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Anticipating faster digital progress in local government

Local governments contemplating their digital futures will find food for thought in the New Zealand Review into the Future for Local Government.

Patrick Fitzgerald 14 December 2022

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Summary

    Despite having a population of just five million, the country is reasonably advanced in e-government — ranking 4th internationally according to the latest UN e-Government survey. At a local level, its largest city, Auckland, also ranked 19th of 193 cities evaluated in the UN’s 2022 Local Online Service Index (LOSI).

    At ground level, however, New Zealand local councils face challenges familiar to councils everywhere, plus a tsunami of central-government-initiated change. Hence the review.

    With a very broad remit — governance, functions, and structure, the review include technology as both a key enabler for council change and a driver of change in society and economy. Its authors are tasked with looking 30 years into the future: multiple generations in tech terms.

    New Zealand's review into The Future for Local Government provides an opportunity to create a new system of local governance and democracy, that effectively responds to its citizens' ever evolving needs, and provides the conditions for communities to thrive.

    From their draft report, here's what I'd call out as their money shot for digital.

    Problem

    “Independent local authority investment decisions have created an environment of dispersed information and communications technology (ICT) systems, with little or no regard to interoperability or sharing of applications or platforms. This is true of both the back office or enterprise systems as well as any customer-facing applications.”

    That’s a bit tough on councils. Vendors haven’t exactly rushed to open up their systems and enable data sharing (remind me whose data it is, again?) - let alone make their systems interoperable with others. Councils everywhere will empathize.

    Solution

    “Central government has recognized the benefits of joined-up investment in systems and capabilities for information-sharing, digital identity, and security, and to establish stronger evidence bases for decision-making and prioritization. Opportunities exist to extend this across the wider system to local government. Adopting shared systems approaches at national or sub-national levels could take advantage of scale, increase efficiency, align and strengthen systems, address digital inequities across the country, and meet future needs.”

    So, there’s the direction of travel: councils will collaborate and share systems more, with central government encouragement - and “appropriate governance mechanisms and incentives for individual agencies to work collectively.”

    It’s not like councils haven’t been trying to share. Councils working with open systems and willing vendors have some great success stories  — like the 60+ councils across two States in Australia sharing a single web platform, and in New Zealand shared services council groupings like CoLab and products like Canterbury Maps.

    But there are multiple types of barriers in the way of more vertically integrated systems sharing, and a huge amount of work to remove them.

    To figure out how that might be done, the review panel engaged the consultancy CoDigital. Their deck, Digital Futures: Democratising Digital and Data has a fair crack, setting out a Future State Operating Design Model Design Concept.

    Described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for “catalytic change that can have enduring impacts for all citizens…”, there’s plenty more consulting and thinking yet to do. The due date for the review’s final report is June 2023, and still, more time will be needed for the layers of government to absorb the review’s recommendations and agree on a way forward.

    Given the review is addressing a near-universal barrier to digital progress in the sector, local governments outside New Zealand will no doubt keep a weather eye on it.

    So, what to do in the meantime?

    In the meantime, New Zealand’s councils are getting on with it: trying to meet citizen expectations of a modern digital customer experience, improve efficiency, and build resilience, capability, and organizational agility - as are councils everywhere.

    Councils stuck in the old world of siloed data and painful system upgrades are of course hampered in all the above, and their CIOs want their technology decisions to move them forward to the new world of cloud, Anything-as-a-Service, and interoperability.

    These CIOs know that doing so will also improve their ability to join in the future local government tech-scape of more shared platforms, systems, and data - should they choose.

    Future-proofing the council web platform

    What does this all mean for councils’ primary customer-facing system - the web platform?

    Here are the 9 key points we’d suggest for future-proofing your next council web platform purchase.

    1. Go SaaS. Always up to date. Get the latest features on release. Eliminate the cost and effort of upgrades (they happen automatically behind the scenes).
    2. Go DXP. A Digital Experience Platform is built for creating digital experiences (think Ωservices). It does what your CMS did, and also makes your digital services rollout and seamless, personalized customer journeys WAY easier.
    3. Insist on “Open”.  The age of walled gardens is over in digital government. It’s your and your citizens’ data. Vendor systems that lock them up, or make them difficult to access and share with other applications, won’t cut it in the new world.  At a minimum - check there’s an API, and that it’s documented and not vapourware.
    4. Think digital ecosystem. True interoperability is still immature; in the meantime, make technology choices with reference to the bigger picture of the ‘integrated customer technology ecosystem’ you need to carry your customer experience strategy forward.
    5. Find a vendor that delivers integration-as-a-service. It’ll make it much easier and cheaper to connect the parts of your digital ecosystem together, maintain them, and provide the flexibility to swap applications in and out (provided they have APIs… refer to point 3!)
    6. Include a solution for unifying customer data. Like any council, your customer data will live in multiple places. You’ll need a way to unify them to offer modern digital customer experiences.
    7. Check the composability offering. A major tech trend, listed in the Digital Futures Operating Design Model as one of 11 major change considerations, composability has big advantages for individual and shared council progress. Ask to see how the platform allows the creation and sharing of data, content, and functional components.
    8. Support digital inclusion from the outset. Ask how the platform supports accessibility and handles WCAG compliance, including in any of the templates and pre-built components it offers.
    9. Streamline procurement by using your government marketplace or vendor panels, and take advantage of vendor pre-qualification, including security tiering where applicable. For example, in the New Zealand government ICT Marketplace, Digital Experience Software vendors must achieve a Tier 2 security rating in a 3-tier security model.

    If your web platform can tick all these boxes, you’ve put your council in the best possible position to make faster digital progress now, and as today’s barriers to shared systems approaches are overcome in the future.

    Disclaimer: We’re not a disinterested observer here. We’re building the world’s most composable DXP, in pursuit of our mission to create services online, that improve lives offline.