectation is that change happens overnight. 

As councils update to open-source, cloud-based platforms, they continue to evolve on the back of a solid foundation. There may be a significant investment upfront, but the returns happen incrementally over many years. You might look at a phased approach where the minimum viable product is the building block of future success. Therefore, you’ll want to adopt the right technology today at the right cost and hold back on the ‘nice to haves’ that could advance in functionality or reduce in cost in the coming years. 

Many councils go full hog into digital transformation, but this is not the only way. Bite-sized projects could build confidence between teams and embed new processes as you test rapid solutions and scale the winners. Whichever route councils choose, investments should be based on a clear business case with all components analysed against effort and return. Identify the lifetime cost, expected returns, and the cost of continuing down the existing path. Share your findings with the team, plan and prioritise where to spend resources best today to set yourself up for tomorrow.

Five: Unify the team with a strong business case 

If you are updating front end customer-facing interfaces, there is no reason the relevant business units can’t run this alone. If, however, the project starts to indicate back end changes, updated processes or the need to unify business units under a shared vision, then you’ll want to hit the pause button. These are red flags that you need sponsorship and buy-in from the executive team.

Develop a strong business case to argue your position. Educate the leadership team on the problem, solutions and costs. A strong business case tells a story and is backed by the evidence collected throughout the previous stages. A leadership team that actively supports and promotes change will lead to the best results. 

Six: Work with partners that make the journey easier

Local authorities have a significant BAU workload. Understanding where to start and how to progress a large digital project can feel overwhelming. Find a partner that is an expert in council specific strategy, technology and project planning. Take advantage of their past experiences to eliminate the unknowns and reduce the risks of a digital transformation project.

Find a team that can challenge you to uncover the right problems to be solved and build a business case backed by empirical evidence before entering a phase of design and development.