Choose your tech spec wisely

By Jos Creese | 10 January 2018

Every council can benefit from taking a structured approach to appraising which new technology will deliver the best gains. Technology predictions are renowned for being over-optimistic, both in the expected speed of take-up and the value promised.

This is as true today in areas like ‘big data’ and artificial intelligence as it has been in the past. Even cloud computing which has existed for nearly a decade, still has muted take-up in local government.

So, when a new technology comes on the scene, this means there should always be enough time to plan for how it can be used.

It rarely works out like that however, as there are often just too many other priorities and opportunities in need of attention.

It is also hard to identify which new technologies are ready for adoption and what the risk level for implementation would be. Legacy IT also makes it difficult and expensive for councils to change things.

Even when priorities are clear, in-house IT capacity, cultures and capability can be limiting factors. Internal IT teams are often consumed in supporting complex legacy IT architectures, built up over many years and optimised to specific service needs.

Outsourcing is not the answer either. The public sector has rarely made IT outsourcing work well, and large scale, long-term and rigid contracts for IT tend to become barriers in terms of change and innovation – ‘legacy IT’ is enshrined in a contract. What is needed is a new approach for the way councils test out new technology, creating a ‘safe space’ in which to experiment and to learn. Flexible partnerships with the private sector can allow for un-predefined scenario trials, not constrained by the preferred tools of a prime contractor.

To keep pace with innovative use of technology, the first task for councils is to get a grip on legacy IT – internally and externally – to ‘simplify, standardise and share’, as the Society of IT Management (SOCITM) advises. This is not just retiring ‘old technology’, it needs a plan to modernise IT policy, contracts, methods, culture and skills.

Then there is a need to centralise and to optimise IT priorities, since IT departments often find themselves failing by trying to meet all demands. IT priorities should be determined by a clear corporate plan, not by departmental whims driven by who has the largest budget. Pick a few things that will make a significant difference, such as digital transformation programmes and shelve the rest, at least for now.

On the question of technology choice there area three areas to focus on.

The first is tactical things to adopt now. This simplifies and improves the current estate. These are easy, quick wins which position councils for digital adoption and reduce legacy bonds. This might include low cost/risk cloud-based apps for flexibility, improving IT resilience and security.

Coming second are the medium-term priorities over six months. This could be a review and rationalisation of customer-facing applications, securing readiness for General Data Protection Regulation, having clear cloud migration plans or tackling the more challenging legacy IT barriers.

The third group is about longer-term technology potential, where a ‘watching brief’ is required and some early trials could be helpful. This may be in areas such as ‘internet of things’ (IoT) citizen collaboration tools, customer insight and analytics, or machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Not all councils will have the same appetite for risk. There will be early adopters and the followers who learn from them.

For example, some councils are already employing avatars as customer agents and the IoT is being used to track pollution and modify driving habits.

Wherever your council sits in this spectrum, it should be on a planned journey to harness the power of technology for public good – understanding the risks and opportunities – not leaving it to chance or the vagaries of the marketplace.

Jos Creese is principal analyst at Eduserv’s local government briefing programme and former chief information officer of Hampshire CC

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