Blog Post

December 4, 2023

Local Government at PUBLIC: Navigating Legacy Systems and Revolutionising Procurement

At PUBLIC, we’re proud to have worked with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, the Local Government Association, and many local authorities to help to drive better local digital public services. Through these engagements, we’ve gained valuable insights into the prevailing digital and technology trends going on across the local council sector. This week, we chatted with Johnny Hugill, who has worked closely with councils across the country to help them.
A challenge we hear all the time across the council sector is the difficulty of driving change within the confines of their legacy business systems and service lines. Can you tell me more about that? 

Absolutely. Legacy systems and service lines can often be the biggest barrier to adopting new technologies and ways of working. These systems are the backbone of local council services, with thousands of people depending on them, and high numbers of dependencies between systems. So changing or replacing them - and even upgrading them - is a massive undertaking. This is made even more difficult because there are often limited market options available for software products in key service areas like social care, housing management and planning. 

In fact, knowledge of what is available on the market, and what isn’t, is usually the best place to start. Effective transformation hinges on starting with an in-depth discovery reviewing the current system in use and benchmarking its quality and price against other councils. And with technology changing so quickly, it’s more important than ever for councils to follow wider technology trends in the market.

Finally, many of the challenges faced by authorities are about effectively navigating digital procurement and contract management with their software vendors - so this commercial dimension needs to be a key part of councils’ strategies

How does the spend analysis work feed into the strategy setting around core systems?

We think that analysing what a council spends on digital and data - and comparing it with other councils is a very important step. 

Most councils have a view of the market that can be slightly siloed, and it's really useful to take stock of what is available, what other councils are doing, and how much they are paying. 

We analyse and consolidate spend data from multiple systems: e-procurement, ERP and other finance systems - before benchmarking it against open source spend data from other councils. Consolidating, cleaning and analysing this data can be time-consuming, but it's worth it.

We did this kind of analysis for Teignbridge District Council - and the other councils in its tri-council shared service, consolidating data ERP, p-cards, and e-procurement - systems. This process involved cleansing, analysing, and enriching disparate financial data from multiple councils, uncovering valuable insights crucial for informed decision-making. By diving deep into spend categories, supplier consolidation, local spend, and sustainability factors, we highlighted critical areas for improvement, optimising the councils’ procurement and spend strategies.

The question of upgrading legacy systems must become even more complicated in the case of multiple authorities sharing digital services or technology infrastructure. Is that right?

Yes, exactly. This can happen in three main ways. The first is the case of two tier councils, where a council splits delivery of core services between a County and District council. A Combined Authority is also an example of this kind of thing, where delivery lines are shared or blurred. The second is when local authorities might decide to share a service, either for cost or join-up reasons. And the third is when the council outsources its IT function to a shared services provider, who might operate their digital and IT functions, as well as those of other councils. 

In all cases, this can be really challenging for councils. Because, just as with the entrenched council systems, it can create another barrier that makes digital change difficult. It makes systems more complex, but also removes some of the direct levers to change for councils. 

In the case of shared services, this can often make sense for local authorities, especially in terms of driving costs down. But the benefits of cost-efficient and low-touch management can clash with the negatives of complexities in ownership delineation, a lack of unified product management, and difficulties accessing or sharing data. 

We’ve seen these challenges most acutely in places where there are overlapping council roles and responsibilities across service lines,, like planning and development management, adult and complex care, and local tourism and leisure services. And in fact, in most of these areas, there are new responsibilities coming down the track for authorities due to changing policy, and so this might become even more complex. In the last two years alone, there has been major legislation changing roles and responsibilities for local planning, health and care, procurement and finance, and also the re-organisation of local skills and training through Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Shared services has been a particular challenge that we have worked with Cambridge City Council (CCC) to overcome in forming their Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Strategy. This involved taking stock of ownership and cost-effectiveness of all of CCC’s contracts, which we used as a basis to design a number of new digital ‘missions’ for the council to pursue.

And what is the experience of these legacy or siloed technical systems like from the customer’s or user’s perspective?

Most councils have well-designed, accessible websites, but often smooth user journeys stop there. With council websites often signposting to services hosted on external business systems, user journeys can feel clumsy or disjointed as users move through services. This is, of course, especially true when users are transitioning between multiple services or platforms.  

The main source of disruption is at the ‘back-end’, with users having to sign in to different systems, and council officers not having access to data across systems. But there are things councils can do on the ‘front-end’, even when user journeys cut across multiple back-end systems. This can include small design and UX touches to ensure consistency and accessibility across different journeys.

Our work with Hackney Council - supporting the maturation of their product function and digital ways of working - has touched on some of these issues.  Through active user engagement, we contributed to enhanced system design and a superior user experience, especially in housing. The impact of thess initiatives extends to advancing housing services in Hackney, streamlining data governance, and fostering efficiency through enhanced collaboration and data-driven approaches. 

In 2023, PUBLIC has led a number of initiatives designed to help enhance the sharing of practices and collaboration between councils. Can you tell us more about why this practice sharing is so important? 

Enhancing knowledge sharing and collaboration within the council sector has been a key focus for us. Despite facing similar challenges and operating within similar constraints, councils often underutilise opportunities to share their valuable approaches, tools, and systems more widely. We have tried to support this through a number of different initiatives. 

First, we have worked with the Local Government Association (LGA) to establish a common framework of language around digital through the Digitalisation Almanac. This comprehensive and accessible resource showcases brilliant practices across the sector, offering a wealth of successful examples designed to help councils realise the full benefits of digitalisation for employees, residents, businesses and communities, regardless of where they are on the journey. We’ve also worked with the LGA to provide practical training on the content of the Almanac to elected councillors across the country. 

More recently, we have been appointed as the independent partner to evaluate the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ digital projects and programmes, until 2025. This has involved evaluating innovative projects and pilots - especially those funded in the Local Digital Fund since 2018. Our aim when delivering this evaluation is to highlight good practices, while also identifying any barriers or blockers to local digitalisation, bringing together a robust evidence base for the first time across the sector. We hope that this insight will then enable councils and the sector more broadly to learn more about what has worked, and what hasn’t - and apply this in their own sector.

Lots more councils have been thinking about AI and automation over the past few months. How do you anticipate council adoption of AI taking shape in 2024? 

Most councils are rightly excited about the potential of AI and automation and we expect to see wider adoption and a more diverse range of use cases. To-date, we’ve seen large-scale adoption of core business automation, particularly improving internal council workflows like HR, finance, payments, and ERP.

Looking ahead to 2024, we’re really interested to see how councils explore implementing innovative AI applications. Common use cases, such as chatbots and customer triaging, have laid the groundwork. So far, we’ve seen valuable use-cases and implementation in a few key areas, including AI analysis in planning and local development, with AI being used to analyse consultation responses to aid informed decision making. Similarly, we have seen some councils adopting AI-driven simulations and complex 3D models of local areas, to support better local planning. 

A final promising avenue of applications is flagging risks or patterns in high volumes of unstructured data. For example, in children’s services, in identifying and flagging at-risk vulnerable individuals and children within councils, enabling proactive measures for support and intervention. 

This is an exciting phase of AI’s development that we’re looking to further contribute to, ensuring AI’s capabilities are harnessed responsibly to drive efficiency, inform better decision-making and increase proactive community support within councils.

For local government authorities seeking to leverage cutting-edge solutions and strategies to empower their communities, Johnny Hugill and the PUBLIC team is here to provide tailored guidance and support. Connect with Johnny directly at johnny@public.io to embark on a collaborative journey towards a digitally empowered and impactful future for your authority.

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Johnny Hugill

Deputy Director of Commercial, Spend & Impact

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Natasha Wren

Head of Communications

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