As we continue to face the challenges from the Covid pandemic, in a post-Brexit world, the UK economy remains in uncertain straits. Consumer spending on the up, and unemployment is low, while trade is in decline and shortages emerge of certain products, exacerbated by issues with transportation and supply. With unprecedented demands on budgets, local authorities have to find the best possible means of achieving service delivery, while balancing extremely challenging, and constantly changing circumstances.
On the flipside, local leaders have been afforded a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild a better, smarter, more sustainable future, as we describe in our white paper, The Urban Revival. In many cases, the public sector bodies are successfully partnering with private sector investors and organisations to deliver their vision for service transformation. It is more important now than ever for local authorities to position themselves as viable and attractive partners for investors, and technology is a crucial factor in this.
Legacy, on-site systems are a thing of the past for councils wanting to be taken seriously by forward-thinking, vibrant investment partners. Intuitive digital solutions are now standard across most commercial organisations and can elevate efficiency, productivity and return on investment (ROI) for local authorities too. It makes no sense to get left behind, particularly when neighbouring authorities are gearing up to woo the same investment partners.
Digital software is also transforming the management of in-house council services, as more local authorities are bringing some services back in-house in order to gain cost efficiency, more control, engage more directly with citizens, and develop their overall in-house capacity. The 2017 collapse of the global construction and facilities management company, Carillion, demonstrated the pitfalls of the widespread privatised outsourcing of public services to many. Millions of pounds of losses and service disruption evidenced the fact that private sector partnerships are not the right solution for every service. Local authorities, including Manchester City Council, are weighing up the best ways to maximise their spending to offer best value for money to council tax-payers.
In 2020 it took the decision to end its contract with Northwards Housing Ltd and take the management of the city’s social housing back in-house, after numerous complaints and issues with the provider. Manchester expects to save at least £77 million over 30 years, removing “duplicated costs” and improving levels of service.
Guaranteeing safety is high on the agenda too, with the fatal fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 serving as a grim reminder of this responsibility. Since then, councils have experienced a marked rise in costs associated with safety concerns, alongside the usual responsive and scheduled repairs. A 2020 survey of 218 housing association landlords reported a 7.7% increase from 2017/18 to 2018/19, equivalent to £250 million spent on repairs. As costs increase it is vital that local authorities make sure they are getting the best value for money, and in many cases that means managing the budgets and delivery of services in-house using an efficient digital solution.
Digital software and systems provide the greatest flexibility for employees, allowing them to access data when working remotely – as many intend to do post-pandemic - from any of a number of dispersed council locations, and from the field. The ability to quickly and easily redeploy staff in a dynamic and agile way is critical for efficient field service management, getting the highest number of jobs completed in the shortest time and for the lowest cost.
The recent ‘Pingdemic’ brought the need this need to pivot into sharp focus, when unforeseen numbers of employees had to quarantine following contact with a Covid-positive individual, forcing them to be unavailable for work at short notice. Dynamic Resource Scheduling (DRS) software allows local authorities and other organisations to plan and manage field-based work, optimising available employees, taking into account their specific skills, location, travel times and most importantly, empowering managers to respond immediately to unexpected changes and react accordingly. By contrast a manually-operated system is highly inefficient, subject to errors and will always be several steps behind when accommodating sudden changes.
Fife Council is one of the forward-thinking local authorities that first implemented DRS nearly 10 years ago, to manage the maintenance and repairs on its housing stock – currently over 36,000 properties with another 3,500 due to be built by 2022. It identified the need to improve productivity and customer service, while reducing admin, travel burden on staff, and overall costs. With over 800 field operatives providing responsive maintenance, gas servicing and repairs, electrical servicing, repairs and testing over a large geographical area, it required a highly functional, reliable and accurate solution that offered the best value for the public purse.
Fife Council has been delighted with the results enabled by DRS, but the pandemic took challenges to another level and the authority credits the software as a critical tool that empowered it to cope during unprecedented times. It significantly reduced fuel and average days/hours to attend repairs; reduced data input time back in the office; cut down the number of errors in data and most of all, it enabled effective remote working so that critical services could still be provided. Once lockdown was over and a more normal maintenance and repairs service could be resumed, the Council attributes the efficient handling of a whopping 3,500 backlogged jobs to the intuitive and powerful DRS solution.
Whether the move to digital is driven by a search for private investment, or by the insourcing of council services, or a desire to modernise an out-dated and clunky system, the advantages are the same. Digital technologies provide significant time and cost-saving benefits, help to develop in-house resources and bring councils in line with modern and efficient processes that enhance better delivery of public services. They help to increasing customer satisfaction and make life easier for customer-facing council employees. Councils that embrace these new technologies position themselves as credible potential investment partners and accomplished managers of in-house services, equipped for the challenges of an Urban Revival and remaining buoyant despite unpredictable and unstable economic conditions.