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Ask any group of council chief executives what the future of local government looks like – as we did, during the LGC Summit last week – and they will make at least a vague allusion to ‘digital’ being a big part of it.
This digital future can be imagined a number of ways. Will the civic centres of the future look like Apple’s genius bars, where citizens glide into an open-plan nirvana free of queues, tickets and teller windows, to tap their requests effortlessly onto waiting tablets? Or will the public-facing part of a town hall consist entirely of two customer service assistants in a former broom cupboard, tweeting as though their lives depend on it?
These are extreme examples, of course, but our delegates at the LGC Summit were simultaneously intrigued by the possibilities of digital to service delivery and perplexed by the risks it might pose to the connection with citizens.
Fittingly, last week LGC published the latest in its series from Inlogov, the Seven Causes of Failure. Public policy lecturer Stephen Jeffares set out the risk that the rise of digital technology poses to the vital human link between councils and people. Mr Jeffares does not believe that councils should maintain the costly customer services status quo, but he does highlight how reducing face-to-face interactions presents its own problems. He recommends a series of measures that councils can take to ensure they benefit from the efficiencies digital can bring, but in a way that does not leave citizens feeling they have been abandoned in the electronic ether.
In a separate column, Darren Caveney, co-founder of comms2point0, addresses the role digital technology can have, specifically in communications with the public. Mr Caveney says fellow council comms professionals continually ask him whether or not their council should join Snapchat, the latest social media craze (although in the time it has taken to read that, Snapchat has probably become passé). Mr Caveney says this “magpie” obsession with the newest social tools misses the point. Councils must refer to the aims in their comms strategies and assess new tools against these, rather than joining every network going in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. As Mr Caveney puts it, the latter is the digital equivalent of “dad-dancing at the wedding”.
And what about the impact of digital technology on councils’ workforces? Enfield LBC has already introduced a ‘robot’ customer service assistant (in virtual form, rather than an android); artificial intelligence is predicted to arrive within our lifetimes. How can councils benefit from that – and prepare their staff? Ian McVey, director of data firm Qualtrics, writes for LGC on the impact AI could have on councils’ services and how employees can be prepared to work in new ways as the technology develops.