Mark Gannon, director of client solutions public sector at Netcall, explains how local authorities can use low code to pick up the pace of change, deliver value for money against challenging finances and mitigate risk now and in the future
Low code platforms are becoming a key feature of digital transformation in local government, providing a valuable tool for organisations to do things on their own terms.
But there is more to it than simply acquiring the technology, with a number of issues to face to ensure it can be applied successfully. This needs an intelligent approach that takes account of the broader dynamics within a council.
The issues came under discussion in a recent UKA Live panel discussion hosted by Helen Olsen Bedford. The panel featured Clare Evans, corporate services manager at Tewkesbury Borough Council, Darren Knight, executive director of people and change at Cheltenham Borough Council, and myself.
It produced a consensus that low code platforms – which enable users to configure a wide range of processes without the need for unique coding – provide a great deal of freedom for local authorities to get on with quickly designing and developing new end-to-end processes without bringing in external skills.
This reflects the underlying appeal of low code, which makes it possible to configure processes and workflows, helps more people to get involved in development, speeds up the pace of change, reduces risk through its ability to quickly amend processes, and provides significant savings. Overall, it gives councils greater control over their digital destinies by enabling them to do more for themselves
All this is typified by Netcall’s Liberty Create low code platform, which makes it possible to build full stack applications fast using a drag-and-drop user interface, an automation engine and the capacity to develop web and mobile apps. It also has an inbuilt artificial intelligence function and integration capabilities.
It is supported by a growing community on the Netcall AppShare forum, about which Evans and Knight spoke enthusiastically and which enables users to share processes they have developed and support each other in using the platform to meet various challenges.
The panel discussed other areas to consider.
First is the development of a convincing business case for the investment. The advantages outlined above are a big part of this, and the experiences of Cheltenham and Tewkesbury provide good examples of how to make it stick.
Cheltenham began with an application inventory, looking at which ones could credibly be replaced on low code, then using a process mapping tool to assess which of them would meet the service demands. This made it possible to identify enough to show that the investment would be paid back in two years, following which it began to look at the more holistic business case around skills development and reducing the reliance on legacy tech. It was followed by highlighting public approvals and awards given to authorities using the platform.
Evans’ team at Tewkesbury worked on helping people within the council understand what a digital platform could do, encouraging senior managers and councillors to grasp the likely benefits. This involved sessions on what was possible and demonstrations on how the platform could be used for end-to-end processes.
The crucial step has been to show what’s possible, with an emphasis on changes that will make people’s lives better, helped by it being easier to build and demonstrate processes in low code.
Within digital or across departments
Once the platform is in place there have to be decisions about how it is used and by whom. Tewkesbury decided to keep process development within its transformation team, with some coding support when necessary, to ensure the consistency and quality of the approach.
Cheltenham placed it in the hands of business analysts with training from Netcall, linking the platform to its business process mapping tool. “You need other tools outside of the low code platform to complement the work by analysts by making sure the process design is right before the build,” Knight said.
It is possible to train people from all other parts of an organisation to use the platform, and we have found that those who pick it up quickly have logical minds and are comfortable working with data and processes.
Councils have been recording significant achievements with the technology. Tewkesbury has used it for an end-to-end change of its bulky waste service, producing an 84% increase in bookings, a 158% rise in income and a reduction in waiting times for collections from seven weeks to one.
Cheltenham has replaced a legacy system with Liberty Create in the space of five months, producing a saving of £40,000; and there have been reports of other authorities replacing several legacy applications within a matter of months.
Integration with legacy
Legacy tech looms large over any plans and, while it is often desirable to replace old, expensive systems, it has to be recognised that in some cases it would be counter-productive for the short to medium term. This is where the capacity of a good low code platform to provide integrations can be valuable in providing an end-to-end combination of its own and legacy systems, and lay the ground for a gradual reduction in reliance then replacement of the latter.
Basically, don’t look to rip and replace; it is more pragmatic to identify the gaps and services, look to fill them with low code applications and take a structured approach to decommissioning.
It has to be acknowledged that this comes with its own challenges when legacy suppliers are reluctant to provide APIs to enable the transfer of data, so councils have to work on this and can make it a priority when contracts are up for renewal.
There are also questions around governance, notably in who in an organisation gets to use a low code platform. The consensus is that confining it to teams such as those at Tewkesbury and Cheltenham is often a wise move; but this can be done with flexibility to bring people from different service teams into the loop and provide new perspectives on how to use the technology.
The overriding lesson to emerge was not to try to do too much too quickly. It is often best to begin using the platform for one or two low risk processes in which it could show quick results, learn from the developments, and show it off within the organisations to build support for further use. This can play a big part in enabling a council to take full control of its digital destiny.
To mark the fourth anniversary of the Local Digital Declaration Netcall has produced a new manifesto outlining how it has impacted their approach to enabling digital autonomy for local authorities. Read more here
You can view the full UKA Live discussion on taking control of your digital destiny below: