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Feature: The digital tools helping to tackle council deficits

The last year has proven that great technology can overcome unprecedented challenges. As the true extent of local government deficits comes to light, unlocking digital’s full potential will be the key to delivering council services in the future, says David McKinney, Local Government Managing Director at Servelec.

Research published by Unison has found that local councils are facing a budget shortfall of nearly £1.2bn by the end of the financial year, due to the impact of COVID-19. District and borough councils have also projected a collective deficit of £179m.

Looking back to March 2020, we’ll remember that many local authorities were already a way down the track to digital transformation. The events of the past year have accelerated their progress, and it’s fair to say that while navigating the endless challenges, local councils have triumphed.

Unison has said that unless central government acts urgently to provide more funding, services will be put at risk. The challenge will be to do more with less resource.

As we start to contemplate how we adjust to living with COVID-19, local councils have an opportunity to turn short-term successes into long-term strategic approaches. One area councils could look to make savings over the coming months is by optimising their use of digital systems. Instead of simply cutting digital spend, councils need to ensure they are making the most of the technology they have and invest in systems which will help them save in the long run.

person using MacBook Pro

Going truly mobile

After tentatively trialling mobile solutions pre-COVID-19, social care teams have reaped the benefits of mobile over the past year – both in terms of helping to maintain quality of care and keeping costs down.

Mobile solutions give social care workers access to vital information and the flexibility to update care records while in the community. Forms and case notes can be recorded and synced automatically to a local authority’s social care case management system, saving time and reducing the risk of delayed and inaccurate recording. 

Mobile need not be costly and time-consuming to implement either. As most of us are now familiar with smartphone, tablets, and intuitive apps, it requires minimal training.

Giving education providers flexibility and freedom

Technology is also helping education services to reduce the amount of time spent on admin, as well as supporting education providers in becoming more self-sufficient – which all helps keep costs under control.

When Norfolk County Council decided to promote the use of Servelec’s Schools Admissions Management (SAM) solution to schools, the benefits were apparent straightaway.

“The ability for schools to see “live” admissions data and our ability to control access at different stages of the admission process helped reduce what was, in the main, a very manual admin process,” said Eric Clarke, Admissions Manager for Children Services at Norfolk County Council.

He added: “Schools being able to rank their preferences directly with no need to produce reports, allocation lists or provide individual updates has also created a more secure process and has given schools flexibility and independence.”

Just prior to the pandemic, Norfolk County Council also started using SAM for schools to see free school meal eligibility, and as with the admission process the benefits were immediately obvious. Eric added: “We are able to process free school meal (FSM) applications far more quickly, and school staff have instant access to this information. With government schemes introduced to support families during the pandemic, the number of FSM applications increased by around 50%. SAM allowed schools that direct access to enable them to support families speedily.”

Paving the way for change

Norfolk is a great example of a local authority using technology it’s already invested in to address new challenges and requirements. This innovative thinking will also pave the way for more integrated systems. Tech providers across the public sector have the capability to join-up their solutions, and with the go-ahead from central and local government, this will reduce costs and improve services.

While we saw some fantastic innovative working practices during the height of the pandemic, the full impact of COVID-19 will only be realised over the coming years.  It’s now crucially important that public sector teams work in partnership with their technology providers to realise the maximum benefits from their digital tools.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

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