News The Council of the Future - what will and what won't change


Develop a digital strategy around the things that won’t change, then develop the enabling technology to deliver.

Discussing the council of the future

by Fergal Coleman

Symphony3 is committed to improving the quality and depth of discussion about digital transformation in the Local Government sector in Australia. While some great digital work has been started, the potential to improve how councils operate is vast and the opportunities endless. This blog was developed as part of the Connected Citizen webinar series.

According to Accenture’s Digital Performance Index, Australia is 2nd last of 37 OECD countries in its uptake of digital technologies. Add to this the general recognition that local government lags other sectors and it is clear there is work to be done. Our research suggests the sector know this. We surveyed our subscriber community prior to our webinar and 75% of respondents said that relative to other industry sectors Local government was less mature in its digital transformation.

Former City of Kingston CEO and Symphony3 advisor John Nevins prefers to look at the poor Accenture ranking as a positive. “Imagine what we can do if we commit to adopting new digital technologies. Why can’t we adopt the technology models used by AirBNB, Uber, Webjet and others? The ability of the council of the future to deliver vastly improved service delivery will be enormous.”

So what does the council of the future look like?

In considering this question, we came across a video of Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, who was asked about how he planned for the future. His reply was truly thought-provoking. 

...“while the question ‘what is going to change in the next 10 years?’ is interesting, a much more interesting question is ‘What is not going to change in the next 10 years?’ ”.

In keeping with Amazon's ethos, Bezos answers are all customer-centric. In the future customers will still be demanding the lowest prices, fast delivery, and a greater selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future where this isn’t the case. Importantly, Bezos points out you can build a solid strategy around what is not going to change.

In my opinion, this is a fantastic question for local governments to consider. When we put it to our webinar attendees we got a list of common answers. Interestingly, these were mostly customer (citizen) centric.

  • Citizens will still want faster service delivery.
  • Our community will expect us to be more efficient.
  • Our community will expect better maintenance and standards.
  • Citizens will want more transparency and accountability.

These are the constant expectations of local government customers (i.e. citizens). They will not change. In fact, it is impossible to imagine a future where citizens wouldn’t expect these outcomes. Therefore building our strategies around these never-changing citizen expectations allows us to plan with certainty.

The outcomes of our digital transformation strategies should be closely aligned with and be focused on enabling the delivery of never-changing citizen expectations.

What must change? Local Government’s approach to technology.

While some things won’t change, there is one thing that must and is changing.

Local government’s approach to technology.

Councils must start adopting modern internet platforms, applications and techniques. The key building block is the API (application programming interfaces).

APIs are software interfaces that enable different software components and different software platforms to effectively communicate with each other. APIs are overhauling entire industries by allowing never seen before connectivity between applications no matter what the underlying technology or data structures are. The power and flexibility of APIs have been seized upon by smart business people and entrepreneurs to overhaul businesses and drive massive increases in profitability, and growth, huge efficiency gains. The innovation by API driven businesses like Uber, Airbnb, Webjet, Stripe and others has disrupted entire industry sectors. This has led to the term the API economy.

Before we look at Local government and the API economy, let’s compare Webjet to a traditional travel agency to understand where the efficiencies are.

Webjet uses APIs to connect automatically to thousands of travel industry systems (airlines, hotels, car companies). It allows its customer to log on to its customer portal (website) and search for a solution (e.g. flights or holiday packages). Based on that customer's search, Webjet uses API technologies to find and interrogate multiple unlimited systems, and to return options to the customer within seconds. The customer can book and pay immediately. Because data is available in real-time from any Webjet system, management can make better, and faster decisions.

Contrast this to a traditional travel agent. The customer might get some information from a static website but will have to call or go to the office and speak to a travel agent. The travel agent will then key information into multiple systems, possibly make multiple follow up calls to someone at the airline or hotel who will also need to key information into their systems. When the information is eventually gathered the travel agent will collate all the information into a quote.

Immediately we can see the advantages Webjet has over “traditional” travel agents:

  • A much quicker and seamless customer experience, available anytime, anywhere.
  • Internal efficiencies – double handling and manual data entry is eliminated.
  • Better decision-making empowered by real-time data.
  • Scalability – Webjet can grow its business exponentially without the need for equivalent growth in staff, offices etc.

The advantages of internet-enabled businesses are playing out in almost every industry sector. They are coming to local government… Let’s look at how you can gain.

If we look at traditional councils’ technology and how it impacts service delivery we see a complex, unwieldy technical environment. Arguably digital transformation in the sector has made the citizen experience more confusing. A citizen can still go to a front counter or make a phone call to the council. Or they can go to the website. This is where the frustration starts. They could be sent to multiple online systems depending on the service they want to access. Each has a different look and feel and each requires a separate login. In some councils, we have counted over 8 different logins promoted on the website (Imagine how frustrating it is for a citizen who wants to update their email address with council).

Once the citizen eventually requests the service they want, it is put into the customer request management system (CRMS), often manually. It is then likely to trigger an email to various employees in the council who will update the CRMS manually but will most likely also be updating one or more other systems (document management, assets, spreadsheets etc). When this is multiplied across circa 125 different services think about the amount of manual handling, the likelihood of errors, and the frustration that results for both citizens and staff.

In some councils, they have some integration between systems, but it is generally ad-hoc and system to system. While this may achieve small wins it is also likely to make the replacement of systems in the future more complex. It also increases the likelihood of errors if for any reason a system stops or has an outage.

Trying to provide management with timely data from an environment that is ad-hoc and manual becomes next to impossible, leading to poor decision making.

In summary, the outcomes are dissatisfied citizens and employees, costly and inefficient service delivery, and poor decision-making.

So what does an API enabled council look like?  

As a first step, councils must adopt an integration and API mindset. They must acquire the integration tools, integration patterns and mindsets that will enable them to connect all their systems. We call this acquiring the Smart Glue to connect your systems.

Once your Smart Glue is in place, systems can be added systematically and incrementally over time. A council can connect to all its internal systems, as well as external systems including cloud-based systems, 3rd party service provider systems, IoT devices and so on. Importantly, systems can be easily replaced in this environment, just like Lego blocks.

Secondly, once your systems are connected, you can provide your citizens with a customer portal (via website or app) that provides a single access point to all council services, 24/7/365 on any device from anywhere. The portal provides a single user interface and login. The portal connects to all council systems using smart glue (APIs). The customer has no idea what system or department they are speaking to, they just know they are getting a service from the council via the portal. Employees are no longer required to manually enter data or interrogate systems, meaning they are freed up to go out into the field, to get closer to the community and to deliver value in their chosen area of expertise.

Finally, as all the systems are connected and talking to each other, we can overlay a dashboard that can extract and present important information to management in real-time as it is needed. This empowers management to make better and quicker decisions that ultimately benefit the community.

In summary, an API enabled council will deliver

Exceptional customer and employee experiences.

Improve internal efficiencies and automation resulting in massive cost savings.

Data that empowers management to make much better decisions.

So there you have it! The API enabled council will empower you to deliver the outcomes required of the council of the future.

In future blogs, we’ll delve deeper into the transformation required, how to develop a roadmap, overcoming challenges and obstacles and delivering each of the outcomes above.