Industry voice: Local authorities should bring platform thinking to the centre of their service transformation, writes Ian Robson, business development director of Hitachi Solutions
A strong trend is emerging among local authorities looking to build their digital transformation on core modern platforms.
They can see the immense advantages in using a common system with a wide range of capabilities, the flexibility to handle many processes, and the capacity for 'self-configuring' new services as processes are transformed rather than needing in-depth coding skills for each development.
But different authorities are at different points in the journey to this utopia of using a core platform for service delivery. Some are making strong progress, but more are still at the pilot and proof of concept stage, and others have the ambition but are dealing with internal barriers before making the commitment to one platform.
It raises a number of questions around how to develop the momentum for wider deployments, so that more councils feel confident in taking the first steps and deliver a series of visible benefits that encourage others to follow.
This formed the basis of a UKA Live discussion in which I took part with Nadira Hussain, director of development, leadership and research at Socitm, Andrew Boxall, head of technology at Shropshire Council, and Rob Musekiwa, digital lead at Warwickshire County Council. It provided insights on the challenges faced by councils but also the likely solutions in harnessing a core platform for service delivery.
There was a clear consensus on what technology can achieve, with references to experience with Microsoft Dynamics 365. This platform’s modular capability provides the scope for a gradual approach to redesigning services, creating common process building blocks that can help to replace, and reduce, the number of line of business applications that are currently maintained. This inevitably leads to savings, and underpinning operations with a modern platform capable of providing intelligent, multi-platform delivery will provide more accessible services and better outcomes for the public.
Councils' should take the lead in working out their strategy, drawing on internal subject matter expertise to find the ‘transformation sweet spot’ that provides for a continual improvement in operations. And it should invest in its own people to become a hub of expertise in using the platform.
However, even those organisations with a strong in-house digital capability can have gaps in their technical expertise – which is where the support and knowledge transfer approach of a partner such as Hitachi Solutions comes to the fore. It has the in-depth knowledge of the platform to help jumpstart the transformation process and upskill internal staff, with the aim of delivering rapid RoI to drive momentum. Working in partnership, organisations like this can be called in for particularly complex challenges or where specialist support is required.
More than technology
It is also necessary to deal with a series of business and cultural issues. These include the familiar need for leadership in providing a vision of the platform’s role and encouraging staff to think of it as a key element in future service improvement, rather than a potential threat to jobs. Part of this lies in articulating the desired outcomes, so that they see it is about creating a more effective organisation and better services, more than just a change in technology.
Understanding the business requirements is the best starting point, ensuring that service leaders make clear what is needed for better outcomes so that the specialists can then help to define the solution. And making a good start with one service, showing that it delivers tangible benefits, can do a lot to promote positive thinking throughout the organisation. It reflects the established strategy in digital development of finding quick, inexpensive wins and using them to build the business case for a more ambitious plan.
Break down silos
Breaking down departmental silos is important. There is often a cultural sticking point here when service chiefs see the rejection of a line of business system in favour of a common platform as an erosion of their position and 'control' of their specialist systems. It needs robust messages promoting the joined up approach for the whole council, and the council’s most senior figures on board in order to overcome such obstacles.
Rob Musekiwa told us that Warwickshire approached this through a robust senior leadership forum that takes in feedback on service development, ensures that it owns the process and helps to build shared aspirations across the organisation.
Building the in-house skills will also be a big positive. Enabling more people within the organisation to design services on the platform will gradually align what services need with what the technology can do, and it can feed into peoples' personal development, encouraging them to look positively on the new approach.
A good partner will always provide the knowledge transfer to support this and over time reduce the reliance on consultancy support, adding to the long term financial benefits to the organisation from the platform.
Sharing developments could also contribute further to cost effectiveness. Shropshire, for example, recently brought other councils working on the same core platform together to compare their experiences with Dynamics 365 and found that, while organisations often do things their own way, there is scope for agreements on working together to develop solutions or sharing each other's developments.
This could be reinforced by a broadly accessible repository of information that councils could consult to spot common factors and either replicate another’s approach or adapt it to their own challenges.
Align vision and strategy
Underlying all this is the need for authorities to map their strategic vision for future services to their digital strategies. It requires that the people providing input for the former have a good knowledge of how digital technology, especially a common platform approach, can contribute and think about it all as a whole. It needs the shift from looking away from siloed line of business systems to using the platform’s functions in a modular approach to transformation.
Realistically, this will not happen overnight and the best immediate option for many councils is likely to be a hybrid approach that combines a core platform and integration with legacy systems ahead of planned redesigns and legacy retirements. But the factors above can provide the momentum for taking the common platform beyond pilots and proof of concept to become the first option for designing services.
There is a great long term promise in this: for a cost-effective and flexible digital infrastructure that can join up and extend solutions; better services and outcomes for local authorities’ residents; and increased social value in the alignment of business and digital strategies. The prospect of one core platform for modern services is rapidly becoming a reality - and it provides a promising outlook for local government.
To discuss how Hitachi Solutions can help you develop one core platform for modern services, please contact Ian Robson or visit https://www.hitachi-solutions.co.uk/industries/local-government/
Meanwhile you can catch-up on the latest thinking from the UKA Live discussion with Socitm, Shropshire Council and Warwickshire County Council below: