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COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation for Scottish councils, but challenges remain before they can fully unleash potential for citizen services

By Mark Lockett, UK Sales Director, TechnologyOne

Scotland’s latest “Digital Progress in Local Government” report is welcome news, showing that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated councils’ digital transformation plans by up to three years.

While the pandemic has created so many awful challenges for Scotland’s 32 councils, the report, by the Scottish Accounts Commission, does bring some positivity. It reveals that local authorities have embraced digital technology, with it becoming a lifeline in ensuring the continued delivery of public services, to the most vulnerable in society.

While some councils are advancing faster than others, thousands of Scottish council staff have also switched to new software as a service and cloud-based services, as a result of the pandemic, so they can work from home.

But, greater collaboration, use of shared expertise, citizen engagement and more strategic planning is crucial to fully realise the potential of digital technology in Scotland, the report says. Careful planning is also essential to ensure that the expansion of digital services does not lead to a widening of existing inequalities in remote areas and among the socially disadvantaged.

As the Accounts Commission’s Andrew Cowie highlights in the report: this crisis has created an opportunity that Scottish, and UK councils more broadly, must seize to ensure that there is a vision for digital transformation across all local authorities. There must be shared priorities, skills and knowledge. “All councils must focus on putting all citizens at the heart of digital service design, empowering communities to thrive, not just survive,” he says.

Local authorities also face an investment challenge when comes to digital transformation. They still have a large number of legacy systems that they need to maintain. But, these systems create risks for councils in terms of resilience, interoperability and ease of use.

Legacy systems also mean councils have to rely on onsite staff to maintain them, which has become even more problematic during the pandemic lockdown. But, the Accounts Commission, also reveals that a number of public bodies in Scotland are tackling these problems by moving to cloud-based solutions, recognising the potential to reduce the maintenance burden and to provide a flexible resource that responds to demand.

As the recent ransomware attack on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has highlighted, security is also a major priority for local authorities and government bodies when digitally transforming operations. While it can be harder to patch vulnerabilities for on-site legacy systems, it’s much easier to keep cloud-based SaaS systems secure, as any new security concerns can be fixed instantly online.

Finally, councils also expressed a frustration with traditional supplier procurement processes, when surveyed by the Accounts Commission. They have suggested that existing approaches hamper innovation when it comes to digital transformation and that a more collaborative approach was needed.

This is something I’ve also heard from other UK councils through our work with the UK Technology Cluster Group when developing the Recovery Roadmap report, an in-depth look in to how the UK can foster technology innovation to grow back stronger, after the pandemic.

Councils and tech start-ups alike have called for a specialist programme to help public sector bodies better utilise digital solutions. By helping senior public sector managers think more digitally, government will become more efficient and much better equipped to support the communities they serve.